Three Essential Steps to My Recovery: Rage. Reclamation. Relationship.
By Carmen Cool
When I think about my recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, I know that I’m incredibly privileged to have had access to treatment. I know that it’s not available to everyone, which is a disturbing and unacceptable truth that we must work to change. I’ve been recovered for 30 years, and when I think about naming the essential steps in my recovery, I know that the concept of recovery and how I think about it has changed for me over 30 years. As I reflect back, these are the 3 threads that feel the most essential.
Someone asked me once what the single most important factor was for me in recovering from my eating disorder. I thought about it and I really wanted to say something like: Compassion. Or love. Or kindness.
But that’s not what it was. It was anger. More specifically – it was outrage. For me, recovery began when I felt my spirit begin to uproar. The fury was necessary. I couldn’t move forward without it.
Anger is so valuable, it is such an immediate source of information and wisdom in the ways it lets us know what needs to stop. I remember sitting in a women’s studies class, learning about the patriarchal demands and prescriptions of how my body was supposed to be, and starting to get angry. When I think of how much energy gets poured into the project of perfecting our bodies instead of the project of fighting injustice or in service of the things that light us up, I feel angry. This is a rigged game, and I’m pissed.
To be angry is an act of self-definition/revolution. It pushes back on messages that tell us we can’t be angry. It’s where we feel our edges, and our boundaries. We feel what’s ok and what’s not.
Here’s the truth: I love a good fight. Outrage propelled me into activism, where I wasn’t just subject to forces acting on me. Activism showed me that I could act and take part in reshaping the culture and feel my own agency. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Activism has been deeply healing in the ways that it lets my actions become an extension of my heart.
I am enraged precisely because I love. Because WE – those in recovery, those trying to be ready for recovery, family members, clinicians – WE are needed and we are necessary and the world needs us whole.
Anger helped me stop locating the problem as inside of me and identify the problem that was out in the world that affected me. Eating disorders are a reasonable response to a disordered world. Recovery couldn’t happen for me without a social justice lens – until I could situate eating disorders in a bigger frame of social justice. Until I could uplift and affirm fatness, I could not recover. I needed to recover my own relationship with my body. Reclaiming and redefining moved into the foreground.
There are so many conversations that happen in this field – what is recovery? Is it possible to be recovered or will we always be in recovery? Is recovery an accurate concept or is the word remission more accurate? How do we define relapse? And most importantly, who gets to decide?
I’ve thought about the way I define recovery for myself, and it’s something I’ve grown into. The ways I think about it now are very different than it might have sounded with one year of treatment (“omg guess what? I just ate a whole PANCAKE!”), or ten years out of treatment (“pancakes are fine, but I still don’t love my hips”). But nearly 30 years later, I want a new conversation altogether. I’m interested in a more political and liberated take around changing the model of how recovery looks – and the language that’s used.
I no longer get the relief of satisfaction from the place of saying “this is what recovery is” and “this isn’t”. I know that clear delineations are easier sometimes than the existence of spectrums. But the food choices I make can be coming from any number of different places that are impossible to know from the outside.
Eating disorders come in many forms, and so does recovery. The pathways we take to heal and what healing looks like are unique for each of us. Recovery is something I get to define for myself. And I’m holding space for a model of recovery that looks like us being human. Not an out of reach ideal, framed by other people’s images of who I am to be and what I am to do.
In fact, I’m thinking less about “recovery” these days and more about “reclamation”.
Reclamation feels different to me than recovery. Reclamation encourages me to acknowledge that the mindset and tools that will help me live a happier life are already inside me – as opposed to them coming from outside myself. I’m reclaiming something, no matter how small. It’s about not being the eternal “patient”, seeking experts, reading books to tell me what I need – but privileging my relationship with my body and what I know I need to customize the journey.
Why do I redefine recovery for myself? Because if you look around, you’ll notice that somehow this stereotype has been created of the perfect recovery. We listen to podcasts, read articles, look for clues, and then we look like the perfect people on the recovery blogs and having the perfect life. Recovery is not some new bar that we measure ourselves up against. (Recovery is not some new destination at which you will never arrive.) I’m just not interested in new ways of self-policing and comparing. We can fall into the trap of “recovery” becoming a new norm – and it’s almost always a path that’s not wide enough.
As soon as recovery turns into a set of rules – it becomes a new should. “People in recovery should……” or Everyone in recovery ought to…” But I believe we need to look at “ought to’s” with suspicion.
