This Is What It's Like After Eating Disorder Treatment

Want to know what a real weekend mood killer is? Having to wake up at 7 a.m. every Saturday morning for nearly a year and be without your mobile device for an entire day. Add on the following: being 30 years old and not being able to go to the bathroom by yourself at any time. Or being told when and what you have to eat. That’s what life in eating disorder treatment was like for me for almost a full year.

As part of my intensive outpatient program, I spent my Saturday mornings and afternoon with a group of women ranging from 15 to 45 years in age. While my then boyfriend and now husband slept in, went to the gym, or had brunch with our friends, I sat in a circle and fingered around the self-care box, sniffing lavender oil.

Some standout moments of treatment included being asked to “walk like my eating disorder” and being in a room full of perfectionists who were told to write a journal entry with their non-dominant hand. The list goes on…

Yet the week leading up to my final day of treatment, I found myself frequently bursting into tears. My life had been structured in such a specific way for the past year, and now it was all ending.

What would things be like after treatment?

1. You'll See and Hear Things Differently

Prior to treatment, words were just, well, words. Terms like “clean eating” or “detox” didn’t really hold much weight emotionally to me.

But after treatment, learning about the power seeing these words can have, it became paramount to me how serious language around these things can be. I’m much more thoughtful about how I speak now.

2. You'll Have New Time

If you’re in any form of treatment, whether it’s an hour a week, intensive outpatient, or inpatient, when you finish your program, you’ll be faced with this bucket of time you didn’t previously have. For me, this re-opened hours in which I could obsess about what I would eat, how I would burn calories, or how my disorder could come back into my life.

It was essential that I find ways to counteract the eating disorder thoughts that were put at bay by physically being forced to deal with them for a year. Deciding to be tech-free from Friday sundown through Saturday sundown was a game changer for me. It helped me to become more mindful, which, in essence, is what treatment did for me as well. Find something to occupy the same amount of time you spent in treatment, whether it’s a self-care spa day, volunteer work, or pre-planned hangouts with friends.

3. You'll Miss Your Group

One of the strangest things about any sort of group-centric treatment is that you have this gift given to you: a group of people—women in my case—who know you better than even your closest friends and family have ever known you.

For me, the experience was something like this: I had all these thoughts my entire life that I thought were unique to my crazy brain. Suddenly, I was in a room full of women who were saying the exact same things I had been thinking that I thought were only in my head. The women in my group were not people I had common interests with (in fact, I can think of only one that I would have naturally become friends with outside of treatment), but they became the people who knew me better than anyone. Then, when you complete treatment, you lose them, and it’s unlike any loss of a friendship you can experience. It’s difficult to find a place for these people in your everyday life, even when you really try to. So call me crazy, but yes, sometimes I miss going to treatment and seeing my group.

4. You'll Lose Some Friends

Most people do not perceive eating disorder treatment with the same gravitas as traditional rehab or substance abuse programs.

I can tell you from personal experience that misconception can be difficult for those exiting intensive treatment situations. On the inside, you know that you have just gone through a massive, life-changing experience that has impacted the way you are choosing to live, but on the outside, those around you just think, to put it simply, that you look different.

For me, being thoughtful about the people I chose to spend my time with post-treatment, as well as how I spent my time with certain people, was essential.

5. You'll Have Bad Days

The phrase “recovery is not linear” should be tattooed on the brain of every person leaving any type of treatment. You really don’t understand what that phrase means until you complete treatment and realize that no, you are never fully recovered.

I personally spent about two months on a mental high post-treatment about my accomplishments, only to be met with almost exactly the same thoughts and feelings about my body that had plagued me before. But then, I’d be okay again because I would activate what I like to think of as my tool belt of skills that I had learned in treatment, which, by the way, don’t always work—because recovery is not linear.

6. You’ll Struggle With How to Fit the Experience Into Your Story

As a co-founder of The Chain, I have chosen to speak quite publicly about my recovery. For me, it helps keep me honest about where I am in my journey, but I don’t always feel great about that decision.

On days when I miss my eating disorder, I wish I hadn’t been so upfront with people about it. Maybe then, I think, I could still engage in bad behaviors without feeling people would notice. That's why figuring out how to share your eating disorder with others and how to live with your predilection toward disordered eating is a constant internal conversation.

7. You'll Have More Brain Space

I promise—it's not all bad.

One of the most helpful things for me during treatment was a visual exercise we did in which we would draw a circle and segment out what percentage of our brain was taken up by eating disorder thoughts versus other thoughts. When I started, it was easily an 80% eating disorder–focused brain. When I completed treatment, it was almost always less than 50%, which left me ample brain space to concentrate on more interesting and useful things, like my relationships, family, books, hobbies, etc.

If you’ve made the difficult but important decision to seek treatment, the options can be overwhelming. We recommend consulting your doctor or therapist, as there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, as well as the following resources:

Balance Eating Disorder Treatment Center
Denver Acute Center for Eating Disorders
Eating Recovery Center
Gaudiani Clinic
Monte Nido Eating Disorder Treatment Centers
Rogers Memorial Hospital

About the Chain

The Chain is a New York–based nonprofit that provides peer support for women working in the fashion and entertainment industries who are struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder.

The Chain was founded in December 2017 by Christina Grasso and Ruthie Friedlander, both in recovery from anorexia, after they encountered a need for a support network that addresses the challenges in eating disorder recovery unique to the fashion and entertainment industries.

The Chain aims to create a safe place for this population to share their experiences and gain insight through conversation, support, and community building. The Chain is peer-led and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Learn more about The Chain here.

Next up: The Case for Taking a Mental Health Day

Last week: 5 Things That Mean Something Different to Someone With an Eating Disorder