Overcoming an Eating Disorder in 'Mid' or Later Life - Part 1 - Belief & Identity
Overcoming an eating disorder is hard (to put it lightly) at any age. It involves intense focus, going against all that feels right, painful feelings, emotional rollercoasters and tolerating a process that is likely to be one of the hardest things you will face in your lifetime. But your age and your life circumstances will effect the particular challenges and obstacles that you face as you do navigate the recovery process. A youngster going through this process at home with parents and siblings and who is still at school or college will have different obstacles and challenges than someone in their mid or later years with 'adult' responsibilities.
Most people who read my blogs and books or listen to my podcasts are in what might be considered the mid or later life category. This is probably because I myself only developed an eating disorder at the age of 27-years and it effected me into my forties and so when I am writing my content, the audience I am speaking to is generally that 'older' individual (although large parts of my messages apply equally to any teens or younger adults out there too!). This is just to say that if you are an adult with an eating disorder (or supporting an adult) then all the information I have ever written (and not just this post!) is aimed at people of your age and in similar circumstances to you.
However, one of my lovely readers and listeners contacted me lately to ask me to speak about the topic of how to go through all that overcoming an eating disorder demands when in mid or later life and when there are responsibilities to consider such as being a partner, a parent, having a job, managing a household, finances and so many other adult pressures to face every single day. And I realised that although I have touched on all these aspects throughout my content and in more detail in my books, I haven't provided more specific depth to these very real 'adult pressures' that so many of you face and have to find ways to navigate as you are also so desperately attempting to bash an eating disorder and powerful addiction to energy deficit out of your life.
I often say that overcoming an eating disorder and all that doing so entails is so much more than a full-time job and that it demands more mental focus, hard work and determination than any academic or career accolades you might have achieved or plan to work towards. To keep pushing away the eating disorder urges and deeply ingrained habits and rituals around restriction or compensatory behaviours day in and day out is mentally exhausting and can feel never ending. Small distractions can quickly and automatically put the eating disorder back in the driving seat. For this reason it's important that even with so many other responsibilities, that as much space is created in your life as possible to ensure you can find the focus to let the eating disorder go. But of course trying to make space to overcome an eating disorder and all that entails will impact on your partner (if you have one), family, household dynamics, pet duties, ability to work and to keep doing all the things you usually do (at least in the short term) and there are necessary life changes to consider in relation to just how you can make it happen on a practical level.
In the coming weeks I will write more about the different specific aspects of the challenges faced when you are overcoming an eating disorder in mid or later life. Issues that will be covered in future blog posts will include considerations such as spouses and partners, children and wider family, pets, careers, living alone and being single, dealing with societal pressures and cultural expectations, finances and more age-specific limiting thoughts and beliefs.
But for this introductory post, I want to highlight the most critical aspect of overcoming an eating disorder in your mid or later years...
And that is having the belief in yourself and for yourself that you CAN beat this eating disorder and that you are not the eating disorder.
It is Not Too Late!
If you only take one thing from this blog post, please know, without a doubt, that for you—yes even you—despite what your head tries to tell you or even what you might have been told by others, it's NOT too late to overcome this eating disorder and doing so can still be very very worth your while.
I would be very rich by now if I had a penny for the number of times people have said to me,
"Oh, but I am in my thirties / forties / fifties / sixties now and I have been sick for xx number of years, I was only a child when the eating disorder developed and so I know I can't have more than this and I have to accept that. I have done my body too much damage and the eating disorder is too entrenched…".
Well, if I believed that situation to be true of anyone then I would not be writing this or doing the work I do. I believe that no matter how old you are, how long you have had an eating disorder, how entrenched the thoughts, behaviours and beliefs surrounding it are, how malnourished you are now or have been, how much ongoing damage there might be to your body after the years of malnutrition (and for many people, even after decades, the body does repair and heal in miraculous ways)—despite of any of these things, I believe that you can still overcome the eating disorder if you are willing to go through the tough process to let the eating disorder go.
Whoever you are, whatever your situation, age or wider health issues, please know that you can beat this. If I could instil that belief into each one of you so that you feel more motivated and empowered to go forward, tolerate the really horrible 'side effects' that will come from the process of letting the eating disorder go and continue to do what it takes despite them because you will know it will be worthwhile, then I would. But as I can't, I will just have to use my best powers of persuasion to try to boost your self-belief and let any sense of hopelessness or helplessness go.
Eating disorders create thoughts to convince you that the life you have now is the best you can hope for because going against the addictive patterns of the eating disorder is painful and creates very real and hard to tolerate anxiety, agitation and depression. It can just feel easier to allow yourself to believe that the pain of living in the eating disorder's grips is actually ok… But if it was really ok living with the eating disorder then you wouldn't be reading this, seeking hope for more. And if you didn't have even the tiniest glimmer of hope for yourself then you also wouldn't be seeking out information or support about what it takes to overcome an eating disorder. So you do have a glimmer of self-belief and hope that your life can be more than this and it's time to nurture that glimmer and turn it into,
"I refuse to believe I will never get beyond this eating disorder. I refuse to be written off as a 'lost cause'. I refuse to accept it is too late for me and I will find out what not having an eating disorder can feel like and that's the life I am choosing to move towards!".
