Can I recover completely from an eating disorder?

Today I stepped on the scale at my gym and saw a brand-new number. It was 17 pounds higher than the number I saw in September. It was higher than any number I've seen staring back at me.


The miracle is not that I gained weight. I gained weight for exactly the reasons you'd expect: I ate more calories than I expended. And I did that every day for five months. That’s not the miracle.


The miracle is what happened when I saw the number. Or rather, what didn't happen. When I saw the number, I didn't care.


I’ll say it again: I did not care.


If you have any kind of history with disordered eating - or if you've spent more than ten minutes on Instagram - you know this is a highly abnormal reaction.

Admittedly, after stepping off the scale, I stepped right back. But this wasn't in hopes of seeing a lower number. Rather, I wondered if the scale would tell me how many pounds of muscle I’d gained. I am a lot stronger now than I was then.


If your critical ears perked up at that, so did mine. I too sense that my interest in muscle means this wasn't an unequivocal victory against my eating disorder. After all: would I be as accepting of this new weight if I had no new muscle at all? If every pound were fat? What if it had all gone to my stomach? (Don’t get me wrong: some of it did.) It seems like the most honest recovery would be devoid of physical evaluation entirely. The scale - even a scale that measures muscle - should have nothing noteworthy to tell me.


There was a mirror above the scale. As I stared at myself, I notice that I still, well, notice. I body-check in much the same way I did ten years and twenty pounds ago. The same is true when I lie down in the tub or slip on a pair of leggings. How tight? How many rolls? Has it changed?


Clearly, my eating disorder is not ready to say goodbye. She's the ex who leaves stuff in my room or leaves things unsaid, only to create the excuse to see me again. She knows she's lost, and powerlessness doesn't look good on her.


I've spoken to many women who stalled out in partial recovery - some at 20%, some at 90%. Maybe she eats what she wants on Saturdays, but the remaining six days are "clean." Maybe she is willing to gain weight, but only if her clothes continue to fit. Maybe she has reintroduced some, but not all, of her "fear" foods. Maybe she has maintained a stable weight for years, but in times of stress still flirts with the idea of losing a few.


Most disordered eaters in recovery do not insist that they are fully recovered. In most cases, they have instead reached a point of recovery with which they are happy enough. Food and body obsession, though not expelled from their thoughts, is less central to their daily life. Work, family, and relationships take precedence over food for much - but not all - of the time.


Food is no longer their top priority - but neither is recovery.


I've often heard it said that complete recovery from an eating disorder is impossible. You will always have thoughts. You will sometimes have urges. In times of stress, you will still try to control food.


To be frank, this strikes me as a lower-quality recovery than what I've seen in AA. Four years in, I don't have the urge to drink. Four years in, my mind doesn't go to alcohol in times of stress.


Part of me wonders if the so-called "impossibility" of complete recovery from disordered eating creates a self-fulling prophesy. We don't expect to recover fully, and so we don't take actions that could have this result.


Yes, we listen to new podcasts, read new books. Yes, we curate our social media and write affirmations on our mirrors. And some of us did much more than this: some spent hundreds of days and thousands of dollars on intensive treatment.


But consider the lengths to which people go to recover from alcoholism.


To recover from alcoholism, I replaced my social environment, my spiritual life, the very way I structure my day. I did a serious number on my ego and gave up easy gratification and cheaply won self-confidence. And I did that every day, even when I didn't want to, for over four years. I was told by those in AA that anything I put before my recovery, I would lose. And I believed them.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never achieved nearly the same intensity, consistency, or faith in my effort to recover from disordered eating.


Until I've matched the efforts I undertook with alcoholism, I'm not in a position to conclude that complete recovery from disordered eating is actually impossible.For even the possibility of an equal outcome, I need to put in equal effort.


People often tell me that my perfectionism is my undoing. Knowing that something could be better prevents me from enjoying how it is now. If I entertain the thought that complete recovery from disordered eating is possible, perhaps I'll feel like a failure for achieving anything less. Perhaps I'll shame or blame myself for only partial success. Perhaps I won’t take pride in my smaller steps – for example, stepping on a scale and not freaking out - because there is so much left to be done. I still body check. I still see rolls.


The trick, I think, is to acknowledge both. Complete recovery from disordered eating is possible. And small steps - defined by consistency, intensity, and faith - are the only way we get there.


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