How Long Does It Take To Get Better?
That’s up to you. The behavior does not suddenly stop without an effort. In fact, it is addictive enough to continue as a lifelong obsession. I have corresponded with a woman in her sixties who has been bulimic for more than forty years! In the past, so little was known about bulimia that people commonly continued for years before seeking help. Now, there are national and local organizations, treatment facilities, private therapists, support groups, and books solely devoted to eating disorders.
There are a few necessary steps to recovery. The first is acknowledging that you have a problem and making the decision to change. For some people, prolonged therapy, or even hospitalization, is necessary. Generally, overcoming bulimia takes time and a firm commitment, and increased time, effort and determination will make it happen faster.
The time it takes to stop the bingeing behavior varies with each individual. I have heard of people who have gone “cold turkey,” stopping instantly, and of others who have decreased the number of binges slowly over a period of months or years while they worked on the underlying issues. Stopping the binge-purge behavior is like opening Pandora’s box. Within are the reasons why the bulimia began and took hold, as well as those it has created anew. These all need to be resolved.
I am often asked how long it took me to recover. I spent a year and a half working to stop the actual binge-purge behavior. There was a time when only one binge each day seemed like an impossible goal, but days extended into weeks, and eventually my goal was to not binge for a month at a time. Ridding myself of the obsessive thoughts about food and my body took longer because I had to confront the issues that led me to become bulimic in the first place.
Stopping the behavior was only one aspect of recovery, though. I had goals related to my emotional life as well, such as improving my relationship with my parents, making more friends, being able to handle conflicts, and knowing what I needed and being able to articulate that to the people closest to me. I also had goals related to my body image, because I wanted to be able to love the body that I was born with no matter what its size or shape, and I wanted to stop being judgemental about other people’s bodies. It was three or four years before I considered myself able to do that. A few years after that, I had stopped all bulimic behavior and had moved from being a basically negative person to a basically happy one. I didn’t expect to ever go back to the way it was again, and called myself completely “cured.”
So, there were many aspects to my recovery. Now, when someone asks me how long it took me to get better, I say that I am always working on my “betterment,” primarily my spiritual life at this point. However, I have had no bulimic symptoms, thoughts or feelings whatsoever for many years. These days, I find it difficult to even remember my struggle with bulimia. I have not binged for about twenty years, and I do not think about returning to it. There are times, especially during menstruation, when I crave and eat more food than usual, especially chocolate. This is nothing like the eating binges when I was bulimic, either in content or quality.
Also, I was recently diagnosed with hyperthyroidism. At first, I didn’t know why my body was speeded up or why I lost some weight and was hungry all the time. I just went with it, often consuming five meals a day until my condition was finally discovered. After treatment, I am gaining the weight back, and I feel ecstatic to be back in what feels like my “old, familiar” body. I can tell when I am at a healthy weight (not a particular weight!) and it feels good.
Not everyone agrees that you can be “cured” of an eating disorder. Some experts believe that bulimia is an addiction and that abstinence is the only way to prevent future relapse. They stress the addictive nature of certain types of foods which trigger responses that lead to bingeing. Like alcoholism, a complete cure is not possible because you will always be prone to bulimia, even if you do not practice the binge-purge behavior again. They would say that you are always “in recovery.”
I know that this abstinence approach does work for many people, but I personally wanted to lessen food’s power over me. I wanted to be completely free to eat anything I wanted. And so, my recovery focused on what is called the “legalized” approach to food. Instead of restricting, advocates of this approach stress differentiating stomach hunger from emotional hunger and fulfilling both accordingly. They emphasize getting satisfaction from eating what your body wants and suggest that when a preoccupation with eating and weight ends, bingeing stops as well.
In spite of my personal experience, I recommend many therapists and facilities who promote the abstinence approach, as well as those which do not. The information in this book applies to bulimics interested in recovery regardless of their stance on this issue. I do not advocate any specific modality of treatment—whatever works for you, do it!
It may be necessary to depend on another behavior, such as regularly-scheduled phone conversations with friends, or going to support group meetings to relieve tension or distract yourself. There is always the possibility that you will just trade one compulsivity for another. However, if you continually ask yourself if the steps you are taking are in a more positive direction, gradually you will be able to let go of all compulsivity. There will come a time when days pass without any fears associated with what you eat or look like. Remember, you are a worthwhile and important soul whose bulimia has served you in many ways. Be patient and gentle, work hard, and let it go.￼
Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
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