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“It’s so easy. It’s like eating. You put it in your mouth and swallow,” bestselling author Marya Hornbacher told me in regard to taking medication for a mental illness.

“If you want to go back to the Twelve Steps, it’s number three. You made the decision to turn your will and your life over, not to medication, but to recovery,” she continued.

And turning her life over is just what Marya had to do in order to overcome, not only an eating disorder as discussed in the first post in this series, but also bipolar disorder, self-harm, as well as alcoholism and drug abuse.

“We’re in a culture where there’s any number of means of self-destruction available. And for some of us, we pick all. We don’t really dedicate ourselves fully to one,” she told me.

With her addictive personality and underlying brain chemistry, Marya, at one time, chose anything extreme for that dopamine rush—no matter how negative. Surprisingly, she said that struggling with so many destructive behaviors made “recovery, as a whole, easier.”

“I know that probably sounds pretty bizarre,” she admitted. But she explained that being able to work on her entire psychological and physiological state actually made the recovery process smoother.

Marya's second memoir, another New York Times bestseller!
Marya’s second memoir, another New York Times bestseller!

Regardless of how many problems you may struggle with, Marya encourages you—whether you like it or not—to first cut out the destructive behaviors. (Yes, that means all of them.) The first step in recovery is to physiologically restore.

With eating disorder recovery, she said, “You re-feed, you get yourself nourished again and …suddenly your brain starts to work a lot clearer.”

In regard to alcoholism, Marya told me, “You take away my scotch and I’m like, oh no, I want it back…But gradually, the longer it’s out of my system, I start realizing the cost benefit, the tradeoff basically, with so many more benefits in health…”

When it comes to bipolar disorder and depression, she made clear, “restoring health means taking your medication.” While some complain that they can’t function as well and are less creative on medication, Marya shares exactly the opposite. With the appropriate medicine, she works better and is more creative.

“All the meds do is help you maintain that equilibrium. Doesn’t make you less you,” she added.

Only when those of us who battle mental illness restore our physical health can we realistically answer that inevitable question, “Do I really want to destroy my life and everything in it?”

Marya ultimately answered this question, one that she brought up in our conversation, with a resounding no. But, the beginning of her recovery wasn’t quite so resounding. It was more like a hesitant leap of faith.

I asked Marya how others could follow her lead, take that leap of faith, and let go. Importantly, she said, “Embracing letting go is not the first step. Letting go is the first step.”

She clarified, “I think there’s a certain level to which we have to give ourselves time to emotionally acclimate to the decision to recover. Most of us don’t go galloping into recovery gleefully.”

But ultimately, and I know this from my personal experience with an eating disorder, we must start galloping—gleefully or not. We save ourselves by taking action. Letting go doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting for recovery to find you. In Madness: A Bipolar Life, Marya wrote:

There is a self-perpetuating belief that one simply cannot help it, and this is very dangerous. It becomes an identity in and of itself. It becomes its own religion, and you wait for salvation, and you wait, and wait, and wait, and do not save yourself.

SaneCoverFINWe must stop waiting. Marya’s work is all about empowering people to be pro-active. As eluded to above and as she wrote about in Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the Twelve Steps, a large part of being proactive, for her, has been practicing the Twelve Steps as a program of recovery.

Although she hasn’t written specifically about applying the Twelve Steps to eating disorder recovery in any of her books, Marya has incorporated twelve-step work into this aspect of her healing journey as well. (I had to ask!) In fact, she credits her full recovery from an eating disorder to this kind of ongoing spiritual growth.

If you have trouble with the concept of God or a higher power and have even used this as a reason not to go to twelve-step meetings, Marya has written a book just for you. It’s another powerful one called Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. Don’t let the title fool you. This book has nothing to do with sitting back idly .

Waiting_coverFINTo get better, we must step away from all of the excuses for why we can’t and start moving toward the reasons we can. Marya says that we must devise our own recoveries. This might include the help of professionals, friends, family members, and, yes, medication. Marya points out that someone with diabetes wouldn’t try to survive without insulin. With this post, I encourage you to take your “insulin”—whatever that might be. What do you need to do right now to choose recovery? What does letting go look like for you today?


This post is one in a Life Without Ed Birthday Blog Series celebrating both recovery and the Tenth Anniversary Edition of the book, which was released recently along with the audiobook

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  • Cindy Marie

    I do take meds for my eating disorder, they also help with my self injurying behaviour and ADHD. I’m hoping to come off of them soon since my new seizure meds will do the samething. My social put it too me like this, she has to take vitamins every day so she can function at her best I need these meds so I can function at my best

    • Thanks so much for sharing. I have a hunch that your words here will help inspire others to take their prescribed medication. During my eating disorder recovery, I, too, needed medicine. With the meds, I was in a much better position to fight Ed. Keep up your hard work in recovery!

