Why It's Important to Prioritize Your Eating Disorder Recovery

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One of the toughest decisions that patients with eating disorders and their parents, spouses, partners, and families face is, “Should I (or my loved one) take time off from ‘X’ to focus on recovery?” “X” may be continuing at one's job, 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.”

Keep in mind that it may never seem like the right time to focus on treatment and recovery. Patients and their families often don’t sufficiently prioritize recovery, and they underestimate the difficulty a patient will have handling the “X” while still under the spell of the eating disorder. 

As Eating Disorder activist, Laura Collins has said: 

"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. In one study, more than two-thirds of patients still suffered from anorexia nervosa after nine years. Focus on treatment now if you have the opportunity!

If you are a parent of a person with an eating disorder you may feel pressure to keep up with peers and to try to keep your child happy. However, beware that 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.

For example, patients who went to college when their treatment teams said they weren't ready, ended up having to take a leave of absence. Others ended up too unwell to enjoy their time in college and having to attend frequent appointments that cut into their social time. They then blamed themselves when it became too much to 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.

Delaying treatment or failing to prioritize recovery increases the time to full recovery and may further delay one’s goals.

Recovery is a process, and it does not, unfortunately, 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 with an eating disorder has achieved a significant partial or full recovery. There is no shame in taking time off for recovery; it does not signify failure. On the contrary, it is a sign of strength. 

A Word From Verywell

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.

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  • Eddy, Kamryn T., Nassim Tabri, Jennifer J. Thomas, Helen B. Murray, Aparna Keshaviah, Elizabeth Hastings, Katherine Edkins, et al. 2017. “Recovery From Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa at 22-Year Follow-Up.” The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 78 (2): 184–89. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.15m10393.