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Surviving Summer, After an Eating Disorder

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.

woman at sunset
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As I meandered through the train station — a coffee in one hand and a bulky, overstuffed carry-on in the other — I witnessed many things.

There was a child screaming beside a well-dressed business man, who was also yelling (into his phone). There was a couple kissing near another couple who appeared to be fighting. And there were patrons, young and old, who were huffing and puffing as they ran through the terminal, checking their devices for missed calls, unopened emails, and unanswered texts.

But the thing that truly captured my attention wasn’t a thing at all. It was a collection of things. Or rather, magazine covers.

You see, as I sidled my way through a small newsstand — scooping unnecessary trinkets, snacks, and a 24-ounce bottle of water into my already overloaded arms — I noticed they all spoke about the same thing: getting summer ready. Getting summer sexy, and dieting, and exercising your way to that “perfect” bikini-bod.

Of course, this is nothing new, especially in the women’s magazine market where headlines tout getting smaller and being smaller. They celebrate shedding parts of oneself, and essentially, losing one’s self (or at least 10 pounds of one’s self). And while there isn’t anything wrong with health and wellness, fashion, or fitness, the summer months can be particularly trying for someone who has struggled with an eating disorder.

It can be hard to survive this body-centric time of year.

Of course, the problem isn’t confined to magazine racks. Whenever I turn on the TV, I see gym commercials and weight-loss commercials. Whenever I turn on the radio, I am inundated by ads for diet drinks, diet pills, and “negative calorie” foods. DJs try to sell me on rapid results and quick fixes because there has never been a better time to “get in shape.” There has never been a better time to be “sexy” — and to be “skinny.”

And the problem isn’t just in the media. The summer is a season of food and fun, skimp and skin. Big breasts are embraced, thin thighs are applauded, tight “bounce a quarter off your butt cheeks” are celebrated, and exposed midriffs? They are encouraged, all while you consume fatty, greasy, beer-soaked, cheese-covered, mayonnaise-laden food.

It all makes summer a triggering and dangerous time of year, so how can you survive summer after an eating disorder? Here are some ideas:

1. Focus your mind and redirect your attention.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for yourself during the summer season is to care for you mind. How? Well, by pursuing interests and activities that nourish your soul. You can go on a hike or take a long walk. You can read or write, paint or draw, even meditate. You can do beach-front yoga. Whatever it is, make sure the activity you choose is something healthy that makes you happy, and allows you to pull back from the crap and the crowds and refocus on yourself.

2. Practice self-love.

Self-love is, for many, an abstract concept. Of course, we have all heard the term, but what is self-love? What does it really look like?

Self-love is a state of mind. For those with eating disorder histories, self-love can be as simple and practical as knowing when to stay in a situation, knowing when to leave said situation, and being okay with doing so (even if the only reason is that you tired and/or overwhelmed).

3. Have a food plan/backup plan.

Summer barbecues, parties, and outdoor festivals are great, as they offer the chance to mingle and socialize in a relaxing and carefree way. But these events can be anxiety-inducing for those with an eating disorder or history of an eating disorder. So what can you do? How can you attend and cope?

Have a food plan and a backup plan. Of course, this may mean fessing-up to your host about your struggles. This will mean asking your host what they plan to serve. You may need to bring your own food (especially if you are in the early stages of recovery and on a restricted meal plan). That said, whatever you do, be prepared to leave if or when you become overwhelmed.

The greatest plan is the “knowing yourself” plan, which brings me to my final point.

4. Set boundaries and know your limitations.

While all of the previous tips are great, each one is moot if you do not know yourself and your limitations. Does the thought of wearing a bikini make you ill? Does the idea of being around booze and/or an all-you-can-eat buffet fill you with terror? Does the sight of your own skin make you shiver and shake? It may, and that’s okay because we are all at different stages in our recovery process. The point is that you need to know where you are in your recovery and then care for that person. So don’t force yourself into that two-piece until you’re ready. Don’t go to Uncle Jim’s barbecue until you are prepared.

Of course, your recovery will be your recovery. My experience, without a doubt, differs from yours. But if you stay in treatment and on track — if you keep fighting each and every day — you can make it through this season, and every season that follows.

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