Recovery is not a Unicorn


Monday post from University of Maryland junior and journalism student, Alicia McElhaney. She is the co-founder and co-president of the University's Project Heal chapter, and works as a fitness instructor for UMD's Campus Recreation Services. In her spare time Alicia enjoys being outside and reading.


I’ve always been relatively open with others about my recovery from an eating disorder. When I started receiving treatment, I told my family, my boyfriend and several close friends what was going on. I was more careful with strangers, or what I said on the internet, afraid that people would find out about my big huge mentally ill secret and that they would judge me based upon it. In a support group I attended every week, we often discussed the importance of letting others in on our recovery, but also the importance of protecting ourselves from the judgement many of us feared.

Recently though, I’ve become a bit of an over-sharer in the recovery department, and the results have been surprisingly un-scary.

Some important things to know, before we dive in. I’ve been in recovery from anorexia for just over two years now. When I started recovery, I was so gung ho into the process of it all. I didn’t WANT to have an eating disorder. But really, who does? Somewhere along the line I started advocating for eating disorder recovery and body acceptance. I founded a chapter of Project HEAL on my college campus and spoke to my fellow fitness instructors at the University of Maryland about body positive fitness. I was doing awesomely - eating well, exercising for fun, trying to enjoy life as much as I could.

I love being an advocate, but I struggled with a question some days, especially recently. What happens when you can’t uphold in your personal life the very thing you advocate for?

The question kept coming up for me during a recent (small, thankfully!) relapse into overexercising and restriction. I was struggling hard to not fall back into anorexia and depression at that point, and I needed all the help I could get. But I didn’t want to let people know I was having a hard time. I was Super Recovery Woman, after all, right? People had started telling me that the message of body positivity and recovery was having an effect on their lives - how could I let them down?

Ah, that good old all-or-nothing approach so many of us struggle with. If I’m having a difficult day with food, how could I ever tell someone else recovery is awesome, let alone possible? If one day I wake up and don’t really like how I look, how can I preach self-love?

It doesn’t have to be this way. Recovery is a great thing, but doesn’t have to feel like the most brilliant, sparkly unicorn dancing in front of a rainbow every day. In fact, it probably won’t. That’s not the point of it. The point is to have some days like that, some bad days, some days in between, and through all of it, to understand that food and exercise (or lack thereof) isn’t going to solve the problems on the bad days.

So how can we, as advocates, appreciate recovery and body positivity for what they are, while still being realistic?

I think the first step is acknowledging bad days and understanding that they happen. For me, two things helped a lot through this process - writing, and sharing with others.

Writing in a journal is hugely helpful for introspection - it allows for a sense of privacy where the Internet just doesn’t, and it invites in the ability to track over time where your mood is.

Sharing with others that I was struggling was hugely helpful as well. I decided to start sharing with other people when I was having a difficult day or week. And while a lot of the time, all they responded with was “oh, okay. I hope that gets better,” that was enough to keep me afloat. You see, when we isolate ourselves, locked up in our apartments, blinds drawn, worrying about worrying about food, we start to regress into that same eating disorder mindset we once were in. And even if we’re eating right and exercising okay and not binging or purging, we still are not experiencing life the way we should.

It’s important to let a little light in. It can be a friend, a family member or even a pet who has superhero-like listening powers. The act of admitting a struggle is the hardest part.

So where do we go from here?

I find it important to share the mess that is my recovered life both in person and online. There is a facebook group about this called The Imperfect Tribe - it’s all about highlighting the real parts about you, not just the super pretty salad,  your awesome night out or that perfectly coiffed new ‘do that is so typical to social media.

I’ve started to see that’s what true advocacy is about; not sugarcoating recovery, understanding that it takes time, being kind to myself as well as to others, and above all, making sure that I share recovery and body positivity in the most realistic way possible.


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