There is a straightforward story about my eating disorder that I sometimes tell: I was born into a culture obsessed with diets and inundated with the moralization of food and thinness, which landed me with an eating disorder that reached its peak during my college years.
More than a decade of my life, from my early teens to early 20s, was largely defined by my obsessive food and body rituals. I counted calories so closely that I eventually stopped needing to track them, running a list in my mind as I measured out tiny portions. I refused to visit friends in other cities, worried about when and how I would exercise. I starved myself most of the day and ate mindlessly at night, beat myself up for it, then started the cycle all over again the next day.
For years, my eating disorder gave me a sense of control, made me feel safe and strong. And then it started to eat away at my life.
Just before I graduated from college, I broke my right hip as a result of serious overexercising, undereating, and ignoring a progressing stress fracture as I trained for my second half marathon, only four weeks after having run my first. I cried in the emergency room when I asked the doctor when I would be able to exercise again and felt icy fear as I imagined my body ballooning while I recovered from surgery.
I got help only when I was in enough pain to really want it. About 18 months after I injured my hip, I finally sought treatment for my eating disorder. I had been in therapy for about 10 months when it became clear I could use additional, specific treatment for, as I called them at the time, my “food issues.” A year of dedicated group therapy and meal support finally helped me find a healthy baseline, and by the fall of 2019, I was drinking milk in my coffee and eating sandwiches with two pieces of bread, excited to try new restaurants without agonizing over the menu beforehand.
I spoke about this newfound freedom in late February of 2020 at a benefit dinner for my therapy group. The work I’d done there and the lessons they’d taught me had changed my life. I was, as I declared in bold past tense, recovered.
At the dinner, I saw my nutritionist and we hugged each other while I cried happy tears. But only a few months later, I saw her again, this time through the sheen of our computer screens, as I wept about the toll of the pandemic. I was anxious all the time and, to get through the day, I was leaning on behaviors I thought I’d left in the past. But now there was a new self-hating cherry on top: I had failed at “being recovered.”
With time and support, I found my way back to a healthier place. I saw quickly that I hadn’t gone back to square one, that I had retained many of my new beliefs and understandings about prioritizing my holistic wellness, despite the backslide to unhealthy behaviors. Shedding them was easier than it had been before, and I developed a new recovery routine suited for the new pandemic normal.
I didn’t understand it then, but I had not really “failed.” Instead, I was entering a new stage of my recovery. I was also about to expand my definition of that word.
In eating disorder spaces, some experts talk about recovery in the past tense. Many studies have aimed to clinically define what being “recovered” from an eating disorder really means, looking at a combination of physical, behavioral, and psychological indicators. (Notably, one study found that a group considered “fully recovered” had similar results to a control group, but elevated rates of anxiety disorders.)
Carolyn Costin, a pioneering eating disorder therapist, defined being recovered from an eating disorder as “when the person can accept his or her natural body size and shape and no longer has a self-destructive or unnatural relationship with food or exercise.”
“When you are recovered, food and weight take a proper perspective in your life and what you weigh is not more important than who you are,” Costin wrote in her 2011 book 8 Keys to Recovery From an Eating Disorder. “In fact, actual numbers are of little or no importance at all. When recovered, you will not compromise your health or betray your soul to look a certain way, wear a certain size, or reach a certain number on a scale.”
It was this definition I was thinking of when I declared myself “recovered.” But I am starting to add something new: thinking of my recovery in the present tense (an active thing I am always doing) rather than in the past tense (as a place to get to).
Describing recovery from an eating disorder is complicated. You can’t quit eating; you have to completely redefine your relationship with food. In the early days of my recovery, I often wished I were addicted to some drug or trying to give up drinking instead — something tangible and black and white. But I’ve started to see this as a simplistic wish, in part because last year, my younger sister Sophie got sober.
Our conversations in the months since she went into treatment have transformed my understanding of recovery. She has also struggled with disordered eating, and I FaceTimed her while writing this essay to ask her about my old wish: Is it simpler to give up substances than to deal with an eating disorder?
“Recovering from an eating disorder is hard because of the ambiguity of it,” she said. “If you get sober from substances, you have a sobriety date. I get sober from substances, and I'm not taking the substances anymore. With eating it's a wide range.”
