I’m thinking about claiming the term “recovered.” For myself.
Is a big fucking deal.
I have written before about why I resist the idea of “recovered” — in favor of “in recovery.” How I believe the recovered/ in recovery split creates unnecessary barriers between people with EDs. How I believe “recovered” is a goal and “recovery” is a process. Believe “recovered” is fail-able and recovery isn’t. Given a disease so defined by goals and failures, the failproof “process” has always made more sense to me. It’s always seemed like a better counter-attack.
It still does. For the most part. …I haven’t been reflecting on a change in semantics, following an abrupt change of heart, or because — as I near the 10-year mark — I suddenly feel safe, better, or cured. If anything, I’m considering the word “recovered” because it terrifies me, because it makes me feel markedly unsafe. I’m considering it for the same reasons I consider most changes: it is difficult, terrifying, challenging. It inspires a degree of fear that forces me to wonder if I still resist it in my best interest — or if I resist it because some part of me, some lizard lingering in the dark corners of my brain, still holds fast to shame and guilt and doubt.
Recap: By the time I left treatment — less than a year after being diagnosed — I was already legitimately traumatized by my experience of illness. (For “experience of illness” substitute living with the constant message that I had no right to exist. Believing wholeheartedly that I would die. Being told I would die by people who loved me. Simultaneously being told I was to blame for that. Terror and helplessness and the overwhelming loneliness of managing my illness myself. My impending death as something done, by me, to other people. Etc. Sidenote: What part of this, exactly, do we not expect to traumatize a person?)
When I left treatment, I’d abstained from disordered eating for nearly three months. Still, I waited, constantly, for that progress to disappear. I had regular nightmares, in which those around me mistook something innocuous, over which I had no control, for relapse I had chosen. (I would always try, desperately, to convince them otherwise– without success.) I believed that — even if I managed not to die from my ED — I was still going to die. Die young, die soon, die without having lived. I waited for the terminal diagnosis that would prove right all those people who had told me I wouldn’t make it. I waited for the complication that would negate my progress. I had been told — so many times — that I could not live if I kept doing what I was doing. When I finally stopped (restricting, purging, bingeing), I was terrified that it wouldn’t matter, that no matter what I did, I still could not — would not — live.
While I waited on relapse to happen, in spite of me — I maintained the constant vigilance of the trauma survivor, believing that constant red-alert kept me safe. I stayed away from discussions of EDs, from the panic of remembering and the certainty that if I remembered what it had been like to be that ill, I would (suddenly, automatically) be that ill again. “Recovered” in my mind was never a real possibility. It was only the delusion that would leave me vulnerable- would finally let in the relapse so long presumed inevitable. It would mean getting sick again, and I was convinced that if I “got sick again” — actively sick — it would be final. Fatal.
I believed the vigilance — the refusal to believe I was safe — kept me safe. It’s a lifelong battle; it’s always with you; you must not think you’re past it. I thought I held relapse at bay, primarily, because I treated it as a constant threat.
I am starting to wonder about this. I am starting to wonder if this is what my therapist back in the day might have called a banana in the ear. In an old Sesame Street sketch, a rather irritated Bert comes upon roommate Ernie who has — you guessed it — a banana in his ear. Asked what on earth he’s doing, Ernie explains that this practice keeps the alligators away. And when Bert explodes into a flabbergasted fit of disbelief, Ernie calmly replies, “Do you see any alligators?”
Do you see any relapse?
I believe at all times that relapse is likely. I believe this to keep myself from relapsing. I have yet to relapse, ten years in. How can this not be why?
Banana, meet ear.
I may resist the term “recovered” for all those decent, theoretical reasons I’ve mentioned in the past. But I also resist it because I believe trusting I’ll be ok puts me at risk. I believe staking that kind of faith in myself will be my undoing. I am afraid — deep-in-my-gut afraid — that I will lose my life if I believe in it that fully.
Meet trauma’s less-than-magical “magical thinking”: where the notion that you are free is terrifying. Where you firmly believe that saying it’s over will invite it to roar back up again.
Meet trauma and her sidekick: survivor’s guilt. The voice that plays its broken record inside my broken bits: Why you? Why you? Why you – and not them?
Meet the voices that say I can’t be recovered. I can’t be recovered because I can’t bear admitting that I’m no longer living that life, when so many people still are. I can’t be recovered because I can’t face the fact that I’m somehow ok, when people I love are not. I can’t hear you talk about the damage to your heart, the self-hatred you still carry, the weight you still battle, the calories that make you hang your head, the purges, the binges, the terror, the shame — I cannot hear you talk about these things, remember feeling them, and reply, “This is no longer my life.” I cannot be looked up to as what’s possible. I cannot bear having no idea how it happened, how I pulled this off. I cannot let go of the notion that my success is your failure, that health is a zero-sum equation in which my progress means your struggle, my life your death. I cannot look your pain in the eye and say, “I want better for you. I have found what that better is for me, and I am living it.”
I cannot — I have not been able to — let myself be worth that much.
I know, when I step back and hold tight to my rational brain, that the term I use for my experience cannot put it at risk. That, just as saying “recovered” will not suddenly take away the struggles I still have, it will not suddenly exacerbate those struggles. I know, when I kick the lizard to the curb, that I have gotten well for more reasons than I can name, and that I will still be able to deal with my life the way that I do, if I call that process something different. (If “recovered” triggers a new mess of pain to unravel, I’ll manage to unravel it.) I have those skills; I’ve used them to hike through quite a bit of deep dark muck. I will still have those skills, still be able to manage and survive my struggles, regardless of the language I use.
It still matters which words I choose.
It matters to me because I see my own hand held up, holding me back. I want to push past it, I want to challenge the notion that “in recovery from an eating disorder” is what I’m allowed, that I don’t deserve/ can’t have/ am not meant for a life free of this, entirely. I want to know that feeling guilty for what I have is not an expression of love for those who don’t yet have it — but rather, a failure to love myself as fully as I must. I want to take the banana out of my ear and realize there are still no alligators. I want to allow myself to want bigger and claim harder than I’ve allowed myself in ten years.
I have spent the past decade convincing myself that dying is not in the cards. Trying, every day, to believe I am not meant to die. But that is different from believing I’m meant to live. And so I’m trying to give myself “recovered.” Not because I don’t struggle, not because it’s quit being a process, not because I’m further than anyone else. But because I have to believe I deserve it all. The whole kit and kaboodle. The whole shibangabang. This whole wild and wonderful life.
In ten years, I have not managed to make sense of the losses. I know wholeheartedly that my friends who did not make it were not meant to die. But somehow, finally, I must find a way to let that coexist with this: My being here is not a fluke. It’s not a stroke of luck, a bizarre chance, a borderline mistake. The losses were not fated, but I am meant to be. I must believe, wholeheartedly, in that.
I must finally let it be worth that much – to have recovered myself.