Why I Don't Like the Word ‘Recovery’ as Someone With an Eating Disorder

I have never liked the word “recovery.” It didn’t sit right in my mouth, sounded strange coming out and rendered images of empty stark white hallways with a thick layer of dust and grime everywhere. Recover, return to, regain, but what? Me? My health? Truth is, I’ve never gotten to the bottom of why the word disturbs me as much it does. One question only leads to 10 more behind it.

In a way, this never changed as I learned the word “recovery” would be associated with the battle of climbing out of the hole my eating disorder had put me in. Yes, I wanted rid of my eating disorder. I wanted the horrible, mind-numbing, life-destroying disease that had nearly taken my life gone, yes. Defining and titling that, however, hasn’t been as easy.

I read the definition: “Return to a normal state of health, mind or strength.” OK, sure, simple enough, right? Go back, back to normal. Wait, what’s normal? Where do I draw the line between what was “normal” and what was the “disorder?” When precisely did the disorder begin? Do I have a date? An onslaught of disordered actions? Was I disordered from birth?

Here lies one of the biggest problems with an eating disorder: There are many disordered habits that unfortunately fall within what is “normal” in today’s society. A fixation on fixing our bodies, changing, altering and morphing ourselves to fit the constantly shifting ideal is “normal.” Sure, some of my habits were clearly disordered and easily defined. Even when I acted upon them, I knew deep down what it meant. (Although, of course, I vehemently denied all of them for a long time.)

OK, so take “normal” out of the equation. I get it. I’m supposed to go back to who I was before the eating disorder took that girl away from me. I get stuck again. Who even was I then? Who was I before? Can I even remember?

Isn’t returning to where I was naive? It got me here in the first place. Why do I want to return to being who I was and return to living that life if it turned me to my disorder? The disorder held the allure it did for a reason. It protected me and it served me for a time. Hadn’t it?

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.

Recovery, by definition, sounded backward. Removal sounds more accurate. I wanted to move forward. I wanted more life, not the semblance of what I had while in my disorder. I wanted to move past it.

Recovery in practice is wholeheartedly different. Recovery in practice is everything but backward. Recovery is light, soft, messy and turbulent steps. Recovery in practice is actually just fully living, which I hadn’t done in years.

An eating disorder is just floating. Your disorder wraps you in a numb and cold embrace, picks you up off the ground and time just keeps moving unaware you’re being prodded and pushed along by the disorder. Floating isn’t living.

Recovery isn’t returning to who you were before the disorder. No one remains unaffected or unchanged by the disorder that once drove them. You are fundamentally changed. A brush with death does that.

“Recovery” by this dictionary definition sounds easy. Just return, trace your steps back with a big treasure map with an red “X marks the spot.” I was precisely here, “OK, made it. Done.” Recovery from an eating disorder is not easy. It’s not linear. There is no “X” to get to.

This definition of recovery takes me down a road of black and white thinking. In reality, my recovery from my disorder was all about embracing the grey, the grey of uncertainty, the grey of my depression, the grey of misty skies and the hazy, ambiguous recovery.

So what marks “recovery” done? At what point have you recovered? How do you know? Is it the absence of “disordered” habits? What about the grey ones? The ones that blend into normal or into today’s society? Are those deemed “normal” again after the more explicit behaviors are gone? If those were ever a part of your disorder, can they ever really be normal again?

Am I just asking all these questions in search of a clear answer, an end-point or a goal because I want a label? Or do I want the label removed? Swap the “anorexic/bulimic” label for “recovered.” OK, done. Yet, I am still defining myself by the illness.

Would it be more powerful to not define myself in terms of it at all? If I refuse to ever define myself by these labels, am I helping to dismiss and further stigmatize the illness? If I define myself as recovered or define myself as past it, what does that really mean anyways?

I have far more questions than answers when it comes to the topic of recovery, which used to terrify me. I lived for the solid, concrete answers I found in my disorder. However, whatever word you choose to signify the destruction of your eating disorder, go with it. Linguistics and logistics may seem to complicate the issue, but the truths are evident: Living in an eating disorder is hell and destroying it is worth it. Embrace it. Embrace whatever word or whatever meaning you need to destroy your demons. They no longer serve you.

In the end, battling my eating disorder has taught me to live the questions, not the answers.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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