  • I resisted taking medication for a long time because I thought I should be able to “do it on my own,” or that meds would change who I really am as a person. Turns out they actually HELP me to be who I really am. Anxiety, obsessive/compulsive behavior, eating disorder behavior — none of that is really me and the medication I take helps let the real me come out and overcome any struggles presented by those things 🙂

    • I love what you shared. Thank you. I was exactly the same way in the beginning of my eating disorder recovery. I told everyone, “I can do it on my own.” I was wrong. I needed medication; I needed professional help; I needed family and friends…and more. I certainly didn’t do it on my own. But, importantly, I did do it in the end. As you know, I believe that FULL recovery is possible!

  • Mae Huehls

    An excellent post! One thing to remember about “taking your meds” is that you have make sure you have the right meds for you. I’ve taken enough and studied enough (I’m a pharmacologist) of these drugs to know that not all of them work for every person. Some cause side effects; some just don’t work. But that isn’t an excuse to give up and not take your meds. If something isn’t working, then the next thing you need to do to stay devoted to recovery is to talk to your doctor about finding something that will work. Finding the right one can be life changing.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Mae. So, so, SO important! Staying open and honest with your whole treatment team are necessary in order to find the right meds—as well as to determine if meds are appropriate in the first place. Finding the right medication can be a frustrating experience (requires lots of patience!), but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Like I said in my comment above, meds helped me to be stronger in my fight against Ed.

  • kate

    I am so happy to be reading this right now. Maryas book wasted was one I read over and over again in during many years of ED and bipolar struggles. Seeing and reading her articles about recovery and her other books is very inspiring, since I hadnt followed anything she did after wasted. And Jenni, as always, you are ever inspiring. Grateful to have this today since I was feeling a “shaky in my boots” recovery today. 🙂

    • Thanks for your kind words, Kate. I am very happy to hear that this post helped you. That’s exactly why I wrote it—to help people like you! Being honest about feeling “shaky in your recovery boots” is the first step to getting steady in recovery again. So, good for you for disclosing that! Stay strong. You CAN do it!

  • Kayla Gessner

    I take medication for anxiety and depression, the root of the problem being my eating disorder. They both give me anxiety about gaining weight so I have stopped taking them. I’m nervous about being off of them,for old habits and thoughts are sneaking back. I don’t know what to do.

    • You are very brave, Kayla, for being honest and reaching out for help. I’d recommend that you get in touch with your doctor asap. Discuss how you feel with your therapist and dietitian as well … your whole treatment team (whoever that may be). Begin to let go and trust what they say. I, too, battled with the idea of gaining weight via a medicine during my Ed recovery. My doctor actually told me that he recommended a specific drug—that he really thought would help me—one that had a side effect of weight gain. At that point in my struggle, I was finally willing to do whatever it takes to get better. I added that med to my recovery, and I did gain weight from it. The weight gain felt far better than how I’d felt inside without the med. Don’t get me wrong: gaining the weight was very hard. But it was VERY worth it. You can do this. Don’t quit!

  • Taylor

    Excellent post! I love the message. Sometimes meds can help get you in a better place to fight off an eating disorder (or something else) so I now see the importance of taking them. I also love that you address the fact that most people believe meds will change who they are but that is not necessarily the case. Thank you for posting this article.

    • Thanks, Taylor! Yes, I used to believe that meds would change who I was as a person. But, in reality, medication helped me to find my true self!

  • Devyn Kerr

    I have been on meds for several years and I think they do help. I also think there is a very fine line on being on just enough meds and on too many. When I was in recovery from my ED and thankfully I can say I am recovered now that I think meds helped make the journey a lot simpler. It helped manage my mood more so I could focus on other aspects that that my treatment team wanted me too. I recently went off almost all of mine with the care of my doctor due to the fact that I am no longer an adolescent, my brain is almost done changing at 23 and that I have been stable for the past 5 years. I have done really well and am now able to move on with life. I believe most people do best with a combination of therapy and meds. Meds do not fix the problem. They are an aid, a guide just like a therapist. The real work comes from you. I recommend that with any one that is on meds that you reassess them with your doctor or treatment team somewhat regularly regardless of how well you are doing because you may not need to be on them, same one or same dosages forever.

    • Hey Devyn – This is SUCH a key point! I’m glad you made it. I had a similar experience as you did. After I had fully recovered from my eating disorder, I went to a new psychiatrist (my original doctor had retired). She said, “Do you know why you are on all of these meds?” I told her that the meds were for my past eating disorder. Based on our conversation, she believed that I could possibly get off some of the meds– or all of them. And she was right! Slowly (very slowly), we tapered my dosages. I was able to get off all of the medications. Important to note, some do need to stay on medicine for life and should never try to taper off (especially without the help of a doctor). This is where open communication with a trusted and expert doctor is so critical. Thanks again for sharing here.

  • Kimberley Gogoi

    I take a variety of medications to help. I have Borderline Personality Disorder and take a couple medications to help with the mood instability which causes me to want to self harm. I also struggle with severe anxiety and from time to time pretty bad depression. If I hadn’t started taking medication to deal with my emotional instability I would not have been able to recover from my eating disorder. My eating disorder was there to help me manage my out of control emotions and self destructive thoughts. Now that things are being managed by my medications I am doing pretty well. I likely will be on medication for awhile longer, if not on at least one for the rest of my life, but I am more than happy to pop some pills than go back to feeling out of control. I see medication for the mind no different than medication for treating heart conditions or other medical conditions.

