In a recent article, the question is raised as to whether those suffering from eating disorders can ever fully recover. It’s a controversial subject because, among doctors, there is little agreement about how to define “recovery.” Does it mean being functional in daily life, physically healthy, emotionally healthy, or all three?
I understand the medical and scientific need to define terms, but each individual’s experience is so unique that recovery may look quite different from one person to the next. And the suggestion that, until or unless full recovery can be empirically measured, it may not be possible, is representative of a larger philosophical flaw plaguing Western medicine and, indeed, much of Western thought: if you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
But the article suggests that full recovery may be impossible for another reason. As the article says, “many with anorexia prefer to view recovery as many alcoholics do – the disease may be in remission, but the potential for relapse always lurks in the background.” I think that’s certainly true. If being controlling with the way you eat is a habit you turn to when you’re feeling stressed, or is something that has informed your approach to daily life for a long time, then of course, relapse is always possible. But that doesn’t mean recovery isn’t possible. Or that if you relapse, you were never truly recovered. The article suggests that, though doctors don’t have a firm definition of recovery yet, they seem to see at as an all or nothing thing. But this is a misguided way of thinking.
With alcoholics, smokers, and people with eating disorders, there’s the temptation for outsiders to think that, because it’s something “they caused themselves,” it’s something they can overcome with enough willpower. But that’s not what I’m suggesting here. Addiction – and eating disorders are addictions to ways of thinking and behaving – are powerful, and you can’t just power your way through them. And if you don’t overcome them, it doesn’t mean you lack determination or dedication. But to suggest that recovery is impossible because relapse is possible, in my mind, puts forth an unrealistic vision of recovery that totally lacks compassion. The future is always uncertain. Yes, someone who has suffered from an addition or an eating disorder may relapse. Yes, it may be an issue they have to be aware and mindful of for the rest of their lives. But that doesn’t mean they can’t recover. And to say that, because they will always have work to do so, they can never claim to be “recovered” minimizes the real internal work they’ve done to overcome their struggles. And believing that recovery is impossible, that once you’re addicted you’re doomed for life, is incredibly discouraging.
As someone who has had issues with my relationship to food, I believe that, after having an eating disorder, it is something that always “lurks in the background.” An eating disorder is something that will always inform your life. And the possibility of relapse is always there. To expect someone who has experienced an addiction or an eating disorder to get to the point where they say, “it will never happen again,” is unrealistic and shows a lack of empathy and compassion. But recovery shouldn’t be seen as wiping away the past, or putting your issues behind you, never to feel their presence again. I believe it’s possible to truly change your relationship to food. I think – or hope – that’s something I’ve been able to do after years of self-reflection. And I think it’s possible to grow from challenging experiences; to live a physically and emotionally healthy life after an eating disorder. And that’s my definition of recovery.