Treating her substance abuse had an unexpected side effect, Sophie told me. In the 14 months since she got sober, her disordered eating has started to just simply fall away. Addressing the underlying issues brought up by her sobriety also inherently addressed the issues underlying her disordered eating.
But she still thinks a lot about food and her body. That, she said, is another overlap with her substance addiction. “You're predisposed to want control and to want to escape your reality,” she said. And dealing with that “doesn't have a date. That doesn't have any sort of timeline.”
I used to think of recovery as a peak I would reach, after which point I would never have to think about any of this food bullshit ever again. But I have started to feel more like recovery is a cyclical state, with seasons that mirror nature’s own. Two years into the pandemic, I’m riding the recovery loop again, this time with just enough experience to recognize this shifting form of my recovery for what it is: not a failing, but a deepening and a widening. I have a community of other people in recovery and the support of professionals to help me catch myself before I fall too far, and I now know that eating disorders aren’t creative — I can see the signs that I need help more clearly now. But strangely, I’ve begun to feel that giving up my idea of a perfect recovery has been the most helpful piece of all.
I explained to Sophie my metaphor of recovery as cyclical and seasonal. She proposed a different one, explaining that her life used to feel like big peaks and valleys. “What's talked about with recovery is that it's like this” — she drew a line across the screen, left to right, with smaller undulations — “I like this model, because you're still progressing, you're still moving forward.”
Inherent in the idea of a complete recovery is a complete relapse. But Sophie described a kind of endless, ever-present recovery that can hold a lapse (or lapses) within it. It’s a flexible sense of recovery that many substance abuse treatment experts say is, perhaps counterintuitively, very valuable.
“One of the first things I tell all my clients regardless of their presenting issue is that treatment isn’t all steps forward and I normalize and help them to expect taking steps backwards,” Michelle Callahan, a substance abuse treatment therapist in Pennsylvania, told me via email. “Talking about this from the beginning helps to immediately reframe and shift the thinking when they do take steps backwards.”
Not having that sense from the start can make people who relapse feel immense shame, and that their treatment and recovery was “for nothing,” Callahan said. She likes to draw a difference between lapses and relapses, too.
“This can instead be seen as a lapse or a hiccup rather than a relapse and having to start treatment over,” she wrote. “They can also feel like they are a failure, are bad, or weak, which are likely the core beliefs that pushed them into addiction or engaging in their problematic behaviors in the first place.”
The sense of completely starting over, Callahan said, can also be too overwhelming and turn people off from getting help or treatment.
The difference she draws between lapse and relapse is one Sophie said she often discusses in her sobriety community: Lapses (and even full-on relapses) can be seen not as a personal failing, but instead research that helps you understand yourself and addiction in a new light, in service of your ultimate healing.
Last December, I experienced an unexplainable bout of exhaustion that I assumed was the latest round of pandemic burnout. Two weeks later, in the emergency room just before Christmas, I learned it was actually a UTI that, left untreated, had progressed to a painful kidney infection. Two days later, the antibiotics I’d been put on gave me a yeast infection. Two days after that, I tested positive for COVID.
This cascading series of illnesses necessitated the longest break from exercise I’ve taken in my adult life — with the notable forced exception of cracking my hip in half. It brought to light the places in my recovery that I’ve merely band-aided over rather than truly dealt with. I had intrusive thoughts about food I thought I’d long grown out of, and long conversations with my partner about the line between healthy and compulsive exercise.
Recovery has taught me that not everything needs a perfect ending.
In some ways, my relationship with exercise has legitimately changed. Where I once counted calories so that I could work off my exact food intake on the spin bike, I exercise most days now because I love the feeling of moving my body.
Yet before I got sick with COVID, I had a series of small injuries — a torn muscle here, an aching knee there — and repeatedly pushed myself to continue exercising through them. I would rest for two days, then jog on day three despite the pain, telling myself it was because I loved the fresh air and taking a break from work. This was true, but it was also true that I wasn’t actually listening to my body.
