Your definition of recovery can change as you move through the process. Mine definitely has. I said recently to someone that I think my initial definition of ‘recovered’ was quite ‘anorexic’ in that I thought I’d eat differently (more food, more variety, higher calorie foods) until I reached a healthy weight range and then go back to eating as I did before (rigid, limited, ‘healthy’ – frankly, not enough). I also agreed to stop running to comply with the advice of the ED service with the clear aim of returning straight back to my rigid, punishing running routine, at the earliest opportunity. I liked running like that. I enjoyed the feeling wearing my body out. Recently, my version of recovery has changed, mainly because I can now imagine eating more differently than I ever thought I would be able to. And I can imagine doing it indefinitely. Terrifying thought.
My therapist asked towards the end of day service, ‘would you like to be able to go out spontaneously for a meal, choose what you fancy from the menu and eat the full portion’. At the time, I said a definite no. That day, we’d gone out during day service to Wetherspoons (thanks for putting the calories on every bloody menu in the country, by the way). I’d been prevented from choosing the lowest calorie option and the food I ended up with terrified me. Firstly, the size. Secondly of the calorie content. Finally, the rules I have to avoid feeling contaminated did not like it. I had been in a panic anyway because the place we’d planned to go to was closed (I’d already scrutinised the menu and decided on a ‘safe’ meal, so my plans were thwarted). It was additionally difficult because the whole place smelled of alcohol and a man who reminded me of my dad had walked through the door ahead of us. At that point, I did not ever want to repeat the experience of a ‘spontaneous meal’. I still never want to go back to Wetherspoons.
However, I can now eat cheese. I never thought I’d eat cheese again and I definitely never thought I’d eat a normal portion of it. I drink full fat hot chocolate, not the low calorie, chemical versions. During day service, I ate pie, quiche, a roast dinner, pizza, fruit loaf, a variety of cereal bars (big deal for someone stuck on nakd bars since they came into existence) and I ate weetabix. I never thought I’d eat weetabix again (too ‘processed’), and being honest, I quite like it. I eat chocolate. I eat weetabix and chocolate on the same day. I eat pie and a veggie chilli in the same week. I still haven’t quite managed the Sunday roast properly, and I am still scared of pasta, and salt, and cream, but yes, one day soon I do want to be able to go out spontaneously with Dan or a friend, choose lunch and eat the fucking food without panic or self recrimination or being consumed by the sense that my body is expanding. I also want to be able to do that having eaten normally for the rest of the week and without running until I can barely breathe. Now, I want that. I think it’s ok to want that. I don’t want any foods to be off limits. I want to be able to eat what I want, when I want. I want to be able to eat without having to think it all through first. I can’t do it yet, but I want it. I can say that it sounds like a nice way – for me, not just others – to live. It might feel indulgent but it isn’t, it’s human. Life should be about more than food. Food should fit around life. I also recognise that I may always have times when this feels more difficult and weight loss may again in the future, feel like a reasonable solution. That’s the bit I can’t imagine ever changing, and that’s scary. I hope I can get to a place where I don’t act on those thoughts. And the trouble is that when you’re in a ‘weight loss’ mindset, it seems to make complete sense, and I can’t say I’ll never be in that headspace again. But at the moment I am much more in touch with what my eating disorder has cost me, what I’ve lost, and I don’t want to lose that awareness.
I’m sure that for some, that ‘recovered’ place does exist. If you get good help and enough of it early on in the development of your eating disorder, if you have one episode of anorexia and fairly quickly fully restore weight, with psychological support too, maybe you can untangle yourself to a point where the thoughts are so quiet and your life expands around them so much that it feels like the ‘eating disorder’ part isn’t the ‘you’ who exists now. I wonder whether perhaps ‘recovered’ in that sense doesn’t exist for those of us who have been in that ‘eating disorder mindset’ for lengthy amounts of time and where other things have become layered on top. And does it apply to those for whom a range of difficult experiences have played into the development of their eating disorder and recovery means facing that stuff? ‘Recovery’ is supposed to be about getting something back. But I don’t want some of the things I lived with before my eating disorder back. And with a warmer body and a clearer mind, I have a lot of feelings and memories back, and I don’t really want them, either. So yes, I am eating better, and that definitely brings a sense of freedom in many ways, and maybe I should be proud of that, but, I definitely do not always feel better. So in spite of my broader, less restrictive version of ‘recovery’ described above, maybe for some of us, recovery doesn’t have an end point where we never again have anxieties around food or never again feel uncomfortable in our skin.
I’m still committed to reaching a BMI of 20 – I want that more now than I did at the beginning, even if I remain terrified. And I’ve learned that recovery can be slow and halting and take longer than you think it will. But at the moment, I don’t know what psychological recovery looks like for me. What I do know is that it has to involve being connected within myself and within my relationships. And it has to involve less shame and more openness. And it has to involve feeling able to take up space in the world – literally and figuratively – and not constantly needing permission from others to do that. And kindness. And flexibility. I have never been comfortable with mess, but my new version of recovery is exactly that – messy.