A difficult decision in recovery is knowing when to let go of an activity–or even a job–that could potentially re-ignite the eating disorder. As a therapist I find myself guiding my clients through exploration of their values. Some come to realize that the sport or career path they had loved so much might be the very thing that holds them back and sets them back up for relapse. It isn’t always an easy decision.
Letting go of something that may have predated the eating disorder can be hard. You might question why it cannot remain in your life in recovery. Many clients in the early stages of eating disorder treatment must face the fact that they have to stop their sports. This is because engaging in them might undermine weight gain or leave the body physically weak. It is no surprise that once stabilization begins there is an urge to return to previously enjoyed activities. However, returning to these activities could potentially hinder full recovery.
Activities That May Be Incompatible With Recovery
Sports like gymnastics, running, figure skating, wrestling, and dancing are incredibly wonderful. As a figure skater myself, I can attest there is no greater feeling than gliding over the ice. But these same sports, especially at the elite level, can be incredibly demanding on the body. Behaviors required for full recovery can be incompatible with a coach’s prescription for their athletes to remain in top physical form. Expectations for top athletes can resemble disordered eating and poor body mentality from an outside perspective. The eating disorder itself may take what is used to condition a top athlete and manipulate it for its own gain.
It can be difficult to find the balance between a recovered mindset and meeting the demands of a sport or career. With some of my Los Angeles clients in the entertainment industry, there are pressures to look a certain way and fit a mold that their bodies may not be meant to fit. It can be difficult to navigate knowing they need to eat a certain amount of times a day and then have an agent say, “Lose five pounds for this role.”
These Decisions Are Tough
The hardest decision is when there is a realization that staying in either the sport or career is just too detrimental to your health. It is certainly not easy to walk away from something you’ve put work into. And that can also be said about your recovery. Are you willing to give up a healthy body and mind for a potential chance at a gold medal or lucrative career even if it means killing yourself along the way?
I worked with a client who was a dancer. She recognized–as she was going through treatment–that returning to a dance studio would be too triggering. She knew that staring at herself in a mirror and comparing herself to her classmates would lead to restricting her meals. It wasn’t an easy decision to walk away. But she knew there was no way she was in a place to be able to dance without being triggered.
Consider Your Options
In some circumstances, you may not have to completely quit your previous passion. You might be able to approach the activity differently. You may not be able to return to a sport as an elite athlete. However, you could still engage in the activity at a more recreational level. I’ve seen some of my clients shift from being an athlete to being a coach. Actors going from television and movies to doing local theater. Sometimes you may be able to continue activities you love. But you need to reconfigure it to fit into your recovery lifestyle. For many, it can be comforting to know they can still act or model or run but just do it less intensively.
You may also have the option of challenging what a sport or career emphasizes as far as body image and diet pressures. There are many models and actors who are embracing bigger bodies and not letting the pressures to lose weight define them. With this option, there is a risk of rejection along the way as we do still live in a culture that overvalues thinness. With that being said, this may be a safe option primarily for those who feel stable in recovery and are able to actively use coping skills to fight urges. If your recovery has reached a place of advocacy this definitely could be a path to take.
Allow Yourself to Grieve
Leaving a passion behind or redefining how it fits into your life can be a huge change. You may feel sad or mad. That’s okay. Ultimately, the decision you make will be the one that supports you in your recovery. If staying in the activity is going to trigger calorie counting, weekly weigh-ins, or criticism for not looking a certain way, is it worth it? If you know where the eating disorder thrives then why play with fire? Ultimately, the decision will be based
on what will make you healthy and happy and not allow you to compromise with the eating disorder.
Learn more about our cognitive-behavioral approach to eating disorder therapy.