Life Can Wait: Why to Prioritize Your Eating Disorder Recovery

Dougal Waters, DigitalVision, Getty Images

One of the toughest decisions that patients with eating disorders and their parents, spouses, partners, and families face is, “Should I (or my loved on) take time off from ‘X’ to focus on recovery?”  “X” may be participating in a sport, staying in school, going on a trip, or heading off to college.  This can be both an agonizing and life-changing decision.

There seem to be three primary categories of activities that individuals with eating disorders contemplate putting on hold:

  1. Sports participation;
  2. School, including college; and
  3. Travel

Individuals and their families usually fear putting life on hold even when symptoms of the eating disorder are quite severe and even when treatment professionals advise them to do so.  The concerns they raise include: 

  • “I’ll miss out.”
  • “She’ll get worse from the distress of missing ‘X’.”
  • “I’ll miss the single opportunity I have to do ‘X’.”
  • “It will ruin him.”

In my experience, individuals and their families don’t sufficiently prioritize recovery, and they underestimate the difficulty they will have handling the “X” while still under the spell of the eating disorder. 

I often refer to the following quote by Eating Disorder activist, Laura Collins: 

"It would kill her to miss this
Parents, any time you are afraid to the do the right thing because you think it might crush their spirit, make things worse, cause more resistance, be too big a fuss, or disappoint them so much they might lose their will to live... remember that what 'will kill' is the illness.
Giving in to ED for ANY reason is what 'will kill.'"

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.  Early treatment greatly increases the chance for a full recovery.  Restriction and other eating disorder behaviors like bingeing, purging, and excessive exercise are habits that get reinforced through repetition and become more ingrained over time.

  Allowing these behaviors to run their course without interruption makes the behaviors harder to break.  The longer someone with an eating disorder suffers, the greater the risk for long term and irreversible consequences.

As a parent I know the desire to keep up with peers and to keep your child happy, but as a clinician, I have seen many patients with eating disorders dive into situations they didn’t want to miss but were not stable enough to handle.  As a result, they experienced a great deal of anxiety, and the support they required (in terms of therapy, help from family, and medical appointments) took time away from the very activities they wanted to enjoy.  They could not fully benefit from the opportunity they endangered their recovery to attend.  They then blamed themselves when it became too much too handle or their recovery derailed.  These patients would have been better off waiting for full health, when they could fully take advantage of the occasion.  Putting recovery on hold increases the risk for relapse and may further delay one’s goals.

Recovery is a process, and it  does not follow an artificial or fixed timeline.  Almost nothing is a one-shot deal: most opportunities—sports, school, and travel--will be presented again.  “X” will be much easier to enjoy and participate in once someone suffering from an eating disorder has achieved a significant partial or full recovery.  In my professional and maternal opinion, there is no shame in taking time off for recovery; it does not signify failure.  On the contrary, it is a sign of strength. 

Full recovery from an eating disorder is possible.  It takes hard work and focus.  You (or your child, spouse, partner or family member) deserve to live a full and happy life. 

Prioritize recovery now; life can wait.

For more information on college and recovery see here and here and here.

For more information on travel and recovery see here.  

Continue Reading