A client recently shared with me that she looked in the mirror at herself the other day and thought, “Meh”. She wanted to talk about it because she wondered if that meant she wasn’t recovered all the way yet because she didn’t love her reflection in the mirror. It was a great example of what happens when we turn recovery into a new bar to reach or fall short of. Instead of talking with her about whether she was or wasn’t fully recovered, we talked about the ways she had imagined recovery needed to look one certain way, one that meant perfect self-love at all times. I asked her what happened after the “meh”. She told me that she just went on about her day.
I remember a time when I was eating lunch with some people that know how to push my buttons. I found it hard to stay with myself in their presence, and I got pretty activated. After lunch, I went across the street and up to the rooftop restaurant and ordered some chicken wings. Of course, I wasn’t hungry. I had just eaten lunch. Of course, it was completely emotional. Was it a binge? Maybe. I don’t really care what it’s called. What I noticed is what happened afterwards. I went on about my day. I didn’t continue to binge, and I didn’t skip the next meal and I didn’t hate myself or feel guilty. What I’ve come to understand is, recovery doesn’t mean that you never engage in a behavior ever again. Recovery is about what happens next.
Your own experience of what you need matters more than what eating disorder experts tell you that you need. No one gets to define what “healed” means to you. You get to decide what intuitive eating looks like for you. You get to decide if mindful eating looks like sitting alone with some music, or with a book, or with a television show. And sure, there are times when it’s hard to discern that, to know what voices to trust. But over time, if you’re cultivating a real relationship with yourself, you’ll figure out what works for you. Healing is not about going away and learning to be like everyone else. Not every recovery path is right for everyone. It’s not about never moving away from an attuned relationship with ourselves. In this healing journey, I am recapturing, repossessing, retrieving, and restoring my ability to let my own experience of what I need surface and take the lead. It’s not about never moving from some place of “recovered” – it’s about knowing how to come back – how to call ourselves home.
I’m someone who has quite a lot of social anxiety. I’m also an introvert. I thrive on solitude. But I am also a self-in-relation and I need to have myself reflected back to me. I feel my strengths, limits, and edges through my connections with other people. I need relationships to have conversations and come to be known.
We don’t heal in isolation. We heal in community. It’s very important to me to feel felt. I need to be in community in order to have that, and in order to connect the dots to something more than just my experience. When we hear each other’s stories, we’re no longer just reading our own diaries, but a history book.
Healing from an eating disorder goes against the cultural grain, and it’s hard to resist the cultural forces that pull us back into the mainstream without support.
We need to be at each other’s backs – protecting each other, pushing each other, challenging each other, and celebrating each other as we create new ways of being with ourselves. The Health At Every Size ® community was and is a vital place of belonging for me.
Being in connection with other people means that I have those who will hold up a mirror so that I can see myself. It is letting myself be accompanied, hearing a “me, too”, and being witnessed. One of my deepest longings is to be known in what I struggle with by those who also continue to see the rest of me. It means I have those who will hold me accountable as an act of love. Community means people that will show, share, uplift, call out, call forward, challenge, love, ruffle, smooth, play, cry, rage and laugh.
I need to be in the presence of people who help me to be human, honest, and real – who offer powerful conversations in service of me becoming more of who I already am. And I also need to be someone who offers that to other people. I need my community to be companions to my vulnerability, and to see what possibilities we can embody when we’re together. We need each other.
Living a life free from an eating disorder has meant honoring my rage, reclaiming my relationship with my body, and finding relationships that bring forward more of my true self.
About the Author:
Carmen is a psychotherapist, educator, speaker, and activist. She has been a weight-inclusive therapist for 19 years, helping people heal their relationships with food and their bodies. She’s also started and run a nonprofit, created youth programs, and speaks internationally on Health At Every Size ®, weight stigma, and eating disorder prevention. Her work is focused on dismantling diet culture, bridging activism and therapy, and supporting the next generation of body positive leaders. She is the past Board President of the Association for Size Diversity and Health, was named “Most Inspiring Individual” in Boulder, Colorado and was the recipient of the Excellence in Eating Disorder Advocacy Award in Washington, DC.
Love how you reframed recovery. It looks different on every Body.
Incredibly insightful and beautifully written. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom.
Julie Feldman MPH RD
I love this article. I have a question though. You talk about defining recovery for yourself, including defining what intuitive eating looks like for you. Can my definition of recovery specifically not include intuitive eating? It does not work for me. I spent over 10 years trying to make it work. I am in recovery from BED right now and planning meals the night before.
Thank you Carmen for this thoughtful article. I especially liked: “As soon as recovery turns into a set of rules – it becomes a new should. “People in recovery should……” as well as your account of your client who looked in the mirror and thought “Meh” and then went about her day. You have given me an invitation to look more deeply into the messages in my own book. I have been thinking of a 2nd edition, and your article is offering some places to focus on. I believe in synchronicity! Thanks again for your voice in this field.
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