How Long Does it Take to get Better?
The time it takes to stop the bingeing and purging behavior varies with each individual. I have heard of people who have gone “cold turkey”, quitting instantly, and of others who have decreased the number of binges slowly over a period of months or years. No matter what the case, though, stopping the behavior is a bit like opening Pandora’s box. Within are the reasons why the bulimia began and took hold, as well as those it created anew all of which need to be resolved.
Remember, bulimia serves a purpose, meaning it takes care of the person in some way, perhaps by helping them manage anxiety or repress frightening memories. To force the recovery process by taking away that option would be like expecting a drowning man to give up his life jacket and swim to shore. Most people are better equipped to fully let go of their bulimia once they have learned new life skills in therapy.
I am often asked how long it took me to recover. I love this question because it raises the corresponding question, “What is recovery?” Over the past 25 years, there have been hundreds of outcome studies done on recovery (measuring length of time with the illness, improvement of symptoms, crossover to another eating disorder, etc.). The findings are too varied to be meaningful, but a couple of generalizations can be made. First, recovery requires treatment of some kind. Second, in most studies, various treatment approaches resulted in improvement in bingeing and purging behavior. Studies of self-help, both guided and self-directed were also positive. (Richards, 2000; Sanchez-Ortiz, 2010; Yager, 2010).
Recovery means different things to different people. I like to look at it as a process that begins by stopping the behaviors, moves through an examination of the underlying mental, emotional, and spiritual issues, and evolves into feelings of integration, connection, and purpose. First, though, must come the motivation and readiness to change.
During my recovery, I took a close look at every binge I did to discover what it had to teach me. I pledged never to lie to anyone again. And in the process of slowly letting go of my “security blanket”, I learned about other ways to take care of myself. I did everything I could think of to help free myself from the prison of bulimia. Over a period of about a year and a half, I completely stopped the binge-purge behaviors, and I had begun to confront the issues that led me to become bulimic in the first place.
Over the next few years, I continued to work at improving different areas of my life: the relationship with my parents, making more friends, being able to handle conflicts, and understanding my emotional needs and being able to articulate them. Yes, I had thoughts about wanting to be thinner, but I was able to look at those thoughts, but not act on them. I worked on my body image, too, because I wanted to be able to love the body I was in, no matter what its size or shape, and I wanted to stop judging other people’s bodies, too. It was several years before I considered myself able to do that. Most wondrous of all, I eventually moved from being a basically negative person to a basically happy one. At that point, I felt completely free. I called myself fully recovered, and have been for the past two and a half decades.
Recovered vs. In Recovery
Not everyone agrees that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible. Some believe that bulimia is an addiction and that practicing the “abstinence approach” from certain foods as well as behaviors, is a life- long way to prevent future relapse. They stress adherence to food plans devoid of “addictive substances”, and working through various “steps” of recovery with the help of a sponsor. Like an alcoholic, a complete cure is not possible for someone with bulimia, because it will always be an option for dealing with life’s pain. These folks would use the terms “in recovery” or “recovering” when referring to someone who has had bulimia, no matter when their last episode occurred.
This abstinence approach works for many people, especially those new to recovery where it can provide a sense of safety and structure. But I personally wanted to lessen my focus on food, so I could be completely free to eat anything I wanted. And so, my recovery focused on what is called the “legalized food” approach. Instead of restricting, advocates of this approach stress differentiating stomach hunger from emotional hunger, and fulfilling both appropriately. They emphasize getting satisfaction from eating what the body wants and needs, and not labeling food as “good” or “bad”. They would be more inclined to use terms like “full recovery” or “recovered”.
People often ask whether I believe in full recovery. I say I do, because that term works for me. I haven’t binged in over thirty years, and don’t expect to ever again. Is this a guarantee? No, it’s not. What’s more, people who have practiced the abstinence approach might have the same successful track record, yet still call themselves, “recovering”. Perhaps this is just a case of semantics. If someone believes in their heart that they have made peace with food, that they love and appreciate their body, and they are comfortable with the hard-won “freedom” from obsession they have earned by whatever method, then they can call themselves anything they want!
I personally recommend therapists and facilities that use either the abstinence or the legalized food approach. 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!
Reprinted with permission from Bulimia: A Guide to Recovery
By Lindsey Hall and Leigh Cohn
To find out more about this helpful book click here.