We need more complex narratives about how people recover. The revelation version can be beautiful, but it is usually flawed, incomplete, and ignores real recovery.
Maybe you’ve seen the commercial. A sunlit room, a man or woman sitting in a rocking chair looking peaceful. They look out the window and say something along these lines: “Here was where I had my turning point. I looked at my (son, wife, hands, the sky, etc.) and realized that I can’t go on like this. That is the day, the very moment, I decided I was going to recover.”
Sometimes the commercials take on a different tone, but convey the same message. A woman in a dark place, poorly lit, bemoaning that her life had dropped to a despairing low, and that there was one concrete moment (in her office, in her kitchen, on the subway) when she realized, “I will not live like this any longer. Today I begin recovery.”
These commercials are usually for addiction recovery centers, with the message being that once you’ve made the decision to recovery, you can rely on such a center to aid you in your journey. More importantly, though, these commercials display the common trope that recovery often involves a critical and identifiable “turning point,” a moment of clarity, a cathartic moment of almost religious understanding. The Beginning.
So here’s my question: do people who recover from eating disorders also have a critical “turning point,” a “revelation,” that begins their recovery journey?
I often do see edfolks online mention that there was a specific moment when they decided to recover. For example, one girl once described that she was hospitalized for anorexia for a fourth time, and that she was lying in bed looking around the room when it dawned on her that she had no choice but to recover. From that point on, she describes, she pursued recovery and was able to leave the hospital for good. Clearly, it seems that points of revelation can happen for folks with eating disorders, much like folks who have other addictions.
So why does this question matter? The problem is, when there is a point of revelation, there is an implied catch: that the person who’s had their moment of pure catharsis is now on an upward trajectory in a permanent sense; that, after their one moment of revelation, they are forever on the pursuit of recovery, eventually achieving ‘remission.’ Most recovering EDfolks will immediately recognize the fallacy here. Recovering from an eating disorder is not linear. Even though there may seem to be a marked turning point, that doesn’t mean that recovery is guaranteed, consistent, or that the eating disorder won’t ever return in its full capacity. I know I’m talking about implication here, but it’s important: the meanings that sneak in along with the revelation narrative shape people’s beliefs about what recovery is, and what it should be.
Image located on Pinterest, unknown point of origin.
There’s an even bigger problem here. Telling the revelation story (in commercials, on popular ED blogs, or in movies about eating disorders) begins to reinforce the idea that in order for someone to begin recovery, there must be a point of revelation. This is troubling. Recovery does not always (and I would suggest rarely) begins with a finite point. It happens gradually out of a mixture of progress and failure. It happens with encouragement from friends and family (often), with personal struggle (always), and perhaps with prolonged consultation with professionals. Recovery begins out of starts and stops, trial and error, and this is an acceptable way to recover. Recovery isn’t only valid when it’s spurred by a point of revelation.
Disclaimer time: there’s nothing inherently wrong with a revelation story. They can be inspiring, and many people do experience such a turning point. The issue I’m discussing, then, comes because people don’t usually tell alternatives to the revelation perspective. Folks with messier starts to recovery don’t as often publicize their stories, and it doesn’t make as nice of a commercial as a concrete start to recovery. This limits the possibilities for how people understand their own recovery, and troublingly, for how to go about beginning recovery.
It’s probably necessary for me to share how I got to thinking this way. I had what I believed at the time to be a true “point of revelation,” and so for a while I wholeheartedly bought into the idea that recovery from an eating disorder had a single point of initiation. It’s simple, but felt massive:
- I was in New Hampshire, staying in a B&B with my parents. It was our annual summer vacation, and we’d decided to go away hiking in the mountains for two days.
- I was not at my lowest weight at this point but I was close to it. In fact, I’d just gained a pound or two and was distressed by this, so my efforts to fight food were renewed.
- The entire day spent with my family had been characteristically fraught with fighting over food. We’d had lunch and dinner together, and I had spat food into napkins, cut it into tiny portions, endured agonized glares from my family members. By the end of the day I was exhausted.
- I was also stressed at this point because I had been seeing my dietician for two months, lying to her about what I was eating and muddling up the weigh-ins by drinking gallons of water before each one. She’d threatened me that if I didn’t try harder, she’d cancel our future appointments. I was panicked and guilty and resistant.
- I was alone in a room in the B&B, lying in bed and hating myself wretchedly because I’d had five pieces of sushi for dinner instead of my allotted four. I was texting my then-boyfriend, now fiancé, telling the poor thing that I was suicidal and then avoiding his frantic calls. It was midnight. It was some version of hell, at the time.
- I got out of bed and took off my shirt to put on my pajamas. I looked in the mirror and there arrived my Point of Revelation. I realized this.
- I’m going to die one day, and I don’t want to spend another moment agonizing like this over being thin. I want to live.
That next morning I got up and ate a massive breakfast with minimal guilt. It was a true turning point, I believed.
But I soon discovered that despite my “miraculous” turning point, recovery was not so simple. I discovered that increasing my caloric intake to 800 calories daily wasn’t as big of an accomplishment as I first thought. I learned that gaining weight is painful when you’ve been starving. And, in the years following, I’ve had low points– so low as to count as full relapse, for many months at a time. I gained weight, I lost weight. My turning point wasn’t as magical as I had originally thought.
That’s why I’m questioning the notion of a turning point, or a miraculous revelation, to precipitate recovery. I thought I had one (it sure felt like it,) yet ever since then I’ve struggled deeply with eating and recurrent full-blown eating disorders. So what does it mean if a turning point “fails”?
We need more complex narratives about how people recover. The revelation version can be beautiful, but it is usually flawed, incomplete, and ignores real recovery. Of course, my opinion is biased by my experience, but I have a feeling that it’s a resonant tale for a lot of other recoverers who feel that their recovery isn’t accurately represented by the revelation stories we see in movies or commercials.
I’d be curious to see if anyone feels that they have truly had a full, complete recovery which was started by their revelation point. Someone who truly had a point of no return, where the eating disorder (or addiction, or another struggle) ceased to have power. Clearly there are different routes to recovery– does anyone have this seemingly magical, evasive experience to its fullest extent?