I recently caught up with Freddie Flintoff’s documentary about the bulimia that has dominated his life for the last twenty years. It was soon after I listened to a TED talk that touched on the difference between partial vs full eating-disorder recovery – something so few sufferers seem to talk about. The speaker used the analogy of a bird in a cage, whereby partial recovery is akin to opening a door into a slightly larger enclosure. As seems to be the case for Freddie, this is the grim reality for many ED sufferers; they are still very much trapped within the confines of the illness, but well enough to get by. As Freddie candidly explains, this limbo stage may look like eating more and keeping it down - only to exercise it off later, or never being sure when the next purge might strike. For someone with anorexia, it could look like regaining enough weight to be deemed medically ‘healthy’, but continuing to be tortured by thoughts of food and exercise.
Full eating-disorder recovery however, is comparable to flying right out of the cage into freedom. This is a place where thoughts about food no longer dominate your head space; where you can eat whatever you want without deliberation, do absolutely no exercise and still feel great in your own skin. A place where you can enjoy all the festive foods around Christmas without worrying about how you’re going to earn it; or in which way to justify ordering just a salad for lunch to the friend you’ve been convincing you’re just fine. Eating disorder freedom looks like going shopping for food without analysing the healthiest choices; accepting whatever your Grandma has baked for you without guilt; actually feeling satisfied after a few squares of (milk) chocolate without needing to binge eat the entire thing - and the rest of the biscuit tin too.
This is a beautiful place to be, but many believe it’s not possible. Or perhaps it’s just that staying stuck-in-limbo seems safer. Those who have made it through the darkest part of their journey may find themselves so relieved to have reached a ‘sustainable’ state that they stop short of a full recovery. Their most extreme behaviours are behind them, so they can convince others (and themselves) they are fine. On the outside they may well look it, but the sad reality is that this is not recovery. If you still compensate for food with exercise, worry about your weight or mask your missing period with the Pill then you’re not there yet. I know because for years, I did too.
It might not seem as glamorous or praise-worthy as a race win or test match century, but I can tell you that going the whole way to recover is the single most rewarding, life-affirming and essential experience you may ever go through. No one is likely to congratulate you, present you with a medal, or ask for your autograph at the end, but the satisfaction that will come from a life-long harmonious relationship with food and exercise - which is not one of force or control, but of balance and liberation - is worth more than any trophy ever will be. After years, even decades, of suffering with an illness you don’t believe you can overcome, you will look back at where you were when you thought you’d done enough, realise your pain and denial and rejoice in how you are now free from it all. It may take every ounce of your strength, resilience and patience, but you can and 1000% deserve to get there. Freddie does too.