3 Essential Steps to My Anorexia Nervosa Recovery: Heather Hower
- Sanity: My Personal Motivation to Recover
- Fluoxetine: Providing Headspace from my Anxiety Disorders to Recover
- Pause: Giving Permission to Pace Myself in Recovery
Sanity: My Personal Motivation to Recover
I had Anorexia Nervosa (AN) for 23 years, and I have been in recovery since 2012. When I woke up on the day of my “new reality,” I knew that I could not continue on the path of listening to “ED (Eating Disorder),” as it had been a roller coaster of restriction, over-exercise, and emotional turmoil with those who loved me. At times when I would allow myself to eat (e.g., holidays, vacations), I would feel horrible after, and ED would tell me to “cathartically cleanse (go back to restricting)” as soon as I returned home. The scale, a main tool of ED, ruled my life and I thought that the lower I weighed, the more in control of my life I would be. I also looked at myself in the mirror a lot (my husband called it EMT; Excessive Mirror Time) to check my body parts. There were times when I was starving, sick, injured, and in danger of seriously damaging my relationships, but ED yelled at me to keep going, saying “How bad do you want it (to be thin)?” The answer was of course “bad,” in every sense of the word. ED promised that if I followed his rules, I would be happy, but I realized that morning that I was miserable, and I would be for the rest of my life if I didn’t change anything.
The “essential me” knew that I needed to save myself (from ED). Working with my doctor, therapist, and nutritionist (my professional “support bench”), I learned how to hydrate and fuel my body, growing to trust it would tell me when I was hungry and full, and that it would make up for my mistakes. I had a lot of momentum in my recovery at first, and then I realized that I needed to maintain a pace that was sustainable (life is a marathon, not a sprint). There were times that I felt like I was on the cusp of giving up, but I pushed through, and the reward was that I became healthier and happier. I am in recovery for my loved ones (especially my husband), but most importantly I am in recovery for ME. There are many benefits to living without ED, but the driving one for me is a sense of sanity (it is priceless). I am seeking a balance; not too little or too much of anything, and when I am there, I am in my “sweet spot.” Throughout recovery I have been further discovering my identity, the things that make me happy; I am really excited about moving away from ED, and focusing on the “essential me.”
Fluoxetine: Providing Headspace from my Anxiety Disorders to Recover
When I was living with AN, I felt as if I was constantly on “Red Level High Alert.” My panic attacks (Panic Disorder [PD]) would range from relatively minor (e.g., trying to untwist a twisted necklace) to more major circumstances (e.g. getting lost while driving, arriving late). A typical day would involve me encountering several scenarios where I couldn’t get something to work properly, I became extremely overwhelmed, frustrated, started crying, and either asked someone to fix it for me, or gave up on it. I had a (mostly self-imposed) list of to-dos that I felt had to be done right away, so I could never really relax. There was no distinction in my mind (and, therefore, my body) between events that were life-threatening vs. life-annoying. My sympathetic nervous system was triggering an ongoing “fight or flight” response in my body, and consequently, I reacted as if everything were a real crisis.
Fluoxetine (Prozac) was prescribed to me during my AN inpatient stays, in part to address these PD symptoms. I have continued to take it on an outpatient basis for this, as well as my other anxiety disorder symptoms (Generalized Anxiety Disorder [GAD], Obsessive Compulsive Disorder [OCD], and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]), for which it has done well. A nice side of effect of taking the Fluoxetine for my anxiety, though, was that it allowed me the headspace to recover from my AN, because I was not overwhelmed with worry, and could consciously choose to fight “ED.” Indeed, after the Fluoxetine began to take effect, the “anxiety cloud” lifted, and I was able to put things into relative perspective vs. constantly being on “Red Level High Alert.” So, the Fluoxetine targets my anxiety, but my AN recovery also benefits.
Pause: Giving Permission to Pace Myself in Recovery
When I began my recovery from AN, I had a lot of momentum. I was sprinting towards a “recovery finish line” that I had imagined for myself within a self-imposed timeframe of a few months. This was in stark contrast to my 23 years of living with AN. At the 6-month recovery mark, I hit what I thought was a huge roadblock. For the first time in years, my weight had been restored to a point where my periods returned. I had a lot of mixed emotions surrounding this; happiness and excitement, but also distress and fear. This meant that I had passed a biological threshold of “healthy,” but was that something that I was ready for? I was seriously considering giving up recovery then due to my anxiety.
I remember during that critical moment that I reached out to a good friend who was aware of and supportive of my recovery. I came to him, crying, after trying to connect with others, to no avail. I told him that I was “going back to ED,” because I was so scared. He looked at me, hugged me, and gave me some advice that saved my recovery, and indeed my life. He said, “Pause; you don’t have to move forward, but don’t go backward.” He had given me permission to slow my personal race down, to take it from a sprint to a marathon pace, and to not put so much pressure on myself.
For a few weeks after that, I focused on “maintaining,” vs. “pushing.” Whenever I thought about “sliding,” I remembered his words, and I reaffirmed to myself that it was OK to take a breather. In the months following, I had the energy to move forward again. It has been over 6 years into my recovery, and there have been other times when I have been frustrated, or overwhelmed, not by ED, but by other life stressors. In those moments, it is easy to let ED take over the reins, but thanks to my friend, I know that I can always hit “pause” on my recovery.
About the author:
Heather Hower, MSW, LICSW, QCSW, ACSW has served on the Board of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) since 2013, including as the Conference Committee Co-Chair, Research Advisory Council (RAC) Feeding Hope Fund (FHF) grant reviewer, and Development Committee contributor to NEDA events and programs.
She collaborates with her NEDA colleagues on Eating Disorder research studies, papers, and presentations, including at NEDA conferences, and the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) International Conference on Eating Disorders (ICED).
Heather also serves as an Eating Disorder grant reviewer for the Department of Defense (DOD), a conference proposal reviewer for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IADEP), and an advocate for National Advocacy Days for the Eating Disorder Coalition (EDC).
Through her position at Brown University Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, she has also been collaborating with her local Rhode Island Hospital/Hasbro Children’s Hospital Eating Disorders Partial Hospital, Outpatient, and Home-Based clinical programs since 2013.
Heather had Anorexia Nervosa for 23 years, and has been recovered since 2012.
Her blog posts can be found at: NEDA: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/blog
Project HEAL: http://theprojectheal.org/blog/
Jenni Schaefer: https://jennischaefer.com/blog/eating-and-body-image/recovered-eating-disorders-professionals-stigma/
Her podcast on Anxiety in the Assessment and Treatment of Eating Disorders can be found at: ED Matters by Gurze/Salucore Episodes 99 (Part 1) and 100 (Part 2)
You can also follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/heatherhower
and LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/heather-hower-b60/