Survivor's Guilt

Being a part of the Eating Disorders Lobby Day was incredibly empowering. "Fun" is not perhaps the right word for it; "worthwhile" certainly is. However, I was left with some nagging little feelings that took me a while to sort out.

Lobby Day made me feel incredibly guilty.

That I was doing well enough in recovery to go.

That I ate two little bags of chips with my sandwich on the way home.

That my mom was able and willing and happy to come with me.

Part of the frustrations of eating disorders--both for those who have them and those who love people with eating disorders--is an inability to realize you're sick. It's different than denial, if in subtle but significant ways. The point is this: I still don't think I was that sick. I've written two books about my experiences, and I still don't think I was really sick. I have plenty of bouts of irrationality, but I am able to sort through those with a fair amount of skill and get on with things (even if I end up insisting that I am right but going along with the so obviously wrong beliefs of everyone else will get me what I want).

However, eight years and two books later, it doesn't register that I was sick. I know I looked thinner, but I didn't think I was, you know, skinny. Certainly not emaciated. And certainly not in danger of dying from starvation and cardiac abnormalities. I was told this, many times, by family, friends, and medical professionals. To me, they were the delusional ones. I rarely saw myself as fat, but there was NOTHING WRONG WITH MY WEIGHT, thank you very much. Or my eating habits.

I still don't believe them. Which means that acknowledging my recovery makes me feel very guilty.

Why? I wasn't sick enough to "deserve" it. I didn't suffer enough. Or long enough. Or lose enough weight. How dare I be happy if I didn't have it bad to begin with? I was a faker, a charlatan, a fraud.

Why, I ask myself, did I survive and enter recovery when so many other people didn't. People like Anna and Andrea, who died as a result of their eating disorders. People like Kathleen who struggled for 18 years. People who were tube fed or on life support.

I no longer think of these as status symbols; I'm not jealous of those who were sicker than I. They only reason I wish I were them is that I feel it would make recovery easier to accept if I was actually, really truly sick. Which given the nature of eating disorders means that no matter how ill I had gotten, I still wouldn't have seen it.

So why did I make it out of this upside-down, topsy turvy world of anorexia? I know I owe some of it to the hard work I did in recovery. I also know that I owe even more to the fact that my mom decided to stop sitting around the watching me starve. I had a great treatment team. I could (mostly) afford the treatments that insurance refused to pay for. Yet still the guilt remains.

Why was I lucky enough to have these things so easily at my disposal? Why me? Why me and not them? Maybe it was dumb luck, cosmic karma of the strangest kind. Who knows.

I want to see myself as having been ill. In a sense, that knowledge feels it will set my mind at ease, that I will be able to let go of the unease I feel when I discuss my illness and recovery. I've been known to make my story sound worse than it really is, not because I want sympathy but because I want to convince myself (and others!) that I really was sick. That I have a right to be here with everyone else in recovery.

The other supreme irony is that no one else in this "club" really gives a damn.

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Jeanne said...

Hey carrie,

Survivor's guilt - I know it well. And for those of us who were never in-patient, never even intensive out-patient, the feelings of being a fraud are heighten. I never was sick enough to need intensive help. I took care of myself early on, when I first started slipping, so my journey must not be as worthy as others who nearly died, right? At least that's how my thinking goes...

But I remind myself that while my physical body never deteriorated, my mental health was just as sick as everyone else with this horrible disease. And I'm struggling just as hard as everyone else wanting to be free from the disease's clutches.

I have to disagree with your last sentence... I think everyone in this "club" does give a damn. We all believe that everyone else has a right to be in the club, just not ourselves. Because we understand and see the pain and suffering in others, regardless of the severity of physical symptoms. We just can't recognize it in ourselves.

Great post, carrie!

thinking of you with love,

Laura Collins said...

You were that ill. And the most creepy trick of ED is to create an internal wall to keep you from that knowledge. Ingenious, really.

Shan Guisinger would call you a "descendant of Joan of Arc" for that blindness. But she would also say that it is OUR JOB out here outside your head to "see" it for you until you can. And to keep you away from that bonfire in the meantime!

carrie said...


I guess what I meant about not giving a damn is that we're all supportive of each other's recovery, regardless of how "sick" we all were. Which is completely relative, anyway.


So true. I can, many times, see that I was sick. The rational part of my brain knows this. I'm more frustrated that I can't see and understand it.

A:) said...

Carrie, I can 100% understand this. It almost cost me my place in treatment during my second attempt at recovery.

I was in a day program the second time around -- and the guilt that I didn't get "thin" enough to qualify for inpatient (though I was at the cutoff) was incredible.

Now, weight restored, I sometimes doubt that I ever was sick. I never had 40+ pounds to gain, so how could I be sick at all. How could I justify it. It's something that still troubles me. The competitive nature of the ED coming out to play. :(

I'm glad someone else feels the same way.


KC Elaine said...

this hits a note with me. I never had tons of weight to gain, was never tube fed, etc, so I must not have been "sick enough" right? thanks for posting. it's something for me to think about.

KC Elaine said...

ps - what are your books?

Meg said...


I was just surfring around, found your post, and wanted to thank you for it! I think this is a subject that is not discussed enough in recovery, but is common to many people. I am in recovery now, for the second time, and often feel guilty for not being sick enough or a 'good enough anorectic'. I have not yet had the courage to tell anyone this, and when I saw that someone else had similiar thoughts, I was totally empowered. Thank you!

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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