the three stages of an eating disorder
What comes up when you are actively in recovery, simply going through the motions, or dangerously deep in your addiction?
When to eat; what to food to eat; how much to consume; what exercise I needed to do to counteract the food I had just eaten; how to avoid social situations that involved food; where I could throw food away... I would go to bed hungry, dream of food and wake up hungry.
My life revolved around food. I had tunnel vision.
But all of this happened slowly. Slowly but surely the eating disorder crept in, digging deep into vulernable crevices and parts of my mind. Stage by stage, the eating disorder took hold.
An eating disorder slowly crawls into those hidden, sore parts of you and before you know it, your addiction has consumed you.
At my lowest point, I couldn’t distinguish myself without an eating disorder. The Francesca I used to be was a distant memory.
A few days ago, I was lucky enough to reconnect with an old childhood friend. We spoke about recovery. She told me of an exercise she did in therapy whereby she created a system so she could identify where she was in recovery. We can do the exercise together.
Imagine a set of traffic lights: green, yellow and red.
When you are in the “green stage”, you are actively choosing recovery, following meal plans and socializing, among many other things. You’re good. You're safe.
The next stage is called the “yellow stage”. This is when you are half in recovery. You know when you feel like you’re going nowhere slowly, or like you’ve hit a brick wall? It’s when you half in recovery but not truly invested in it. You’re not in a life threatening situation but you’re not really going out of your way to get to the next stage of recovery.
Lastly, the “red stage” is when you’re in the danger zone. This is when your triggers are at all-time high.
I was inspired after hearing about this therapeutic method from my friend that I decided to do one myself. I have outlined all the things that I identify to be present in my life when I’m in each Three Stages of Recovery.
Note that this is based on my own recovery experience so feel to free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Please share this with anyone who you know may be struggling with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, exercise addiction, orthorexia, general disordered eating or binge eating disorder.
Stage 1: The Green Stage of an Eating Disorder
- Listening to my hunger cues
- Eating intuitively and mindfully in silence
- Giving myself loving body massages
- Not worrying or feeling guilty about what I’ve just eaten, not dwelling or obsessing about what I just ate
- Feeling relaxed around food, especially in social situations
- Feeling calm and present
- Able to concentrate on tasks at work
- Exercising because it feels good, not as punishment
- Feeling joyful and energised
- Laughing reguarly
- Having a regular menstrual cycle
Stage 2: The Yellow Stage of Eating Disorders
- Body checking (ie. looking at mirrors, feeling my stomach or thighs)
- Excising despite feeling tired
- Distracting myself around meal time by watching YouTube, listening to a podcast or swiping through social media
- Increasingly scrolling through social media posts of food, exercise routines and bikini bodies
- Intermittent fasting
- Avoiding certain food groups (usually plant-based fats like seeds, nuts, avocado, nut and seed butters, oils etc)
- Not going to my dietitian regularly
- Increasing the amount of coffee or other appetite suppressants
- Sticking to certain hours of eating times
- Worrying how friends or restaurants prepare and cook food
- Comparing what I eat to other people
- Having an irregular menstrual cycle
Stage 3: The Red Stage of Eating Disorders
- Not having a menstrual cycle and not telling my therapist about it
- Withdrawing socially, becoming moody and feeling depressed
- Feeling exhausted
- Checking the scale multiply times a day
- Throwing away food or giving food away as a “gift” as a way to get rid of it
- Avoiding meal times and social situations with friends and family, not wanting to eat out
- Chewing gum
- Using a calorie counter
- Going to bed hungry and waking up starving
- Dreaming about food, having anxiety dreams around food
- Exercising on the sly, lying about my exercise routine, over-exercising
- Fearing certain food and only wanting to eat “healthy food”
- Eating in an unbalanced and strict way
- Constantly thinking about when I will eat next and what I will eat, repeating in my head what I will eat over and over
- Obsessively looking at "food porn" pictures on social media
- Feeling jealous and resentful of other people who I perceive to have “perfect” bodies
- Feeling triggered by others who seem happy, content with themselves and their bodies
- Guilt after each meal
- Not seeing the value in recovery
Where do you think you fall on the scale? You may feel like you’re half in the red and half in the yellow stage, or maybe you are deep down in the red and don’t want to get better. Maybe you're 70% in the yellow with 10% in green and 20% in the red. Recovery is a slow process and we fall in and out of the stages over the years. It’s cyclical.
Looking back at the last nine years of my recovery, there were things I did and parts of myself I don’t recongise anymore. When I was in the red stage, I was engaging in harmful and exhausting behaviours that today I wouldn’t even consider doing. It was like I had left my body and something else was controlling me.
I have been in the yellow stage for years and often fall into it. It feels safe. I can hold hands with recovery and with my eating disorder and still function. But in this place, I am complacent and recovery is not considered a priority. And this is dangerous because it is a slippery slope back into the red stage.
While I don’t consider it all to be sunshine and roses in the green stage (yes, sometime being healthy is hard for my eating disorder to accept!), I know what story my addiction wants me to live. And it’s sad, sob story that ends with a whimper. My eating disorder slowly robbed me of my values, beliefs, passions and desires.
I would much rather explore the uncharted waters where there is excitement, adventure and explosions of passion, creativity and pure, wholehearted joy. This is the stage I want to be in.
Keep shining. The world needs your light.
Lots of love,