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The Unexpected Challenges of Intimacy During Eating Disorder Recovery

The other night, my partner and I were finishing one of our weekly (OK, lie — monthly) date nights (we’re millennials working for ourselves — finding time to date is tough) to celebrate our official move to a house in the mountains of Boulder, Colorado. The wine was flowing, both of us giddy with our new life here in the foothills and like clockwork, I was again blown away that four years into recovery, I still face situations when I am forced to come to terms with the infectious ways my eating disorder still affects my life. 

Without disclosing too much intimate detail, the conversation — at some point — turned from a minor disagreement about whether or not our couch matched our “boho rustic theme” to a sly play on words about what we planned to do to each other on that couch later.

In my best seductive fashion, I was grinning over my wine glass, rubbing one foot against his. Each of us gave the other that knowing smirk while eating dessert. Then, it popped in my head:

“I should watch how much of this ice cream I eat,” I thought. “I’ll feel bloated.”

The eating disorder train is so insidious in nature. 

We paid, took a picture I inevitably put on Instagram (because, of course) and went to a friend’s show. 

As we left dinner, I started feeling that all-too-familiar discomfort. Anybody who has struggled with an eating disorder knows what I’m talking about: That maniacal, obsessive thought about how I felt I looked, silently chastising myself for eating the portion I did. 

More: How My Dad & I Became Advocates for Eating Disorder Awareness

“I don’t feel sexy now,” I thought, as my partner stroked my hand at the show. 

Later, at home, I attempted to sneak into bed without him. When he asked if everything was OK, I looked at him and admitted I didn’t want to be intimate anymore. 

“I can’t,” I said. “I don’t want you to feel me. I don’t want to get naked. I can’t think of anything worse than your fingers on my skin. I’m sorry, but I’m not in the mood.”

He nodded then kissed the top of my head. We went to bed, his arms around my T-shirt. Because what else is there to really say?

Maybe it’s not unexpected that we encounter intimacy issues. Maybe we are simply surprised that it’s harder than we want it to be. But intimacy has been an interesting road to navigate — and almost always based on how I feel that day about my body. In other words, some days I feel like I could wear lingerie out into the mountains and pose for a camera — other times, I recoil at the feeling of someone’s hands on me. 

What’s going on?

For more insight, we asked Dr. Allison Chase, the regional managing clinical director of the Eating Recovery Center in Austin, for her thoughts and expertise on the hardest parts for patients in terms of intimacy. 

“Most patients suffer from body dissatisfaction, often as significant as body distortion, and therefore report great discomfort in physical intimacy and having others see or touch their body,” Chase tells SheKnows. “In addition, it is not unusual for patients to struggle with emotional connectedness, which can impact feelings of closeness and safety, further complicating intimate experiences.”

She has a point. My partner, to this day, will bring out the string and ask me to judge what I think a certain body part looks like versus what the string around my certain body part actually measures. It’s often outrageously different. 

“You don’t see yourself,” he says — almost amazed each time, as though he hasn’t done this numerous times.

How can we deal with this?

Not feeling comfortable with your body may be normal, but how can we work through it? To find out, we asked Chase how she advises people on how to navigate the murky intimacy waters with us as we head onto the recovery track.

“It is essential that a patient beginning recovery experiences feelings of safety, both emotionally and physically, as they navigate initial or increased intimacy with their partner,” she explains. “This includes open communication and tolerance on going at an acceptable pace to support the patient and their recovery in the process.”

I often think it’s easy to forget that other people do not feel the same overwhelming body disdain that I do. Yes, everybody has a body part they wish they could alter. But no, not everyone gives up their momentary happiness to abide it like I have done in the past.

More: Yes, I Had an Eating Disorder, & No, I Won’t Show You Before & After Photos

It’s also important to be with someone who is tolerant of our struggles. But in return, we need to be open and tolerant of them when they don’t understand. 

The morning after we didn’t have sex, my partner and I ate breakfast out on our deck. He confessed that he worries at times that I walk a fine line between recovery and an eating disorder.

 “I do walk a fine line,” I admitted. “But I’m learning all the same.”

He nodded.

I explained to him where I was — and where I am now. Yes, intimacy is hard for me at times. But I live my life without behaviors. I am present for the day-to-day, which is something I’d always missed because of disordered eating. 

Some days, I am in the mirror booty-popping. Others, I am in a shirt three sizes too baggy. 

Moving forward

Given the difficulties, are people able to overcome these barriers about themselves and go on to have fulfilling, non-stressful intimacy? According to Chase, it is.

“It is most definitely possible to not only recover from an eating disorder but to have fulfilling intimacy,” she says. “However, it is important to recognize that eating disorders impact a person both physically and emotionally, and therefore, it is a complex mental health disorder, which may result in recovery taking time and hard work. Patience and tolerance for the process is important for both the patient and their loved ones.”

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