The Myth of Partial Recovery
Recovery. Full recovery. Partial recovery. Recovered. Recovering. There is a plethora of phrases that individuals use to describe their experiences of recovering from an eating disorder. There is no definite consensus about what “recovery” versus “recovered” means, even in the medical community (and yes I work in an inpatient treatment setting, so I have the inside scoop folks). Eating disorders are fundamentally different from other behavioral disorders in which people invoke the term recovery towards (such as addiction). Recovery is not black or white. Not even a little bit. It’s every shade of grey that exists on the color spectrum, which means it can be tricky to place yourself on the “recovery continuum” throughout your own journey. While I do not believe it is particularly helpful to get too caught up in the minutia of “Am I in recovery?” versus “Am I recovered yet?” there is one particular phenomenon that I do want to advocate with all my power against- the idea of partial recovery, and more specifically settling for partial recovery. It’s not uncommon for people aiming to recover from an eating disorder to reach a point in their process in which they decide, “This is as good as it is going to get.” I myself have experienced this thought during my recovery journey, and I hear the same thought voiced over and over from the warriors that I now work with. It gets me to thinking- in some sense, when we get comfortable with this thought, we are seeking the “best of both worlds.” That is, we may have challenged and successfully blocked some our most problematic behaviors and progressed from a dangerous place where life is compromised, but still be attempting to control our weight, or still have food rules. In this place, this half-world, we can hold down a job, sustain relationships, and even put up the façade of having a halfway decent relationship with food. And hey, in a diet-obsessed, thin-idealized culture, isn’t this good enough?
The problem is, this whole half-world is just that- a half world. It is an illusion. A smokescreen. It’s actually the worst of both worlds. Maybe your body is physically restored to your lowest safe weight. Or maybe the behaviors that invoked the loudest concern from family and friends are no longer occurring. But the fact is, your mind is still very much under siege. The eating disorder is still there, it is still taking up residence in the very depths up your soul. But it’s even more dangerous now. Why? Because it has become an even trickier, wilier bastard. It’s not screaming at you at all hours of the day and night, but it is there, whispering. It is not all consuming, but simply lurking. It tells you it is gone, leaving, on the way out, but its bags are not packed yet. Problematically, the chances are that you will be receiving less support during this time than when you were at your most severely ill.
So is partial recovery good enough?
No way José. Not if you want to get your life back. As Marya Hornbacher (author of Wasted, one of the first memoirs about eating disorders) put it, “That’s the common denominator among people I know who have recovered. They chose recovery, and they worked like hell for it, and they didn’t give up.” If your life is still ruled by diets, if your mind is still consumed with constant anxiety around food, you’re not recovered. Even if such and such BMI is reached. Because all of these are indications that your mind is still malnourished, and needs more time and effort in order to fully heal.
As I previously stated, eating disorders are wily. They will hang around and dawdle and drag their feet, and ultimately will sneak back in if the door is left ajar. And that is, in essence, what partial recovery is. It is never giving yourself the chance to be fully free. It is trying to swim to the river bank without letting go of the log that your are drifting on in the middle of the river. It is stopping short, just before the finish line. Just imagine, for a second, what lies beyond. It is hard, but not impossible. Keep pushing forward, don’t stop, and strive to live the life that you deserve!