By Andrea LaMarre, PhD
There are a lot of ideas circulating out in the ether around what makes someone “recovered.” You wouldn’t be hard pressed to find a list that delineates the “recovered” from the “stuck in the eating disorder.” We each hold ideas about what recovery looks like, and these ideas are often rooted in and re-circulate clinical ideas about recovery, tinged with a bit of the cultural zeitgeist.
We all want to see the people we love thriving. Especially when we’ve seen our loved ones go through hell, why wouldn’t we want to push for a version of recovery that ticks all of the boxes?
The problem with these boxes is that they shut out shades of individual experience and can sometimes make someone in recovery feel like they don’t belong in the “sick” category or the “well” one. This experience of in-betweenness can feel like floundering against a current of confusing messages about how to be healthy.
There have been times in my own recovery where I have questioned whether I am “doing it right.” Often, these moments have come when I’ve stumbled across a post that suggests there is a firm line between recovered and not recovered. They’ve come upon hearing a snide comment made about someone’s refusal of a doughnut at a gathering, or their engagement in exercise practices. I’ve turned down doughnuts… I exercise! What does this mean for my recovery? On the flip side, am I engaging in “health practices” “enough”? Should I be showing my recovery by posting green smoothies or before and after photos showing that my body fits the “toned ideal”? Is that smooth, toned, glossy vision “recovery”?
The stakes associated with these questions and the boundaries around “recovered” feel even higher when I consider that my positioning myself as recovered is (unfortunately) important to my being taken seriously as a researcher in this field.
But what are the stakes associated with not being able to be honest about the wrinkles of recovery? Based on my research, my involvement in advocacy communities, and my personal experiences, I would say that these stakes are a matter of life and death.
When recovery is equated to perfection – either implicitly or explicitly – it becomes impossible. It becomes a performance of meeting specific standards for healthy humanness in a world that associates health with morality and generates an ideal for health that is closed to anyone who does not fit idealized norms. Time and again, in research and advocacy spaces, I hear calls for representations of recovery that show recoveries in their full complexity and messiness. And yet, we continue to see only the versions of recovery we find socially palatable. These are usually the stories of young, thin, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied women. Women who have had their eating disorders taken seriously and been able to access treatment. Women whose recoveries are lauded because they have achieved the metrics of “success” that we use to gauge everyone’s worthiness.
It is important to note that these women are me. My own recovery story fits this narrative, particularly on the surface of it. And yet, I’ve still questioned whether I live up to the shiny, happy perfection that is emblematic of eating disorder recovery. I feel like people are watching and that any admission of struggle would call my thoughts and behaviours into question. People who have lived through eating disorders are often used to being watched.
It is also important to acknowledge that it is normal to want to watch out for signs of struggle in those we love who have been through an eating disorder. Supporters, too, are called into a state of hyper-vigilance as they work to support their loved ones through an eating disorder.
So where is the balance? How can supporters be aware of the ways in which people in recovery might feel watched and constrained by expectations for what recovery “should” be like while still wanting to make sure they don’t miss signs of struggle?
In my PhD research, I started to understand a piece of the puzzle, and where supporters might fit in. In speaking with people in recovery and their supporters, I began to see the critical role that supporters can play in making space for people in recovery to experience recoveries that are not perfect, but true to the complexity of their lives.
What does this look like in practice? I hesitate to be prescriptive, or to lump “what is helpful” into a single bucket – one of the key messages I hope to convey in this post is that every recovery looks slightly different; so too will each supportive relationship in recovery. Keeping in mind that I am not a clinical psychologist and that these recommendations in no way replace medical and psychological support, here are a few things that may be worth considering in scaffolding recoveries:
From my lived experience and from my research, trust and feeling trusted as a human being are key parts of feeling like one can be honest about the struggles of life and recovery. It may not always feel like you can or should trust your loved one to know what is best for them. They may not always be acting in their own best interest. However, there is a difference between laying down the law and working collaboratively with your loved one to figure out what might work for them to support them where they are. These kinds of conversations might be challenging and require you to check in with your own gut reactions. It can be helpful, if you have access, to enlist your own support in navigating these conversations.
If you are finding that your loved one’s recovery doesn’t look quite as you expected it might, it could be worth asking yourself: Where do my ideas about what recovery is come from? About health? About wellbeing? It may be that the yardsticks we are using to measure recovery do not resonate with your loved one. Further, we might question whether “admissions” of struggle represent recovery failures or relapse, or whether talking about struggle is actually a great sign that your loved one trusts you enough to share their challenges.
Think about the subtle messages we all communicate about recovery and worthiness in the world. In telling recovery stories, we are often keen to tell the story of the achievements we’ve reached. But do we need to get a PhD to make our story worth telling? Listen for the stories that don’t fit the stereotypical mold – they exist, and they can tell us a lot about the social factors that can shape recoveries.
Working to pluralize “recoveries” and to enable space for multiple versions of recoveries to co-exist can feel like an upward paddle—and supporters can play a key role in navigating the current.