In Aiming for Overshoot and this blog post, I have written about the importance of having a real and powerful 'why' to help you understand what you are putting yourself through the pain and discomfort of the process to overcome an eating disorder for. An image of your future—a future you want that is free of an eating disorder can help to keep you going when it is tough and to build your self-belief, so that you can stay on track when the days are long and hard to tolerate. So, build that vision of what you want from your future, how you want to feel, who you want in your life, what you want to be able to do and hold onto it, returning to it time and again and striving towards it to make it real. Believe it can be real and you will be more likely to successfully make it so.
Years of LIFE Left!
When I was contemplating, at the age of 40 years, attempting a much more serious recovery attempt than I had put myself through before, I also had the thoughts that you might be familiar with of,
"Is it really worth it now? I am in my forties, practically mid-life, and I have already missed out on so many life opportunities because of the eating disorder. Is it going to be worth it?'
But then I had to give myself a harsh talking to. I was seriously depressed, highly anxious and agitated if anything interrupted even the slightest bit in my rigid daily structure of restriction and compulsive movement. I was isolated and had little to my life other than an eating disorder that was very good at persuading me that I was just 'fine' as I was, until I realised again that actually I was miserable. And in these more rational moments, the thought of living any more years as I was was something that I couldn't tolerate.
So, as I turned 40, I realised that I was ONLY 40. I could still have another 40 or 50 years of life left—more years even than I have already lived and to say that I couldn't have those years free of an eating disorder was a situation that I was not willing to accept. Or, even if my fate was to only live to 50 or just 45, that was still a few years of potential eating disorder free living.
I know there will now be some of you thinking, "ah, yes but I am 70, not 40. It was ok for Helly, she was still young!". Well, to this I say, ok, you might have less potential life years left but those years that you do have left could still be more full, fun, fabulous and free than the years the eating disorder gave you. You can still have more joy and laughter in whatever time there is left and it might take some incredibly painful and challenging days to move towards that life but I really believe it will be worth it. I wouldn't try to raise false hope in anyone or encourage anyone through a painful process to recovery if I didn't believe that it would be more than worth your while and that when you get through to the other side that you won't be so grateful you gave yourself this chance.
Build your self-belief in your capacity to have a better future. Nurture that self-belief and let it grow. If you really can't visualise anything more to your life at all than the eating disorder and you are struggling to even begin to start to imagine more for yourself then work with a coach or another professional to help you build that vision. Have people around you who will believe in you and encourage you to keep going while you are still learning to believe in yourself.
Believing you can beat this at whatever age you are and no matter how entrenched the eating disorder might be is a key step in being able to make the necessary changes to do it.
Allowing the Identity Crisis
Many adults with eating disorders have years worth of deeply ingrained self-identity built around the eating disorder. Perhaps you are the one who is 'fit' or appears to be very 'self-controlled' and 'healthy' and people around you even perceive you to be an inspiration in these ways. Or maybe others know you to have an eating disorder and you have been in and out of treatment for years, each time having your sense of self-empowerment and autonomy sucked from you and you now very much identify as the 'anorexic' or 'bulimic' and have taken on a mindset of being a patient, waiting to be be treated.
Some of you will have built your relationships and careers and pursuits out of the eating disorder's addictive habits and drive to keep you in energy deficit. Perhaps you met your partner and your friendship group through a sports or health club and the eating disorder is all they have known of you. Maybe you work in fitness or in nutrition or a similar field in a career choice largely made when you were under the spell of the eating disorder, choosing work that would allow you to pursue the compulsions throughout your day.
Eating disorders can consume so much of your identity and how you have built your adult life. To let the eating disorder go is to need to let a lot of the identity that goes with the eating disorder go too and to allow a period of time in which you need to establish who you are—that is who the REAL you is—beyond the addiction, beyond the drive to suppress your body and suppress your life with an eating disorder. The real and authentic you is in there, desperate to live and to thrive in ways that mean living to your authentic values and not those of an eating disorder or diet culture. But letting the eating diosrder identity go and taking the time to learn who you are without it and what really matters to you in life can result in a time of feeling like you are in an identity 'no mans land'. It's a frightening place to be as so much of what you have built your life around gets shaken up with nothing to immediately replace it with but it can also be an exciting time—a time of true self-discovery and opportunity if you just stay curious and trust that what comes next will be a life that is truly yours to own and whatever that is, it is one you will be so proud of and finally feel you in.
I have written a lot more in both my books (see below for links) about self-identity with an eating disorder and the identity crisis that can come when you are overcoming an eating disorder, alongside learning to be authentic and vulnerable. I will try to write a post about this topic alone in future but if you want to read more now, then it's all in the books!
Being older with the life challenges that come with having to be an adult (ugh!) while overcoming an eating disorder adds many extra layers of complication. Getting your life set up to give yourself as much time and space as you can to help the process go as smoothly as possible is often an, 'in an ideal world', situation that many just don't have. Whether you want them or not, the real world with life's demands and responsibilities are there and you can't get rid of them all to focus just on eating disorder bashing. But that definitely doesn't mean that you can't bash the eating disorder and eradicate it, giving it its marching orders out of your life!
Believe in your ability to beat it and you are more likely to do the necessary to make it happen. Don't fall into the trap of telling yourself that it is 'too late' for you and that you can't have freedom from the eating disorder now (and definitely never let anyone else tell you that, no matter how qualified they might seem on paper!). And allow the necessary identity crisis that will come as you shake off the eating disorder identity and discover who YOU are without it.
Next up… the additional considerations of overcoming an eating disorder when you have a spouse or partner.
**For more information on eating disorders and how to overcome one, please don't miss my newly available books,
If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is the transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series,
available on this website, all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube.