The standard approach to a medical problem is to see a doctor, get a diagnosis, follow through with treatment and get well. This reasonable approach to care for an illness is commonplace but creates miscommunication and confusion around eating disorder treatment and recovery.
If the symptoms of an eating disorder revolve around disordered eating, then recovery should be simple: eat regular meals and snacks and get well. And if the treatment is difficult, then the person just needs to try harder. People erroneously believe that any stumbling blocks must be the fault of the sick person, not a sign of an intractable illness.
This approach to recovery makes sense to someone with limited knowledge about eating disorders. Eating is a staple of every day of life, no less important than sleeping or breathing. But for someone with an eating disorder, meals are fraught with so much stress and anxiety that it feels more like a prison.
Moreover, eating disorder thoughts and behavioral patterns are largely ingrained and unconscious. Even people who are very focused on food but not ill don’t think that much about how or when or what they eat. This may be a controversial concept, but it’s necessary to talk to someone with an eating disorder to understand what it means to think about food and only food all day long.
The process of changing such ingrained, automatic thoughts and behaviors takes time. Families want people in recovery to get better quickly. There should be a marked change within months, if not weeks, and recovery should be mostly completed within a few months. Sadly, this is not what recovery looks like for almost everyone in treatment.
The process typically takes several years from two to even 7-10 for full recovery. Since the steps are gradual, there is improvement within a few months, but ups and downs are a necessary part of relearning how to think about, approach and eat food in one’s life.
I often hesitate to tell people how long recovery takes, perhaps not to scare them off at the start of a long road. But there is a point where this knowledge is crucial. Committing to the entire process of recovery means embracing this path to living a full and meaningful life, not losing oneself in the minutiae of food, weight and misery forever.