Facing that fact meant also recognizing that I was exercising because I felt like I had to, which means I am not as “recovered” as I sometimes like to think I am. Deep down, I have never shed the worry that if I stop working out, I’ll never start again, and I’ll lose all control of my body. But, sick with a cocktail of infections and locked in my bedroom, I was forced to test my own catastrophic hypothesis. For nearly three weeks, I did nothing at all. I could feel the shadow of my eating disorder rising up, and found myself judging my food choices harshly and planning my intense return to exercise.
Eventually, slowly, I started to feel better, right during that precious time in late winter when you first start to notice the days actually getting longer.
With my exercise habits forcibly wiped from the board and my body not operating at maximum capacity, I had a chance to build a fresh relationship with exercise. I’ve tried to apply the principles of intuitive eating — a holistic way of eating driven by your body’s wants and needs taught as an antidote to diet culture in many eating disorder treatment spaces — to movement, and I’ve allowed myself to step back from daily cardio and lean more deeply into my yoga practice, just because it felt good. And I have, for the first time, actually been practicing yoga, taking it easier than I ever have since I first tried it a decade ago as a way of working out.
It’s complicated, because Sophie and I agreed that believing in that false idol of perfect recovery was important in the early stage. In the first, fragile months of treatment, when my eating disorder was strong and unchecked, allowing myself the right to an “imperfect” recovery could have been actually dangerous, giving my eating disorder excuses to continue to thrive — a pass for missing a meal or exercising to the point of injury. (Some substance use treatment professionals push back against normalizing relapses as part of recovery as well, for similar reasons.)
But as my healthy self got stronger and my relationship to my food and exercise began to transform, it became clear that giving myself more space to learn (and sometimes fail) was vital.
I called a friend and mentor of mine, Christie Dondero Bettwy, the executive director of the eating disorder treatment group Rock Recovery, where I was previously a patient. I described to her the new way I’ve been exploring my recovery and I could hear the smile in her voice as she said to me, “You're kind of just describing being human.”
Dondero Bettwy, herself many years into recovery from her eating disorder, said the shift for her came over time, as she cemented the feeling and knowledge that disordered behaviors wouldn’t serve her anymore. But recovery is even more than that.
“That’s where the clinical definition I think fails us,” she said. “It's not just the absence of something or the return of something. It's a whole identity shift, and it's much deeper, with value and meaning and all these other things that are really about being human.”
Concrete signifiers of recovery can be valuable, Dondero Bettwy said, especially for patients early in the process. But, she said, it ultimately has to go deeper.
“Clients get so pissed at me, when they're like, ‘What do you mean ‘recovered’? Like, give me an answer,’ and I'm like, ‘Girl, I don't know. It’s just kind of hard to say,’” Dondero Bettwy said with a laugh. “Which is totally fair, because it's frustrating. You're like, ‘Give me a step. Give me a number. Give me a thing.’”
This is part of the reason, Dondero Bettwy told me, that in Rock programs — as I remember well — they often say “freedom” rather than “recovery” or “recovered.” “Because it's not just being symptom free,” she said, “it's being truly free.”
I have felt a rush of that freedom in recent weeks, and I know it’s because I gave up on fighting both my body and my mind. I spent nearly two decades under the thumb of my eating disorder, and I’m now just three years into the process of recovery. Hating myself just doesn’t seem like the path to healing anymore.
I would love to say that I now know complete freedom, but that wouldn’t be true, and recovery has taught me that not everything needs a perfect ending. There are summery times when recovery truly feels like the ideal I long aspired to: long stretches where I eat and rest without judgment, sweat just because it feels good, luxuriate in the ease of it like I do in the late August sun. And there are wintery times, when recovery feels frozen and sharp and cold. But I’m starting to see that the cycle is vital and self-fulfilling, and that I can trust that winter will start to fade, replaced slowly by the hopeful warmth of spring.
Earlier this month, maybe for the last time, daylight saving sprung us one hour ahead, suddenly pushing the sunset past 7 p.m. and filling the early spring days with new light. It felt like a perfect synchronicity with my own recovery season, as I adjust to a more spacious, gentler place with my mind and my body.
I know this feeling won’t last forever. I know it will continue to bloom and eventually, for whatever reason, wilt. But this time, when it does, I’ll remember the decay makes fertile ground for planting new seeds. ●
If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.
This story is part of our Body Week series. To read more, click here.