A life lived without disordered eating beliefs and behaviors is an art that is practiced over the life course.
The idea that eating disorders are lifelong afflictions is not entirely new, but it has been circulating with increasing frequency. The more edfolks (eating disordered people) relapse, recover, and relapse again, the more the conversation is spurred in the direction that eating disorders are “uncurable.”
A lot of recovering and recovered edfolks will disagree with me, but I am personally of the camp that says that indeed, eating disorders do not go away. I think of them more as a volume dial which can be turned down low enough so that we don’t hear the sound, but that can also be turned back up with relative ease.
This comes from my experience of recovery-relapse cycling that is common for the majority of people with eating disorders. This is not to say that relapse, for me or for others, is a guarantee. Maybe I’ll recover and never again relapse in my life. I simply wouldn’t ever go so far as to say, at any given moment, that I am “recovered. Fin.” They say that art can never really be “completed,” and in that way, neither can recovery from eating disorders. A life lived without disordered eating beliefs and behaviors is an art that is practiced over the life course.
I’ve done some research to see how a clinician might define recovery from an eating disorder. What I’ve discovered is that there are a dearth of well-delineated guidelines. Check out, for example, NEDA’s guidelines for recovery:
The components are vague, including that recovery involves “empowerment” and “hope.” While this is true in my opinion, it doesn’t make the job of defining recovery any easier.
As anyone who has experienced some form of formalized treatment might tell you, weight restoration (for reduced-weight disorders) and cessation of disordered behaviors (like purging or hiding food) is usually focused on. Mental processes and disordered thought patterns are also addressed in comprehensive treatment, but their improvement is seldom used as a formal marker for treatment completion. This makes sense– it is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately assess someone’s disordered thoughts, so it’s hardly useful to use the frequency of thoughts as a measurement of recovery. But, of course, the disordered thoughts that inform the disordered behaviors must be addressed to approach fuller recovery.
With regards to brevity, then, I’ll suggest this: it is impossible to define what constitutes “recovered” in a formal, external way. Recovered is a nonlinear, ill-understood concept. That’s why I can never really call myself recovered. Even though I’ve restored my weight from low-weight, even though at times I’ve managed the cease harmful behaviors, I am still recovering.
Coming to the end of this post, I feel it’s necessary for me to add a disclaimer. In bold.
Recovery is possible.
In my own opinion, while being “recovered” is an impossible goal, I think it’s crucial to strive for the process of recovery. Please don’t take from the rest of this post that it’s not possible to achieve symptom remission, or even the subsiding of disordered thoughts. There has been periods of months where I didn’t count calories ONCE. I never used a scale. I ate cake and carrots and felt wonderful. I was fully engaged in the work of recovery, even if not “recovered.” Life in recovery can be awesome.