**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.
Julia Tannenbaum is the author of The Changing Ways trilogy, which she started writing when she was seventeen, and the co-creator of Nourish, an online cookbook and eating disorder recovery blog. She’s an advocate for mental health awareness and often incorporates her personal struggles into her written work. Tannenbaum is currently pursuing a Creative Writing and English B.A. at Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in West Hartford, Connecticut with her family.
I still find it surreal sometimes that it’s already been five years since I was in my last treatment program. Five years since I’d wake up in the morning and dread the moment I’d have to eat. Five years since I was convinced that my identity was dependent upon my disorder. Five years since I tried to hurt myself. Five years since that fateful moment, at the tender age of fifteen, when I realized I deserved more than the half-life I was living and finally committed to recovery.
I distinctly remember that moment as if it happened only yesterday. I was in the process of being admitted to my second residential treatment center (my ninth inpatient program overall), having just come straight from an ED ward where, for the first time, I’d been exposed to adults with eating disorders. Seeing women in their thirties, forties, even fifties and sixties, walking around evoked a revelation: I didn’t want to be here in a couple of decades. I didn’t want to be chained to my disorder forever. I wanted to get better.
Upon learning I’d be at the residential treatment center for six to ten weeks—a timespan I initially objected to—I was forced to decide whether I’d put in the hard work and see if I could make it stick or take the easy road and half-ass my way through another program. After spending the last two years in and out of treatment, I was becoming fed up with the substandard quality of my life. I didn’t want to waste another opportunity to reclaim the freedom that had been stripped from me since I was thirteen. So, I picked up my chin—and my fork—and got to work. When I discharged from the center nine weeks later, I was determined to make it my last treatment program. Five years later, I’ve never had to go back.
Navigating recovery outside of inpatient care has been immensely challenging. The thing about recovery is that it’s not linear. Recovery is like a roller coaster ride; full of twists and turns, of ups and downs, of lows and highs, and one moment, you could be on the top of the world only to come completely crashing down in the next. This was very much the case with my recovery. But just because something isn’t easy doesn’t mean it’s impossible. With support from my parents and outpatient treatment team, a meal plan called the Exchange System that taught me how to feed myself adequately, hobbies that gave me hope for the future and an identity outside of my disorder, and a whole lot of internal strength and drive, I was able to navigate those initial ups and downs to reach a better, healthier, and happier place in my life.
Over the past couple of years, my health and happiness have continued to grow as I’ve had new and exciting experiences, become more comfortable with myself and my body, and ultimately built a life I’m proud of and can live on my own terms—not the terms of my disorder. This past February, I celebrated five years out of treatment. That, in itself, was a milestone I once never imagined I’d reach. But now that I have, now that I know what life beyond anorexia feels like, I never want to go back.
Recovery truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Since committing to recovery, I’ve published a young adult trilogy, The Changing Ways series, that tells the story of a high schooler’s journey to overcome mental illness and is largely based on my personal experiences. I currently run a food and recovery blog with my mom called Nourish and am working on turning our delicious recipes, many of which helped me when I was refeeding, into a physical cookbook that can help others who are battling the same demons I was not too long ago. I’ve gotten involved in mental health activism and have partnered with NAMI and NEDA, among other incredible organizations, to share my story of surviving anorexia and finding hope amid darkness. More recently, I’ve begun advocating for other topical issues I feel passionately about—animal rights, LGBTQ rights, and gender equality, to name a few—and look forward to doing more when the world reopens.
All that I’ve been able to accomplish in the few years I’ve been free from my disorder has led me to believe that I have a lifetime of greatness ahead of me and a future well worth living. I don’t consider myself “cured” (although I hope to be one day), but for me, that’s not what recovery is about. For me, recovery means I’m in control of my life. It means I have hopes and ambitions that are unrelated to food, calories, and weight loss. It means I recognize the importance of prioritizing my mental health and always make an effort to put it first, knowing from past experiences what will happen if I don’t. Most of all, recovery means I’m finally free.
Everyone’s journey with mental health is different; likewise, so is everyone’s recovery. Mine just so happened to be a topsy-turvy mess that’s taken ample time, patience, and grit to straighten out. It was a challenge like none other; however, now that I’m here, now that I’m in recovery, I’m confident that it was completely worth it.
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