Abandoning the perfect recovery

When my first therapist met me, she said that I wasn't going to have annnnnnnnny trouble, that I was going to be just fine. The second part of that message didn't really register with me because I was too busy scoffing at the first bit. I think my therapist was trying to do a little bit of a cheerleader routine for me by telling me that I had a promising future! and I was smart! and I had no reason to stay anorexic!

I should have asked her what is a good reason to stay anorexic. But, alas.

The problem was that telling a perfectionist that she's not going to have any problems really isn't the best way to ensure either honesty or a realistic idea of what recovery is really like. Because any small mistake I would make then translated as: I can't even do recovery right, so screw it. At least I won't screw up the eating disorder. I shouldn't be having problems- my therapist said so! I'm obviously not meant to recover...

Of course, my friends and family wanted me better right away, which at first I thought was completely pathological (because not wanting to see a loved one suffer is totally pathological). They should know recovery is a process, that I might not want to get better right away. And I projected all of my own perfectionism crap onto everyone else, convinced that they wouldn't be able to tolerate knowing about one single slip of mine. So I started to keep even more secrets, afraid to give up the illusion of "The Perfect Recovery."

The irony is that the only person who strove to create a perfect recovery was, um, me. This secret-keeping meant that I never addressed my triggers in therapy, never allowed myself to ask for support and basically stayed stuck as f*ck. Everyone else was aware that I was barely keeping my head above water, but a lot of the struggles stayed below the surface. No one knew how bad it really was. I was deeply embarrassed to be struggling and I often had no real way to explain my fears and anxieties.

In order to begin to move forward in recovery, I had to lose the idea of the perfect recovery. I had to develop the humility to put all my cards on the table and say "this is where I'm at." Then, I had to keep putting all my cards on the table, even when I had a bad hand and would have rather tried to bluff my way out of the situation. I had to accept that I might lose a few rounds and that--here's the kicker--it was okay. It's pretty hard to learn how to play canasta if you're always trying to skirt the rules.

One of the best parts of my honesty policy is that I have a lot more trust and street cred with my parents and friends. They don't have to guess if I'm secretly combusting on the inside and smiling on the outside. I'm not hiding it; I'm letting it all hang out.

It's different for me- I've never been much on sharing to begin with (for many of the same reasons I didn't share about ED stuff: I was really afraid people would think less of me if I had "issues") and this has an extra layer of meaning added to it. It still doesn't feel natural. I really wanted the perfect recovery. I wanted to have that light bulb moment where I would just ditch the anorexia and start eating cheesecake. It never happened. Most of the time, I wasn't even sure I wanted to recover.

But here I am, recovering. Not perfectly, but recovering nonetheless.


edna said...

Carrie, glad that you are on the recovery path, even if it isn't perfect. You manage to articulate what I am often feeling, and helps me to realise I am not alone and that recovery is worth fighting for, even when at times I feel ambivalent or that it is just too hard.

Cathy (UK) said...

I'm so pleased that despite the immense difficulty of recovering from anorexia nervosa (AN), you ARE able to do it. I always admire your determination to recover.

It interests/intrigues me that in the context of recovery you talk at times about 'not wanting to get better', yet 'wanting the perfect recovery'. The reason for my intrigue is that what you describe suggests a greater element of 'choice' in being anorexic than (I believe) is really there.

I look at recovery in a different way. I wanted to get better for many years, but my brain/mind disallowed this. The AN had such a powerful effect on my brain/mind that whenever I changed my behaviours and tried to let go of the AN it wouldn't let me. The panic I felt was so enormous that I feared I might do something seriously harmful to myself, even though I am not an impulsive person.

This led me to conclude that this was not an issue of me not wanting recovery. I really did want it. The problem was that the illness had such an immense grip on my brain/mind that I felt unable to over-power that grip. Despite AN being a part of me, it also felt like an external force. There were constant battles going on in my head between the 'logical Cathy' and the AN.

I had no illusions of a 'perfect' recovery. I knew it would be very, very difficult, and it was.

Jessi said...

when i am struggling even the thought that i am IN recovery is hard to grasp.. let alone that fact that i am in it.. i want the safety of the ED or I want to be fully recovered.. i don't want this bulls**t in between. a perfect recovery? there is no such thing. so i am glad it is abandoned!


M said...

Making your relapse, treatment and recovery work and thoughts so transparent and so public is quite bold and brave and decidedly "opposite-action" for a perfectionist ... and therein, I think, are a couple of elements that put balance and wellness in your favor this go-round.

