Recently I was chatting with a friend about how differently we view food and decide what to eat. Now that I am much more aware of what "normal" eating is, I have also realized how strange current my eating habits might appear to some people. As we continued to discuss eating patterns, I joked and said, "Well, of course I view food differently than most, I have an eating disorder after all." This friend quickly jumped in and asked, "Don't you mean had an eating disorder?"
Here is where understanding the recovery process can be tricky for some people. Yes, I have been in recovery for over a year now, I physically appear to be healthy, and I do have my eating related symptoms under control for the most part. With that said, however, I still have a significant amount of work to do before I am completely free of those eating disordered thoughts. The mental aspect of eating disorders is something that is often overlooked. On the outside, I appear to be functioning in society and eating when I am supposed to, but that does not necessarily mean I've reached a point where I can say I once had an eating disorder.
So what exactly is the difference between being in recovery and being recovered?
In my perfect world, there would be a simple answer. There would be a switch that I could simply turn off and with that forever be free from eating disordered behaviors. Like most things in life, however, it just doesn't work that way.
The recovery spectrum varies greatly. At one end, a patient might still be binging and purging or restricting, but is making progress in other ways. While on the other end of the spectrum, a patient might be free of symptoms but is continually working on the mental aspects of recovery. Some patients can be free from symptoms for years, but still believe they are in recovery out of fear of reaching a fully recovered state.
Eating disorder recovery, as opposed to other forms of recovery (such as alcohol or drug abuse), is exceptionally difficult because rather than completely avoiding our "drug of choice," we must face it multiple times a day. Food is a necessity. Period. Living in a society that already has skewed views on food does not make the recovery process any easier, but that does not make it impossible either.
I think many people fail to understand the mental aspect involved in eating disorders. This is not anyone's fault and does not imply ignorance; it simply shows the complexity of eating disorder treatment. Even professionals have difficulty defining what exactly it means to have or had an eating disorder. It is important to understand the eating disorder mentality before attempting to define recovered. To make things worse, due to the individual nature of recovery, each patient might have a somewhat different view on what it means to fully recover.
To define the word "recovered" is sticky business. Quite a few people with eating disorders believe that it is impossible to fully recover and they will always be conscious of their weight and food choices. In my mind, on the other hand, I do believe there will come a time when my eating disorder is completely behind me. I am looking forward to the day when I no longer live in fear of relapsing and accept my natural weight. Food or the lack there of will no longer be used as a coping mechanism. Food and weight will have their proper place in my life rather than ruling it completely. I will no longer compromise my health or betray my soul to look a certain way or fit into a particular dress size.
One of my favorite quotes, from the book Gaining written by Aimee Liu, about the recovery process is how I like to look at my current place in recovery:
"I've changed the way I think about recovery. I no longer define it in relation to illness but as an ongoing process of restoration and discovery. I see now that I am continuously restoring the essential individual I was born to be while discovering my unfolding connection to the world around me... And there will be setbacks. Sometimes it will seem as if I'm making no progress but simply repeating myself, turning around and around the same old habits and ways of thinking. But as long as I can feel myself present, open and awake, I know I am gradually gaining."
At this point in time, to say I have or had an eating disorder is not as simple as it may seem. There is not a specific moment or day during recovery when that switch is made. Sure, I still have eating disordered thoughts; however, I can do a much better job controlling them now than I did a year or even a month ago. I cannot say I once had an eating disorder just yet, but I am doing the best I can while I still have my eating disorder to continue striving for freedom.