On Full Recovery: Guest Post by Emma Zimmerman

Emma is a writer and activist currently based outside of Chicago. Through her writing, Emma explores topics of women in endurance sports and environmental justice. She is passionate about creating a healthier culture for female distance runners, a topic which she continues to write and speak about. Her work has been featured in Women’s Running, the Sacramento Press, and Girl Talk HQ. Originally from the East Coast, Emma is thrilled to return to New York to pursue an MFA in Nonfiction Writing this fall. You can follow her on Instagram @emma_zimmerman or at uprooteddiaries.com. 

An issue of Women’s Health magazine lay on my mother’s coffee table, its cover sporting the crop-topped image of an actress or model—I was not sure which.

“What it really took to get this fit,” read the fine print, strategically placed where the woman’s shirt met her skin. Those words, and the airbrushed body beside them, were all the ammunition I needed to feverishly flip through magazine pages.

I landed again on the woman from the cover. Newly-clad in spandex and boxing gloves, she stood beside a paragraph which outlined her daily routine: precise meals of brussels sprouts and grass-fed eggs, full-body training sessions, and absolutely no chocolate. That paragraph was all it took for me to toss aside my carefully curated armor—the Instagram pages of non-diet dietitians and body-positive poetry.

I had been through years of denial, what seemed like relapse, a band-aid of bi-weekly therapy, and what seemed like recovery, before finally graduating from eating disorder treatment nearly five months earlier. Still, with that paragraph, I could feel the denial of my college days creeping back in, begging me to mistake disorder for discipline. Look at what it took to get this fit, the woman seemed to whisper to me.

“When did you stop being that fit?” I asked myself. “How did you lose all of your discipline?” If I held that woman’s life up to a mirror, my disorder would reflect back at me. Yet, the name of the magazine made it remarkably easy to mistake a disordered narrative for women’s health. Perhaps more concerning, the magazine made it remarkably easy for my recovering mind to slip back to disordered thoughts.

Work in Recovery

Websites for treatment centers declare: full recovery is possible! Food Instagrammers deem themselves “recovered anorexics.” Still, their sepia-filtered pink smoothie bowls, topped with grain-free granola; spiralized zoodles; and precisely diced avocado quarters make me wonder whether those accounts demonstrate recovery or obsession—could this “healthy” food focus denote just another disorder? I don’t wish to imply that you can detect an eating disorder simply by looking at someone’s Instagram profile. I also don’t mean to discredit the individuals who find strength in the word recovered, as it empowers many survivors.

Rather, I wish to highlight that for a large number of individuals, full recovery might represent an unrealistic goal—making it difficult to appreciate progress, and causing frustration when disordered thoughts creep back in. Further, the word recovered makes it difficult for some to appreciate the constant work necessary for continued recovery. Those folks might think, if eating disorders are illnesses, shouldn’t there be some clear-cut remedy—a defined line between sick and recovered?

I saw it in the eyes of family members while sharing New York bagels, the smiles of my friends over brunch, and in my mother’s voice as she described her new diet. As I munched on a cupcake at my sister’s engagement party, I could see it sinking into the faces of her friends—in the form of knowing glances and quiet nods. I could almost hear them thinking, oh, she’s good now, as I peeled off the layer of cupcake liner and took a bite. Oh, she’s fine.

They did not know the battle that went through my head when deciding to eat that cupcake. They could not feel how sweaty my palms were. They could not hear my inner voice shifting its judgmental tone to one of self-doubt—am I any better than I was?

Because yes, I realize the voices are still there. But no, they are not ever as loud as they once were. And yes, I could carry on a conversation while eating that cupcake. In fact, I was fully immersed in the conversation; I could draw you a diorama of the life of the woman I was talking to—how she met her husband on a train, and the elementary school she taught at in Brooklyn.

And yes, the cupcake was good. So, so good. And the fact that something sugary could taste good was a realization I did not have for many years. And yes, I was all there in that moment. So, is that what recovered feels like?

Physical Injuries, Recovering Wounds

When I gashed my leg on the rim of a metal can, I got stitches. When I had an infection, I completed a round of antibiotics. When I had a headache, I swallowed an Aleve and a glass of water and went to bed.

Unfortunately, you can’t stitch up an eating disorder. You can’t throw pills and ointment at it, and you certainly can’t sleep it off. You can’t treat it like an injury either—letting it heal, then jumping into the same training regimen again.

An eating disorder is not a physical condition or an athletic injury, and it cannot be treated as such. Instead, with an eating disorder, the line between sick and recovered isn’t quite so clear. It’s fuzzy and bumpy, and sometimes weaves back and forth between the two sides as well. Still, one side of the line is always much brighter than the other—that side is called recovery. And even if that side is always called recovery, and never fully recovered, it is still a beautiful, luminous place to be.

Some people who have struggled with eating disorders use the word recovered to describe their current states. I truly hope that word is empowering to those individuals. Still, I have yet to meet someone who once struggled with an eating disorder and does not continue to struggle at times today. In that sense, most survivors are in recovery. Perhaps they always will be. Perhaps I always will be, too.

Grace and Self-Compassion

The prospect of constant recovery might appear especially daunting to an athlete. We are used to finish lines, hill repeats for a faster kick, and ice baths for fresher legs; you get back what you put in. But eating disorder recovery is different. You’re constantly putting in the work, but you can’t envision the course quite as clearly as you would the night before a championship race. There are ups and downs, and the path winds and rolls without any clear finish line. But that does not mean the work is any less worth it.

I do not write this to make you fear the impossibility of full recovery. No, I write this to bestow you with the gift of grace; to give you self-compassion. Perhaps I write this to give myself self-compassion just as much as anyone else. We have done the hardest work. We may keep doing some level of work for the rest of our lives. But like everything in life that requires work, we do it for the beauty that comes as a result.

The difference between illness and recovery is that, in recovery, we have gained all the tools necessary to keep doing the work. And, without a doubt, the hard moments are fewer and farther between. Perhaps one day I will roll my eyes and turn the other way when I see a toxic message on the cover of a magazine. But I’m not quite there yet. I’ll let you know when I am.