It takes bravery, confidence and humility to share this part of your life, especially since you walk that line between the clinical world and the patient world. I imagine it could be difficult to work and mingle with professionals in the field (and work in an advocacy role) while still struggling with the illness. A perfectionist might be inclined to hiss hypocrisy and demand silence, damning transparency and accountability, then either hide or run. But you aren't doing either ... you are here, giving voice to the complex experience of living with an eating disorder and the difficult business of trying to live without it.


Jessi said...

Afreakingmen! I constantly struggle with wanting the perfect recovery...if I can't do it right why do it at all is typically my mindset. One of my first therapists said to me, "Its all a matter of will power, if you really desire to recover recovery will come in no time." I told him I really desired to be a size 2 but that hadn't happened over the last decade...we didn't have to many sessions :)

hopeful mom said...

As always - something to think about. I've been so happy about my boy's improvement that it hadn't occured to me that he may be putting on a show for our benefit. He'll be home this weekend so maybe time for a heart-to-heart to let him know it's okay if things aren't wonderful.

So glad you are you.

James Clayton said...

"I can't even do recovery right, so screw it. At least I won't screw up the eating disorder"

Oh, the number of times that thought has cropped up and been clung to...

Great post as ever and so true and resonant. There's no such thing as a perfect recovery, being honest to everyone else and yourself is better and recovery is worth it (even if it is messy).

elizabeth said...

this makes me so happy and hopeful. I guess it's really important to not forget that perfection has little place in recovery. and the secret keeping! so exhausting!
thank you so much for always posting such wonderful entries.

Crimson Wife said...

What kind of therapist tells a client that he/she will not encounter any bumps on the road to recovery? Would a doctor blithely tell a cancer patient, "oh, you won't have any problems"?

Recovery is hard. Some times it frankly s****. But ED s**** worse and recovery *does* easier over time. There will still be bad days, but fewer of them.

Abby said...

Rationally I know this, but the stubborn ass in me has always done the,"If I can't do it perfect, I don't want to try and look like an idiot" thing. I know there's no perfect anything, but I hate to appear weak in any way, shape or form.

Right now I don't think I'm "in recovery" as much as I am fighting every urge to resist recovery because it is imperfect, and I don't want to struggle anymore. So, it's a choice between not wanting to struggle and giving in or abandoning my comfort and illusions of doing it perfectly. Once again, you remind me that it's worth the work and truly, it's day to day.

Progress, not perfection.

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey said...

i had many people, including nurses and other staff at Beaumont Hospital, tell me the same thing - that I wouldn't have any problems with recovery because I developed anorexia later in life - during my first hospitalization. The pressure of those words was incredible, and seven hospitalizations later no one is saying that anymore.

And now I am in PHP, feeling surrounded by people who appear to be having the "perfect recovery." Many of them know all the right words to say and the right things to do. On the other hand, I am not on board - I don't say the right things, I bitch about having to eat all this food, and I'm depressed every day.

I have given up on the idea that some magical recovery moment is going to click in. It's second by second.

Carrie Arnold said...


It's interesting you point that out. Much of the time, I wanted to get better but I was too afraid to. If it makes any sense, I wanted to get better but I didn't want to go through the work to recover. Yet when I would attempt recovery, I wanted to do it perfectly. It's rather complicated. :)

Cathy (UK) said...

I kind of get what you are saying Carrie :) I wanted recovery to be easy (which could in some ways mean 'perfect'). I wanted a pill to make me better, but there isn't such a thing. The nearest thing to a pill is food, which I grew to hate...

Anonymous said...

Perfect recovery is weird. When I've been in treatment, the people who look to me like they are having a perfect recovery, have usually turned out to be lying about something. Still, if I did recovery the way they seemed to be doing it (before I found out they were lying), it wouldn't be a perfect recovery for me. The people who seem to me to do it perfectly usually also seem brainwashed to me. They seem to agree with whatever the treatment team says. For me to be so agreeable would necessarily mean letting my soul be crushed, because I would never be so docile if I was healthy.

So I guess I'm relatively okay with not doing this "perfectly". Though, I do still feel stupid every time I change my mind about something I had been stubborn about earlier in recovery or in my ED (i.e. that my brain works just fine without food). But that is not much different from feeling stupid about things I believed or obsessed over when I was 13.

expwoman said...

I hear you on the perfectionism! A previous therapist told me to "join the human race" because I couldn't be perfect--that didn't help. When I started treatment for ocd, I wanted to do it "perfectly" because I believed that if I wasn't perfect, I was worthless. I am grateful that my therapist figured out what was happening and explicitly worked with me to let go of the illusion of perfection, and how as a child I thought being perfect make me loved, and to take the risk of recovering imperfectly.

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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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