    • Hi Kimberly – I really love how you said: “I see medication for the mind no different than medication for treating heart conditions or other medical conditions.” With people like you sharing things like that, I think that more and more will begin to understand that what you said is absolutely true. Thanks for posting here about your inspirational journey–you’ve conquered a lot!

  • Sadie Katherine

    I took medication for my ed, depression, anxiety, etc for four years and have only now just gotten off of it. Being on medication helped me for several years, they kept my brain functioning more normally as I worked through the underlying issues and learned how to take care of myself (which included taking medication).

    • Thanks, Sadie, for sharing. I had a very similar experience as you with medication. BTW: It sounds like you have been working really hard. Keep it up! (I know that working on those underlying issues can be super tough.)

  • Samantha

    I am grateful for this post for an array of reasons. The formost being, my ongoing battle with chronic depression, anxiety, OCD and recovery from an eating disoreder. For easily over a decade I have taken Zoloft (among various other meds) and go through phases of frustration where I feel I just don’t “need it” when I darn well know that I do. Rationally, I know the pitfalls and crashes of going off of it, and it always leads to self-destructive behaviors. It’s a viscious cycle where I know I will be back on it again, after the hard and unnecessary crash. Just recently, I did it to myself again, knowing the negative repercussions. Needless to say, the outcome was the same. A downward spiral and 2 months worth of digging myself out of a dark hole which I ultimately put myself into…again. But, with the support of my doctors, and the using the same anaology as mentioned in the article, I kept reminding myself that a diabetic wouldn’t deny themselves insulin in able to survive and function; I have to continue to remind myself daily (and likely for the rest of my life) that in order to function effectively both in my life and in my career, as well as, be happy, I MUST take my Zoloft religiously. It is what it is… and if that’s the “worst thing” that should happen in my life then I am truly blessed. Thank you for the article. Yet, another daily reminder of the importance of taking one’s prescribed medication for mental illness and maintaining such a routine. It’s a way of living for some of us and that is NOT a bad thing! Thanks again!

    • Samantha, your story is powerful. Thanks for being so open and honest in sharing. I am very happy to know that you pulled yourself up after the recent fall. And I love your positive attitude (“and if that’s the ‘worst thing’ that should happen in my life, then I am truly blessed”). That rocks.

  • Naomi

    Hi Jenni,
    While I found some of the concepts in your books helpful, I wonder why you almost completely deny that your parents had anything to do with you developing an eating disorder? You commented once somewhere that your Dad told your husband that you were “weird” when he asked premission to marry you. You seemed to make an excuse for your Father instead of really looking at how a comment like this (and others maybe growing up) could have lead to low self worth and development of an eating disorder.

    • Thanks for bringing up such an important conversation.

      Like I said in my second book, “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me,” my parents didn’t cause my eating disorder. But they did do everything in their power to help me get better. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that my parents are perfect. No parent is perfect! But, I can say that I am blessed to have two parents who love me deeply and who always try their absolute best. In “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me,” I also wrote about how my parents wished they would have done some things differently.

      My colleague, Laura Collins, who is an amazing parent advocate, has actually written a blog post on this topic that you might want to check out:

      Laura has also told me, “There isn’t any evidence that parents can cause mental illness even if they tried, so any sort of finger pointing is incorrect in my view. But of course we can and must hold parents responsible for what they actually DO, and if it is not recovery-enhancing then it is a problem — it doesn’t need to be causal!”

      To clarify the “weird” comment that you mentioned: in my family, being “weird” is actually a term of endearment…meaning unique, special, and creative. It is kind of like my hometown’s motto: “Keep Austin Weird.” So, my dad meant only good things in that comment. I actually coined the term “weird” to describe myself as a kid. I love being “weird.” I am glad that you brought this to my attention, as I obviously need to make this point more clear in my speaking engagements.

      • Naomi

        Hi Jenni,
        I am familiar with Laura Collins. I don’t agree with her champaign and believe she is doing more harm than good. A lot of what she has proposed as “family based treatment” is way off what actual “family based treatment” involves. Children who can recover using the structure of their parents at home, still need to see a therapist to address the underlying issues of family dysfunction that brought about the development of an eating disorder. Ms. Collins lies about this aspect of treatment. In addition, just because someone isn’t using ED as a symtpom anymore, doesn’t mean that they haven’t “symtpom swaped” and used codependency or other ways of coping like alcohol and then simply labled themselves an “alcoholic” (never looking at the underlying causes, i.e. family upbringing). Laura Collins also lies about the years of valid evidence based research that does point to family disfunction. She calls it “out-dated” research, but she also ignores the current research coming out of places such as UCLA and the development of SPI thearpy.

  • Naomi

    Hi Jenni,
    I comment this here, because I believe Myra has done the same thing. It seems that she would rather view herself as the sick and “mentally ill” one, than really put responsibility on her parent’s emotional abuse (that she briefly commented on in her first book ‘wasted.’) Like there is an almost fame or identity in being so “mentally ill.”