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Navigating Eating Disorder Recovery While Visibly Trans

Lucas Knudsen

I’ve been in recovery for my eating disorder for eight, going on nine years now.

When I typed that sentence while brainstorming for this blog post, I first felt a sense of intense pride in myself and how far I’ve come from the scared, 18-year-old girl who entered treatment those many years ago to a confident transgender man.

I’ve relapsed here and there over the years, but always got back on the proverbial horse. My second emotion, however, was one less of pride and more of frustration. I’ve been in recovery for eight years, yet this past year or so had a few more slip-ups and returns to disordered eating habits than any period of time prior. Shouldn’t this be getting less difficult and not more difficult as time goes on? What was so different now than this time three years ago? 

In the past, one of the primary intersections between my eating disorder and my gender identity has been gender dysphoria, an intense discomfort or anxiety due to the perceived discrepancy between my internal self-identity and physical body. Learning how to cope with these dysphoric thoughts has been one of my biggest sources of strength in my recovery process, and I will forever advocate for incorporating the teaching these coping skills with transgender peoples battling against eating disorders. Though for all the coping skills I had, I was still struggling and it took me months to pin down one of the contributing factors.

As much as I am loathe to admit it, the climate surrounding politics these days has taken a toll on my mental health and with it, made it more difficult to continue in recovery. As pretty much any trans person will tell you, transphobic bills and rhetoric are nothing new in the political sphere or anywhere else. That being said, we’ve reached a new level lately with an increase in bills debating what bathrooms we can use and rescinding the few protections we had at school and work, and the all-time-high number of transgender individuals murdered so far in 2017 (mostly trans women of color). In this political moment, being visibly trans can feel more exhausting than in the past. 

Almost every day, it seems like we’re bombarded with a new law or article attacking our basic humanity for the crime of daring to live as a trans person.  Listening to folks debate whether or not you are allowed to participate in social institutions that most take for granted can be an incredibly dehumanizing experience and there can be a lot of anger and/or pain that comes with that. For better or for worse, one coping mechanism when dealing with these negative emotions is to return to patterns of disordered eating. More recently, acknowledging how these feelings (oftentimes on top of any gender-related dysphoria I may be feeling that day) may be contributing to an uptick in eating disorder behaviors has helped me continue along the road to recovery more smoothly. 

I also have rediscovered the importance of finding support systems that support your whole being (i.e. not just a trans person or an individual in recovery but a trans person in recovery). Find providers or therapists who can both validate your identity and also acknowledge how it may affect your coping mechanisms or recovery plan. The voice of disordered eating often wants to tell us that for some reason we are different, that even though everyone else deserves to be successful in recovery, we alone do not deserve to be healthy or stay healthy. That nasty little voice is only amplified when you have groups in power advocating that you don’t even deserve basic rights, let alone to successfully live in recovery from an eating disorder. 

Some days, it’s easier than others to quiet that voice down to a dull roar. For me, quieting that voice looks like scheduling intentional time in my week where I’m around people who I know will advocate for my community and volunteering with younger trans kiddos to provide them a stable space where they can be unapologetically trans without judgment. Having that support and space has been a been like reestablishing a backbone in my recovery plan, and even when I feel my commitment to recovery waiver I know my support system’s will not.

Above all else, I encourage my transgender and cisgender niblings alike to be gentle with yourselves. Give yourself space to work through everything that is happening in the world, and remember that recovery is not an all or nothing game. 

Luke Knudsen is a transgender activist in the Four Corners area dedicated to equality and acceptance for LGBTQ youth. He served as a co-chair of the Trevor Project Youth Advisory Council, advocating in his community for suicide prevention and mental health resources. He works with local groups to increase their outreach and services to youth in the Four Corners region and is working to increase support services to LGBTQ youth in underserved rural areas.