Ask A Psychologist: Recovering From An Eating Disorder

You don't have to go through it alone

Q: I am a recovered anorexic, and I’m having trouble reconciling how brides are “supposed” to look with how I actually look—to the point where I’ve started dieting. I have lost about fifteen pounds in the last four months, and in my mind, I’d like to lose five to ten more before the wedding. Of course, as a recovered anorexic, I shouldn’t be dieting anymore than a recovered alcoholic should have “just a couple beers,” but I simply can’t get over the thought that I should be thinner for my wedding day. Last night, my fiancé and I discussed the possibility of doing an immediate-family-only, courthouse ceremony with no photographer and canceling the whole wedding sha-bang. (We’d lose some deposits, but it’s not a high number yet… we’d have to make the decision quickly, though. I was planning to send another deposit this week.) Like many, I’ve always dreamed of my wedding day, and a large part of me doesn’t want to cancel it, but another part of me worries that it’s the only way to keep me safe from relapse. What should I do?

—Anon

A: Dear Anon,

Planning a wedding and preparing for marriage are challenging on their own, and mental health concerns don’t make things any easier. This is a really difficult struggle. The good news is that your question shows great awareness and insight, and, importantly, a strong motivation to stay healthy. You have recovered from this disorder before, and there are many resources available to keep you safe from relapse.

To help answer your question, I talked with my colleague, psychologist Rebecca Greif, Psy.D., an expert in eating disorders at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “It’s very common for eating disorder symptoms to reemerge or become more difficult to manage during life transitions or stressful events—and a wedding certainly fits into both of these categories,” notes Dr. Greif. In continuing your recovery from an eating disorder, the most important thing right now is to remain healthy. You’ve recovered before and have the skills to fight this disorder. So, remember that your idea of how a bride is “supposed” to look is the disease talking—and that its voice is made even harder to ignore by the WIC. Now is the time to use the resources that have helped you in your recovery before. These include practicing healthy coping skills, like avoiding and understanding triggers to unhealthy habits, as well as rewarding and increasing healthy eating and wellness behavior. I also strongly recommend consulting with a physician and a therapist with expertise in eating disorders—perhaps someone who’s been helpful to you in the past. You should not be trying to power through this on your own. Social support is key in recovery from mental health disorders. No matter how knowledgeable we are, healthy thinking patterns and logic can go out the window when we’re overwhelmed by emotion. It’s just how the brain works. So, supportive clinicians, family, friends, and a partner who really understand your struggle can help tremendously to stay on a healthy track and move forward.

A healthy way of re-thinking how brides are supposed to look is to focus more on how a bride should feel and be (not often emphasized in WIC literature) on her wedding day. “My advice,” says Dr. Greif, “would be to focus on how to be a healthy bride, rather than being a ‘perfectly thin’ bride. A ‘perfectly thin’ bride only cares about losing weight—regardless of how it impacts her health, emotions, or overall quality of life. A ‘healthy bride’ prioritizes being emotionally and physically healthy, so that she can also have a healthy marriage and enjoy all the other important milestones that life has in store.” In her book, Meg encourages readers to remember, “I will not remember what my wedding looked like; I will remember what it felt like.” You might even remind yourself of this by scrolling through some of APW’s real weddings and focusing on people’s faces and the meaningful celebrations.

In terms of what to do about the logistics of the wedding, discuss with your fiancé what you need as a couple to ensure that you’re healthy. In my April post, I wrote about the helpfulness of using a Decisional Matrix to help work through a dilemma. There are four things to think about: the pros of making the decision (or change), cons of making the decision, pros of making a different decision, cons of making a different decision. How important to you is having a larger wedding? What specific aspects about it have always been part of your dream about your wedding? If it’s that important people will be together to celebrate and witness your union, you’d still have some of them beside you if you were to plan a smaller wedding day. You could also plan a bigger, additional party in the future when you’re feeling stronger. (Extra or extended celebrations can be a great thing.) If the dress, flowers, music, officiant, ambiance, décor, or food are what you dream of, APW has fantastic resources on how to implement these on a smaller scale. Or, maybe you’ll decide together that you do feel ready to move forward with your original plan, and it will be terrific. No matter how you choose to celebrate, you will be married. As Meg writes in her book, “Because the real point of your wedding day is to end up married. Married, with grace.”

For anyone who is struggling with an eating disorder, there are resources to help:

National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA)

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

DISCLAIMER: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED IN ASK A PSYCHOLOGIST IS INTENDED BY DR. BROFMAN AND APW TO SERVE AS GENERAL ADVICE AND GUIDANCE FOR ALL READERS. IT DOES NOT CONSTITUTE OR SERVE IN PLACE OF CONFIDENTIAL CLINICAL CONSULTATION WITH A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL.

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