When I first embarked on this long process toward recovery, I was an innocent, naive, mind-numbingly positive 11 year old who swallowed up the messages in such books as "Life Without Ed" by Jenni Schaefer and "Making Peace with Your Plate" by Robyn Cruze as if they were the antidotes to all my self-critical thoughts and even outright self-hatred. I practiced talking back to an empty chair sitting across the room from me, pretending that I could be magically cured by chocking up all my problems to an imaginary person named "Ed" and simply telling 'him' that I would much prefer to eat a slice of pizza over half a cucumber. I truly believed in these moments that I was 'deciding' to recover; that the miserable months I had spent painstakingly counting out each individual Cheerio in my breakfast bowl to ensure exactness or getting up in the middle of the night to pour out the Boost my parents had stashed in the cupboard and fill the empty containers with water were simply a time where I just hadn't known any better or hadn't had the strength to "fight the voices plaguing me".
I'm not angry at my younger self for buying into these fantastical views of recovery- she didn't know any better. Her fierce hope that she could shed her disordered existence as easily as she had slipped into it made her vulnerable to the messages that all she needed to do was make a simple choice to NOT have an eating disorder, to tell some imaginary enemy that she was done with him, and just muscle her way through to the other side. When you're 11 years old, this sort of thing sounds fairly reasonable. You get a cold, you DECIDE to take medicine, and you get better. You get a scraped knee, you DECIDE to put on a bandaid, and the wound heals.
There are several major flaws in this sort of logic. The first, and probably most glaringly obvious, is that deciding that something ought to be does not always make it so. I cannot make the world become flat simply because I decide that it should be. Or, in a less comical example, people with cancer cannot just "decide" to get better- they need chemotherapy, and sometimes even then they don't recover. Yes, I suppose you could argue that they have to make the choice to undergo treatment in the first place, but that brings me to the second fallacy in this thinking. It's not the DECISION to get treatment (in the case of cancer, chemotherapy, or in the previous examples, taking medicine or applying a bandage) that causes healing, it's the treatment itself. Therefore, making a choice to recover does not actually do anything- as round-about as it may sound, it's the actual recovering that makes you recover. Third, eating disorders are mental illnesses which are not nearly as simple to fix as a runny nose or a cut. Just as we (hopefully) have progressed beyond telling those with schizophrenia to "stop imagining things" or those with PTSD to "decide to stop acting irrationally", so should we cease telling those with eating disorders to make a choice to recover.
Maybe these things seem harmless from the outside, but these slight semantic changes have enormous impacts. It is because of them that most of our regrettably ill-informed society still think of eating disorders as manifestations of vanity, and death from them as a result of "losing" some metaphorical battle. This is because if we attribute the ability to recover to choice, then we simultaneously assign the act of NOT recovering/staying sick/dying to choice as well, albeit the opposite choice. And that's neither fair, true, or perhaps ever more importantly, helpful for anyone suffering with an eating disorder.
Am I just a cynic who has spent too long in the throes of anorexia to be able to see the glorious light that lies beyond my illness? Maybe. But I'm also a realist. And maybe what Jenni Schaefer and Robyn Cruze and Carolyn Costin and a hundred other recovery speakers rings true for them, that they woke up one day and thought, "Huh. My life is shit because I don't eat like a normal person. Maybe I should eat. I think I will," and voila- RECOVERY! happened (exclamation mark not optional). I'll give them the benefit of the doubt. But for the vast majority of all the rest of us slogging day in, day out with our disorders, that is so far from the truth that it's almost laughable. Here's a more realistic version of the truth: I wake up one day and go, "Huh. My life is shit. (This was pretty much every day for me) I know that I don't eat like a normal person, and that my not eating is driving away friends and family, is the reason I have absolutely no energy, my hair is falling out, my vitals are whacky, and my bones are like an 80 year old's. I would very, very much like to just eat like a normal person and have a non-shitty life." And yet, when push comes to shove, I can't. And it's not some character flaw that stops me. It's the fact that I have a legitimate mental illness, a block in my brain that positive thinking is not going to fix.
So where does this leave us? Some reading this post may feel a sense of despair- if making a choice to get well is not going to effectively cure them of the eating disorder, then what hope is there? I think this is perhaps part of the reason why so many, my former self included, buy into what I am now going to define as the "choice" model of recovery- it gives us a sense of empowerment. We hold the reins. We are in control. That seems a whole lot safer than surrendering to the fact that we're sick.
But here's my take: surrendering to being sick is NOT the same as being powerless. It is NOT the same as giving up. It is NOT the same as saying that you will never recover or that recovery is impossible. It is not even the same as saying that you have no choice in the matter. You do. Every day when you wake up or sit at the table, you have the choice to eat.
"WAIT WAIT WAIT!" You're saying. You just spent a whole article ranting about how people don't have a choice in whether or not they have an eating disorder or whether or not they recover. You're right. I did. And I also didn't actually contradict any of that in my last statement, so I'm going to repeat it.
You have the choice to eat. This is akin to the putting on of the bandaid on the aforementioned scraped knee, the drinking of the cold medicine for the sore throat and runny nose. Choosing to eat is choosing to TAKE AN ACTION that will lead you towards recovery. It in itself is not recovery. It is the absolutely necessary step that leads one to it, but it isn't the same thing. Eating is an action; recovery is a noun. I can choose to do an action, but I cannot choose to do a noun. So yes, I am maybe moving closer to recovery by eating, but it's a small step. I didn't leap there in one epiphany. I will have to continue to choose to eat every single day for the rest of my life. That is my way of choosing something that moves me towards the recovery I want. But I'm still not CHOOSING recovery.
I don't know if how I'm wording this makes any sense at all, but if it does, I hope it helps. I think the reason so many of us stay stuck is that we think we CAN choose recovery. We struggle for years and years thinking we've finally chosen it only to find ourselves in the same old patterns and behaviors. We must have not wanted it badly enough. False. We have to choose the action that leads to the outcome, not the outcome.
To summarize: if you want the end result of recovery, you will have to make some choices. Choosing to recover isn't one of them. Choosing to eat, choosing to not purge or overexercise or take laxatives or engage in any other behavior you can think of.... those are.