Non-Linear Recovery / by Michelle Cowan

I used to think people with eating disorders inhabited one of three spaces: in the disease, in recovery, and recovered. I thought people cycled through those phases, perhaps returning to one place or another along the way. Many times in support, 12-step, or therapy groups, a member will say, “I’ve been there before,” or, “I’m back in that place again,” or, “I’m afraid of going back to that place.” According to that view, I’ve been in recovery since 2004, and I was in the disease from 1998 until then. According to that view, I am climbing some sort of mountain or walking down a road of recovery, where I get ever farther away from where I started, and if I find myself in a place that seems like something I’ve seen before, I’ve somehow magically been transported to an earlier pit stop in my recovery. I’ve fallen backward.

I do not agree. For one thing, you could say I was in recovery for a brief period in 1999. You could say I was “in recovery” multiple times during that pre-2004 period. If someone looked at my life since 2004, he or she would certainly find times that could be classified as “in the disease” as well as times when I operated as a truly recovered person.

I am convinced that there are more than three places, and that those places are not linear. The terms “in the disease,” “in recovery,” and “recovered” are too convenient and simple to be altogether true. Sure, they describe very important eras within the life of someone with an eating disorder, but if I try to define my life in those terms, I feel pretty hopeless.

If I lived in this rigidly defined mindset, I would ask myself again and again, “Why am I in this place again? Why am I doing this? I thought I was past this.” I might devalue truly healthy moments, when I lived free of the ED, if I looked at my life since 2004 as exclusively one thing: in recovery. And I might exaggerate the darkness of all the days before 2004 if I consider saw it all as “in disease” time. It makes my progress seem like an unending struggle when, in fact, I had many lengthy periods of respite and many leaps in growth.

Every day in my life is a new one. It cannot be defined in terms of disease, recovery, and recovered. At any point, I might identify more with one of those terms, but the truth is that even when I am struggling with the disease and when I feel I am overeating or exercising too much, I am still healthier and more mature than I was during some times when I considered myself more “recovered.”

Yes, I want to eventually live in “recovered” full-time. I’m not there yet, but I certainly shouldn’t eliminate the possibility that I have been somewhere that looks an awful lot like “recovered” before. And I shouldn’t eliminate the possibility that any time I feel “recovered,” thousands of other states exist simultaneously. I may be recovered, but am I really healthy? Or enlightened?

I remember time periods when I felt free of the disease. I remember what I was doing, how I felt, how I related. That girl may not have been using food to cope, but she dealt with anxiety simply by organizing it out of her life, not by feeling it. She didn’t let people in. Certainly, my life was less rocky and angst-filled with fewer people in it; it was also less rich. I didn’t eat nearly the variety of foods I now enjoy regularly without bingeing or freaking out. To “keep” recovery, I had to make my days all very similar and predictable. I don’t have to do that anymore. But I will admit that my eating is not as steadily “perfect” as it once was.

At the very least, I am more myself now than I have ever been. The term “authentic self” has evolved into more than meaningless therapeutic jargon for me. It is how I live my life. In this life, I pursue my dreams, something I never did before. As I enter into new territory with my job, with music, with relationships, and with myriad other endeavors, I see how strong I am.

But at the same time, all these new experiences pile more stressors on. I can slip into ED thoughts and behaviors almost without realizing it. Every week is different. I veer more toward the ED some weeks and less toward it other weeks. It could even vary day to day.

Do the times I struggle mean that I am back in the disease? Do they mean that I have taken a step backward in recovery? No. I will never go back to those places, and I will never lose the recovery I have. My behaviors may not be what I want them to be, but I handle those behaviors far differently than in the past. I deal with them in a way that allows me to slowly move past and away from them rather than shoving them away as I did in previous years of recovery.

Should “recovered” be my all-encompassing destination? I don’t think so. It is one goal—one goal among many others, a goal than enables other achievements and a goal that is possible to attain only by reaching other goals.

Recovery does not follow a clear-cut timeline or maturity model. A person rarely gets to the “next step” in recovery, never to visit characteristics of previous steps again. Every person’s trajectory is very different. I may think that I have gone “back to step one,” that the behaviors I’m doing now are exactly the same as they were three years ago. I may think, “I moved past this! Why am I struggling in the same way again?” But am I really struggling in the same way? No. I am in a different place in my life.

How do I know that? Well, I am able to forgive myself more easily. My eating, although sometimes not what I would want it to be, does not determine how I feel about myself throughout the day. I am not ignoring these eating slips either. I am actively investigating them and learning new things every day. I am relating to people differently. I am taking risks. My life IS different. I am not in the same place again. If I stay curious and keep going, I will move past this place, too. I do not need to be afraid.

Refusing to believe in a linear timeline for recovery removes my tendency to judge others. People recovering from eating disorders sometimes refer to people as “not as far along in recovery.” It’s easy to label people that way and to pretend that I have been where those “newer” people are and have moved past it. But actually, where they are is very different from any place I’ve ever been. They have their own lives, their own personalities, the particulars of their disorders. I have my own. I might be able to relate, but I cannot say that I have been “in that place.” I can learn from even the “newest” person in recovery. That person may have already learned things that I do not know. They may be in a period of greater struggle, but that does not mean they are any further back in recovery than I am. I struggle, too, but my struggles are different. I acknowledge personal milestones and never have to give them back after a slip.

“The only direction is forward.” I believe this. I’m not sure who first said it or even where I heard it the first time, but it holds true. When I start getting down on myself because I’m “doing the same old thing” again, I ask myself, “Am I really doing exactly the same thing?” Usually, I am handling things a bit differently. Often, my food behaviors seem more amplified simply because I am willing to take a magnifying glass to them in ways I could not in previous years. I am moving forward. I am learning new things. Although my eating may not be where I want it to be, any number of other wheels in my life are rolling forward and getting stronger. The strengths I’m building in other areas will help me gain more mature eating patterns as well.

Sometimes I wonder if this new view is just a way of granting myself license to do whatever I want with food. Maybe it is. And maybe that’s what I want. I want to allow myself anything. Like any child, I might abuse that privilege at first. But only by building my own structures within that permission do I learn to behave more maturely with food.

This goes for anything in life. We are always moving forward. We are never stagnant unless we stop being curious, reflective, and inquisitive about our lives. If we ignore our lives and what happens around us, yes, we may stunt our growth. But most of us do not totally ignore our lives. Even if we move slowly, we move forward. Once a person learns something, she owns that learning forever. It could potentially get buried under other thoughts, but it remains, ready to be unearthed by a circumstance or feeling.

You are always moving forward. I know I am. I may feel disappointed in myself at times, but I handle disappointment differently than I did in the past. It’s time to appreciate where I am and actively grow from there. Every place in recovery is new.