I used to have anorexia, but I’m better now.
I’ve heard that phrase countless times. In our therapeutic culture, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a past history of addiction or illness — as long as one claims to be working on it, or to have recovered.
Many young women with eating disorders feel genuine guilt for not having recovered swiftly enough from an eating disorder. A number of years ago, I remember a friend of mine confided in me her guilt: “It was bad enough when I was a freshman in high school. But that was four years ago, and I’m still struggling with this. I hate my body but I also feel like I’ve used up my allotted time to get help.”
What she and others like her end up with is a classic double bind. On the one hand, they’re still struggling to reach an unattainable ideal, coping often as well with the physical triggers that can drive and sustain bulimia or anorexia. On the other hand, they’re keenly aware of our societal longing for quick recovery narratives of the sort one sees on TV: girl hits puberty, girl develops eating disorder, girl gets help, girl gets better, all in the space of a one-hour program.
The winding road of recovery, replete with often multiple relapses, is much longer and more complex. And while recovery from any compulsion or disorder is rarely rapid, it is especially prolonged and enduring for those with eating disorders.
Many young women have an initial recovery after treatment, and then go “public” (at least to family and friends) about what they’ve been through. They then often get showered with love and attention and praise; parents are grateful that their daughters are “better now.” But so often, when a relationship goes south or the academic pressure builds, or sometimes just “because”, a young woman slips back into an old pattern. Except it’s worse, because now she gets to cope with the shame of relapse. Young women with eating disorders are usually people-pleasers; they’re keenly aware of how worried and disappointed others might be if their initial recovery isn’t sustained.
She feels as if she’s letting everyone down.
There is no simple solution to eating disorders. While an alcoholic can stay away from booze, a person with anorexia or bulimia must eat. And she must do so while bombarded with images and messages she can never entirely escape. Recovery is prolonged and difficult, and to some extent, will always be just a little bit incomplete. The goal is getting to a place where one feels a sense of peace most of the time — and accepts that the bad times may come again.
Healthy recovery means giving people the permission to say “I’m having a hard time… again” without fear of exasperating those around them who wanted a quick and permanent resolution. It means acknowledging that young women are forced to swim through a toxic soup of unhealthy messages, and that sometimes, they’re going to need someone to throw them a life-line. That’s hard for many with eating disorders to accept; so many are perfectionists who idealize self-sufficiency and fantasize about imperviousness to pain.
It’s a long road to recovery and health. And we need to remind ourselves and everyone else that with all addictions, but especially with those around food, relapse is part of that recovery.