What’s in a word? In the past few weeks, the ever-popular debate about “in recovery” vs. “recovered” has come up at a few talks I gave at conferences. It seems that those in the eating disorder world continue to debate these terms, which touches on a whole host of other questions: How do we define recovery? Do we ever tell patients they will always have to live with their ED, that they are “chronic”? Can people be fully recovered?
There are those professionals that define recovery according to the DSM-5, meaning that recovery is achieved when the individual no longer meets the criteria for Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa or Binge Eating Disorder. This means the person is no longer struggling with eating disorder behaviors, thoughts or body image, to the extent required by psychiatrists to meet full criteria for a formal diagnosis of an eating disorder.
Although I agree with the “no longer struggling” aspect of this viewpoint, I feel real recovery transcends this definition. I want every single woman and adolescent in our care to go on to live an abundant life, complete with ongoing personal, spiritual and emotional growth. At the point where a person’s life becomes not about fighting eating disorder urges, where her life is guided by her inner wisdom rather than eating disorder thoughts, rules, obsessions, she begins to live a life in full recovery. This is always beyond the point of engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Being recovered, a day at a time, means living with authenticity, according to your values (rather than the dictates of ED or our sick culture), and on a path of continual growth.
I believe the essence of a life in recovery is a person’s continual journey towards God’s objective for her life, which equals her full potential.
A healthy, rich life often includes regular connection with supportive and likeminded people (for example, through attendance at 12-step meetings, such as OA or EDA, through church groups, spiritual guides, mentors, etc.).
There are those who maintain that such interpersonal support should no longer be needed if the person is truly recovered. I disagree with that notion. I, like many recovered people, go to mutual support meetings, not to talk about struggles with food or eating disorder thoughts, but to have support in living my life along the spiritual principles found in the steps and traditions – personally, professionally, emotionally and spiritually. In doing so, I offer hope of full recovery and an abundant life to those who are still struggling, caught in the grips of the deadly illness, and unsure of the possibility of ever getting out. That’s where I was when I began my journey back to life—fairly certain I would die of my eating disorder. Although I lived in disbelief, I had some amount of intrigue about the people who were there at my first meetings who had recovered, and who kept telling me I could, too.
Do recovered alcoholics “have” to go to AA meetings? No, not at all. But many continue to attend because the message, interaction and environment remain an important component of their spiritual growth, a part of themselves they need to nourish in order to stay recovered. Do people have to go to church? No, but many people do because it feeds an important part of who they are—their spirit.
Those affiliated with the first edition of the Big Book of AA describe themselves as a group of 100 recovered alcoholics, despite the myth of many professionals and lay people alike that alcoholics or those with eating disorders (or trauma or depression), will always be sick. The words those in recovery or recovered use to describe themselves is not nearly as important to me as what it is that they mean by the words and what their living experience looks like. In the eating disorder field, it is not uncommon for professionals to take on certain aspects of the diseases we treat. The all or nothing, black or white, debate on recovered vs. recovery seems to me to fall nicely into that category. Sometimes we assume we know another person’s truth or experience based on our own. Sometimes we think we know the truth with a capital “T.” I know my truth. I am a recovered woman living my life a day at a time in recovery (aka that magical world called Recovery Land!).