Three Essential Steps to My Recovery from Disordered Eating
(Adapted from an article originally published August 2020 on the Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue website)
Recovery from disordered eating is an individual journey. I know this because I have witnessed many on this path over the 25 years I worked in the eating disorders field. For this article, the Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue asked me to discuss “three essential steps” of my recovery, which occurred decades ago.
Because I aim to decrease the stigma surrounding recovered clinicians in the eating disorders field, I have openly written about my personal journey in articles and books, keeping the focus in my practice office on my clients and their stories. Putting the spotlight on my own recovery here has felt both vulnerable and enlightening. I hope that some of it resonates and supports your or a loved one’s healing and blossoming.
It is hard to narrow down the process of recovering from disordered eating into just “three essential steps.” In my book Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self, I wrote about ten non-linear steps. My discussion to follow shares three steps that were key for me — and for many of the others I have had the privilege to assist on their journeys.
Discovering joyful movement was a very significant step for me in my recovery process. At a panel discussion for the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) this past year, colleagues and I talked about the topic of identity and recovery. A couple of us had the arts figure prominently in developing our eating disorders and figure prominently in the way out.
For me, dance was that art form. I danced ballet seriously and frequently for twenty years. My eating disorder developed during my adolescence when ballet was a daily passion. I don’t blame the art form for my eating disorder because so many other factors made me vulnerable. That said, shifting away from ballet was an essential step in my recovery journey. Despite this, I was not ready to let go of the dancer part of me. (I tried, and that was a miserable year. It was as if a part of my soul was missing.)
It was key for me to seek out forms of dance that were more improvisational than choreographic. I trained in African Healing Dance, learned Swing Dance, practiced Authentic Movement. I eventually dove bravely into Ecstatic Dance and Contact Improv, which cracked me open. Instead of imitating others’ movements, I brought forth dance from inside of me, which was so different from my rigorous ballet training. I chose the steps and even the partners I wanted to dance with instead of fulfilling a role.
Dance has continued to be a spiritual, self-connecting experience for me. Since embracing improvisational movement, I have learned more about myself in relation to others, deeply respected my body and its desires, and ultimately accepted and cared for my body more than I ever did as a ballerina.
The second most critical step in the recovery process was learning to trust my body and listen to its hungers and enough-ness. I grew up in the Diet Pepsi ’70s and ’80s. Diet culture was significant around me. I also experienced lots of self- and other-imposed food insecurity, based on diet culture, difficulty eating large meals before dance classes, rules about not snacking until dinner, and being one of seven children. Although I was privileged always to have plenty of food in my house growing up, there were mixed messages about how much to eat from the culture and communities around me. I was a confused, active, growing teen who didn’t eat enough to fuel all that activity and who lost touch with a natural, intuitive sense of how much food feels right.
Studying nutrition in college helped me through the last phase of my recovery. It helped me to understand that my body and mind needed more to eat regularly. I started to become more in touch with and trust my body’s natural appetites. I learned to practice intuitive eating back in 1989. (It was a very novel concept then.) Over time, I learned how to feed my body well, and food lost the charge it always had when I was going back and forth between restricting and binge-eating.
Learning about nutrition, balance, and body trust was so illuminating to me; I wanted to help others with this part of their recovery. I went on to become a registered dietitian/nutrition therapist. More importantly, I discovered what my greater hungers and needs are beyond food: love, family, close relationships, writing, honoring the natural world. I also learned when enough is enough: my limits, boundaries in relationships, and honoring my need for downtime despite my active body and mind.
My third essential recovery step was learning to feel feelings, appreciate my emotional self, and use my voice. This step was a hard one for me. I came from a world of, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” Several circumstances in my history led me to believe life was safer and better if I kept my mouth shut, particularly around expressing difficult emotions. Now, this was no easy feat, as I was an unusually expressive child from a very early age. I had a lot to say, but I learned writing it all down was better than saying it aloud.
I eventually learned that feelings, while often scary, don’t have to be overwhelming. All those written words weren’t in vain, as they encouraged a passion for writing that has served me well in my professional life. However, I learned in my recovery journey to listen to that voice deep inside and speak up for what I believe. Being vulnerable and sharing my emotional life began to bring intimacy and warmth into my relationships. I learned not to fear expressing myself: on the page and out loud. Sure, not everyone will appreciate my particular brand of truth, but my reality is just as valid as another’s.
Recovery involved allowing myself to “take up space” — in my body, relationships, and life. Ironically to me at the time, I found I had so much more to give those I love and care about when I took up space myself first. It has been vital to my health and well-being, as well as the discovery of my purpose on the planet, to honor my own needs, wants, and hungers — and to dance to the beat of my own drum. I believe a steady drumbeat within is the way out of pain and the way into life for us all.
Heidi Schauster, MS, RDN, CEDRD-S is a writer, nutrition therapist, and educator who focuses on eating disorders, whole-self-wellness, and embodiment. She is the founder of Nourishing Words Nutrition Therapy in Boston. Heidi is a graduate instructor at Plymouth State University, a Health-at-Every-Size (HAES) advocate, and facilitator of the No Diet Book Clubs. She provides in-person and virtual counseling and clinical supervision, including co-facilitating an online consultation group for professionals in the eating disorders field who have recovery histories. Heidi is the author of the award-winning book Nourish: How to Heal Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Self. She is also a lifelong dancer, side-hustle stilt performer, bumbling gardener, and the proud mama of two outrageous teenagers. Join her mailing list at https://anourishingword.com.