Experiencing Burnout in Recovery
Hello fellow FOB listeners, my name is Lucy and I am currently in recovery from anorexia. I wanted to contribute something to this wonderful space having personally gained some real nuggets of hope and encouragement from it. It makes you realise that you are not alone in your experience, that your struggles are valid, and that there is a better way of life beyond an eating disorder. My theme for this blog post is ‘experiencing burnout in recovery’ and was inspired by a recent trip away.
I spent the last week in January skiing in the Italian Alps. I might add that this was very much to the horror of my therapist! When I informed her of my plans her head fell into her hands, and she tried to entice me with a “warm, sunny holiday” instead. Not quite the response I was hoping for, but I suppose in hindsight a ski trip for a patient with anorexia would probably sound questionable to any health professional, given that it involves a degree of physical strength and an ability to regulate one’s body temperature. Suffice to say, I wasn’t excelling in either of those domains at the time. I might mention that this was further reinforced to me through what I considered to be an exorbitant, eye-watering insurance premium.
To be fair to both my therapist and the holiday insurance company, I had experienced a recent relapse and the disordered thoughts were consuming my everyday life. As each day passed, it felt like I was mentally feeling worse and I was fervently trying to work out what I was doing wrong and why I was finding it so difficult. Following the eating disorder rules provided me with a sense of achievement and my disordered mind called the shots. This felt so much harder than recovery, where the eating disorder still tried to take control. With the eating disorder still persisting, recovery felt bewildering and I constantly berated myself for not being where I thought I should be in terms of beating this horrible illness. When you're in the depth of an eating disorder, it can feel like the only way to eat is to gain reassurance from someone else, but it’s unrealistic to expect someone to do this for you for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, naturally, my recovery was unsustainable and a major source of stress! And what happens when we’re subject to ongoing stress for a prolonged period of time? We burn out.
What I noticed was that when I was able to do something I enjoyed such as skiing, it helped to create some distance between myself and the eating disorder. I was able to slow down and gradually expose myself to feared foods and situations, and this provided me with time to think about what my core values were and what truly mattered to me. This gave me the self-assurance I so desperately sought from others, and enabled me to go against the disordered thoughts in my head and move forwards with recovery.
If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed and starting to question why you’re recovering in the first place, then perhaps it’s time to think about whether you are reaching burnout too. It can be difficult to admit, especially when you thrive on success and meeting the goals set by yourself or your treatment team, but if you don’t, then you risk a full-blown relapse as I did. You are by no means a failure for feeling unable to cope - recovering from an eating disorder is mentally and physically draining, and you have done remarkably well to get as far as you have. Please do not worry that you will be stuck in “quasi recovery” like I did, as I realised that this simply fuelled those feelings of never being good enough, and the eating disorder would always come in with its false promises of taking away your anxiety and shame. I am by no means saying to put your recovery on hold - you MUST ensure you are sticking to your basic eating regime set by your treatment team - but perhaps give yourself some more flexible goals for the next few weeks, be more compassionate towards yourself, and try to connect with what matters to you and what you enjoy. It’s also imperative to reach out to your loved ones and let them know how you are feeling.
Ultimately it's your recovery and whilst it’s going to feel difficult and uncomfortable, feelings of intense overwhelm are definitely a red flag for relapse. Sometimes it’s ok to slow down for a short period of time whilst you mentally build yourself back up again. It’s ok to pace yourself because recovery from an eating disorder isn’t straightforward and it takes time and commitment. I liken it to being injured when you’re training for a marathon (can you tell I love my sport? It’s certainly something that motivates me to recover). You didn’t do anything wrong to get injured, but these things happen and you adapt. You may need to make your runs shorter and slower for the next few weeks, and perhaps do some strengthening exercises. But that doesn’t mean you have lost all of your progress, or that you have lost sight of your end goal. It simply means that your priority has shifted towards maintenance and healing, and you know that when you return to training you’ll be stronger and more resilient than you were before. Adopting this approach to my recovery has really helped me and I feel like every action I take against the eating disorder is finally for myself; it’s meaningful and not for instant gratification.