By Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, F.E.A.S.T. Founder and Advisor
The conversation has haunted me for over a decade.
I don’t remember the location, or which conference it was, but I remember the dad’s face and his question: “Where are the recovered ones? The normal ones?”
I remember earnestly listing recovered people for him — a worried dad whose child was deeply ill, to reassure him that recovery was possible. It takes everything a parent has to fight an eating disorder, and without hope of recovery it is hard to keep the stamina and the focus. I wanted him to see recovery as possible, as doable, as realistic.
But he wasn’t asking me that: he was asking where the normal people who had recovered were. Everyone I was listing was a celebrity of some kind. Someone doing public speaking, an author, a famous person who had fallen and triumphed in recovery. They were all female, conventionally beautiful, thin, all in their 20s, and all made a full-time job of talking about eating disorder recovery. They are stories of harrowing lows, and miraculous recoveries, often with photos where the “after” photo could be a model.
This dad wanted his child back. Not to be a famous person and activist and warrior. He wanted his child to go back to algebra class, to summer camp, to get a job in the next town and bring his grandchildren over for the game on Sunday. He didn’t want a professional recovered person. He wanted HIS kid back, and HIS kid’s future: a normal life where eating disorders are not the most important thing that person has experienced. I remember the look on his face. I remember how surprised I was by the question.
In some ways, that question changed my advocacy ever since. From that day I no longer felt the same way about the media stories of recovery, which are still pretty much the same: enviable young women whose mission is to help others. I have never looked at recovery panels at conferences the same way. I am asked to review manuscripts all the time, and those stories, too, are often required to follow the same narrative and deliver the same message. An eating disorder as a path to triumph and their true self.
That dad needed to know if normal people recover too. Do future homeschooling moms, plumbers, boy scout leaders, ambulance drivers, pharmacy clerks, and inside sales agents recover too? Do recovered people have to be extraordinary, to have nearly died, and to look like a model? That dad was looking for role models that looked like the person his child might want to be.
Back then, I didn’t have those stories to tell him. Now, I do. Hundreds. I know many extraordinary and quite public recovered people who are open about their stories, but I also know that most recoveries lead not to podiums but to diplomas and trips abroad and baby pictures. I hear from recovered people and their families who I have known over 15 years and the stories are not necessarily of dire medical moments and instead of miracles I know that hard work and great treatment providers and outstanding parents and stellar siblings and friends were the reason. I hear from families bragging on their recovered person’s graduate school, teacher’s degree, juggling home and career, and raising their own kids. Normal people.
We all need to be grateful for the people who share their recovery stories in public and become advocates for others. They are needed, they are appreciated. They speak up for full recovery despite long odds, and they fight stigma and fear on all of our behalf. They are extraordinary advocates.
Yet let’s always remember that dad, who needed to know that recovery is for everyone, and that our role models are also the band kids and D&D players and the shy kids reading during recess. They are the young adults who have grown into all sizes and shapes, pursue all kinds of studies and work, and no one ever knew had an eating disorder.
Recovery doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of activism, and may not look like recovery at all: just normal life.