Strong Words: Why I Don’t Call Myself “Recovered.”
Put plainly: I have an eating disorder, I have 8+ years’ recovery, and I hate the term “recovered.”
We’re always told hate’s a strong word, (and the implication — of course — is that “strong” words are not to be used), so let me clarify: I don’t begrudge anyone their preferred language. If people prefer calling themselves “anorexic” to saying they “have anorexia,” if they prefer the term “dietician” to the term “nutritionist”, and even if they revel in the term “recovered” — well, more power to those people. We each deserve to fully determine what language we use to create, interpret, and communicate our experiences. But for me personally, “recovered” (or “recoverED” — the popular offshoot specific to eating disorder communities) is not a preferred signifier.
This isn’t exactly an unproblematic preference on my part. People who do not take issue when I mention my preference for coffee over tea or for bright colors over pastels, often take issue with my sense that I’m “in recovery.” People who accept (by and large) that I identify as queer or as progressive, are often less comfortable when I self-identify as in recovery. And although — when I “come out” sexually or politically — I’m often respectfully asked to define the words I use, or to explain why I prefer them to other similar labels, I routinely run across people — even in recovery and advocacy communities — who presume to understand my terminology without my input.
Those assumptions about the language I use to describe recovery frustrate me because they include assumptions about my motivation, which usually have little to do with my reality. People might presume, for instance, that I resist the term recoverED because I continue to live with a daily fear of relapse. (In fact, although I actively work to remain in recovery, and have a superstitious paranoia about counting my chickens, I generally perceive my ongoing recovery as an inevitability. I unconsciously plan for “when I have nine years,” etc, and I think I’ve been debating “which tattoo to get when I have a decade” since around my seventh year.)
But — when I dismantle that particular presumption, assuring well-meaning listeners that I do not (most days)* sweat a hospitalization lying just around the corner — people often fall back on other inaccurate explanations of why I use the term. To be fair, these aren’t “inaccurate” explanations, as much as “inapplicable” ones. They rely, by and large, on meanings attributed to the “in recovery” phrasing by people who prefer to call themselves something else. Carolyn Costin, for instance, explains her preference from the term “recovered” this way:
The way I see it is that one is still recovering when they are working hard at keeping the symptoms at bay. These individuals identify themselves still with the illness, for example, “I am a recovering anorexic” or ” I am a recovering bulimic.” When one is “recovered” from an eating disorder it feels as though it were a thing in the past that is no longer there. One does not fear relapsing back into the illness because both the symptoms and the underlying issues are resolved. I am speaking here not only from my personal experience of having recovered but also from the experiences of countless patients I have treated who feel exactly the same way.
Costin serves as the Executive Director at the Eating Disorder Center of California, and has written extensively about EDs. I sincerely respect the way “recovered” serves, for her and the patients she invokes in this passage, as a reminder that an eating disorder does not have to be a life-sentence. Yet, her descriptions don’t apply to me. She limits the “in recovery” moniker to those primarily engaged in symptom management. I go months — and even years — at a time, without having to manage symptoms like restriction. I haven’t purged in nearly nine years. I even slip, on occasion, into past tense, telling people “I had an eating disorder,” although I view my recovery as ongoing. I fear I’ll relapse about as much as I fear I’ll be hit by a car crossing the street, and I do not define myself — even partially — by my eating disorder.
I do, however, define myself (in part) by my recovery… and therein lies the rub.
One of the first things I’d like to suggest, to those who disparage the “in recovery” terminology is that identifying by my recovery differs significantly from identifying as my disease, or as someone who has this disease. Identifying as “in recovery” links me to an eight-year history of challenging (and empowering) self-care. It connects me to a pattern of progress, as well as to relationships that sustained me (or continue to sustain me) throughout this process. And it integrates who I once was with the girl I’ve become, and the girl I’ll become in the future.
To a large extent, identifying as “recovered” could do all these same things. I could take equal pride — or perhaps even more pride — in having “fully” conquered this disease. I could remember, just as clearly, the steps I’ve taken and the strength that they’ve required. I could remain invested in the people who’ve helped me come as far as I have, and perhaps better honor them by being a no-holds-barred success story.
But “in recovery,” for me, represents still more than that. It signifies an ideological approach to this process — (y’know, life) — that I just will not relinquish — even eight years in. For a few reasons.
For starters, I read “recovered” as a goal, a status one can achieve. I recognize that this goal liberates some of us, by allowing us to believe in something amazing: the option of life without an ED. But for me, the frantic pursuit of goals, of untarnished successes, and badges that signify my perfection — (thus counteracting my [perceived] defectiveness) — have much more of a role in my disease than my recovery. Recovery, for me, is necessarily process-oriented. It’s an ongoing way of life that allows me to continually build on my past to create something new. “Recovered” has criteria. It comes with the built-in expectation that the struggle is past-tense — forever and equally over. For me, personally, that’s a risk-heavy recipe for future screw-ups, future shame. By being “in recovery,” I recommit — each day — to live the life I want, and I re-succeed at avoiding my disorder. Even on those (many) days, when the fact that I have this disorder doesn’t even cross my mind.
The other reason is less personal. Basically, because I view recoverED as a status-to-achieve, I also see it as creating a hierarchy within the recovery community. It divides us into those who have “recovered” and those who continue to struggle. Those who have not managed the past-tense often feel counterproductively pressured to “perform” the feat they see others claim. Or they feel shamed for not being able to do what others clearly can. In some ways, just articulating how long I’ve been symptom-free functions as a similar trigger. But I speak of these feelings — shame, pressure, etc — not only as one who triggers them in others. I speak of them, simultaneously, as someone who uncomfortably experiences these emotions every time I hear someone claim a “full recovery,” inherently diminishing my own — and those like it — as incomplete. I feel those same emotions, even eight years in, when I read that one word: recovered.
Ironically, I’m often years’ “further” into this process than those who use the term. Eight years is not a short time in recovery-land. Many would consider it plenty of time to adopt that past-tense descriptor. But “recovered,” — in my reading — ignores a crucial aspect of the ideology that has made my 8+ years possible: the sense that I am in constant, evolving relationships with my self, my recovery, and even — yes — my eating disorder. Those relationships constantly inform how I live. They raise new questions for me to unravel, so I can make more changes, pursue further growth. They allow my struggles context. I don’t have to fear that a day or two of poor body image means I’m “relapsing,” because I can unpack that experience within the context of my recovery. Poor body image (or any other symptom) is not a step backward, because my recovery model isn’t linear. It’s multi-dimensional. It’s an ongoing process of expansion. New challenges create new steps, which create new meaning… And they create new meanings in multiple directions at any given time.
It’s a model that makes things hard for mistakes, and easier for me. Cheesy as it sounds, I can constantly learn from the information my struggles provide, instead of shaming myself for still having them. I can identify a day’s bad body image or a difficult meal as a momentary difficulty in the context of a life that — most days — does not include these struggles. The “in recovery” model for me, provides proportion to occasional challenges. It creates a gray space where I do not have to be fully sick or fully well. I can just be. Fully.
After all those years thinking in black-and-white, that is some hard-earned gray space. So, if you could, don’t begrudge this girl her prepositional phrases, her present tense. I promise it’s the freedoms, not the drawbacks, that appeal.
*I mentioned the superstition, right?