I love this question largely because it is something I so strongly believe in and also because it is something that highly depends on how you define recovery.
I think one of the most critical pieces to actual recovery is learning what recovery means to you and trying to hold onto hope, even in the darkest hours. In my practice I have had some people define recovery as no longer engaging in behaviors, others who define it as weight restoration and still others who believe recovery means being free of all parts of their eating disorder.
To me recovery means your eating disorder is no longer a part of your life in any capacity, whether that’s the behaviors, thoughts or emotions. It means having a healthy, loving and supportive relationship with self and your body and no longer being consumed by the eating disorder’s abuse and control. It means filling your time with the things that make you happy and believing in your own strengths and abilities. It means having an authentic relationship with yourself – one where you know yourself and you act on your own behalf (vs. the eating disorder’s behalf).
Knowing what your own definition of recovery is will play a significant role in determining if and when you have fully recovered. As with anything, if you don’t know where you are going, you won’t know when you have arrived. So the first thing I would recommend is that you spend some time really thinking about what you want your own recovery to look like. Once you have that, start working towards it. Every single step makes a difference…Every. Single. Step. Even asking that question means you are further along then you once were. So know that even though some steps don’t feel significant, they are. Keep taking steps and trust, as hard as it may be, that your recovery can happen. I have experienced it, and I have had many clients of mine experience it and there was nothing different about your journey than ours. Additionally, try to hold onto hope that recovery can be yours. Even if you have been struggling for a long time, there is nobody and nothing that gets to determine if you get to be well. That choice is yours, so hold onto the hope within you (or find external people or things that give you hope if you can’t find it within yourself) and know that your recovery will happen if you keep working at it. Sometimes it will feel like you are pushing a square boulder up a hill, but then you will have moments where it will feel like things are falling together and moving smoothly. Keep going step by step and your version of recovery will be yours.
One final word: there are ways in which one’s focus on recovery is lifelong – not from their eating disorder per se, but rather from all the bumps we experience on life’s journey. If you recover from your eating disorder and then stop focusing on continuing to move yourself forward, or stop doing self care, you will stop being the best version of yourself that you can be. You may not relapse but you also won’t feel healthy, happy or secure within yourself. So in some ways, while the investment in self never stops, it becomes easier and much more rewarding.