Do people recover?
Absolutely! This website and countless books on recovering from eating disorders wouldn’t even exist if this were not true. Does everyone recover? Well, no, no they don’t. Over time studies have shown that anywhere from 33-80% fully recover. Perhaps the more pressing question is, “Can my loved one recover?” and the answer is a qualified yes. Clearly, those who are sincere in their desire to get better, and who are willing to work hard, have an excellent chance of completely overcoming eating disorders and food/weight obsessions. At the very, very least they can improve their current situation. Without question, eating disorders are difficult illnesses that are not easy to treat. This is part of why it is so important to work with a therapist who has expertise in treating eating disorders.
There are different ideas out there as to what constitutes recovery. Some people believe that recovery is an ongoing process, and that individuals with eating disorders continue to gain more perspective and maintain periods of being asymptomatic throughout their lives. Those who adhere to this “recovering” model believe that it is necessary to remain alert and aware of the fact that their eating disorder, or perhaps some other compulsive behavior, could return during periods of stress. While they firmly assert that while their eating disorder may no longer impede their ability to live life fully, they also believe that it will always be a part of them-their “Achilles heel” so to speak. The “recovering” or “in recovery” model, which is popular in 12-step and addictions groups, is described as it pertains to eating disorders by Caroline Adams Miller, who wrote: “While I believe that it is entirely possible to overcome an eating disorder and create “normal,” guilt-free eating patterns, I also think that it is very hard for an addictive person to avoid switching to another mood-altering obsession, whether it be spirituality, sex, shopping, caffeine, alcohol, drugs, or exercising. These are the deep-seated roots that led me to abuse food in the first place, and because I’ll always be the same type of personality, I’ll always be in a recovering state of mind, open to new issues, new possibilities, new growth (1993, p. 148).
This model of recovery has different benefits to offer those who adhere to it. For people who experience lapses or relapses, the “recovering” model can offer satisfying alternative explanations for the slip, preventing them from berating themselves for not being strong or committed enough. This model also offers food plans and parameters for eating which can be particularly helpful in the early stages of recovery, when eating in a healthy way can feel like a loss of control. Sometimes referred to as the “abstinence” approach in drug and alcohol programs, those recovering from eating disorders are encouraged to abstain from foods or situations that might trigger behaviors.
The “recovered” model, on the other hand, contends that people can become completely free from eating disorders. They are able to eat a wide variety of foods, including those that they once vehemently refused to touch, without worrying about starving, purging, calorie counting, or their weight. Although much of the same work must be done no matter what the approach to recovery, this model contends that for some people, the negative thoughts and self- destructive behaviors related to the eating disorder can be completely worked through and become a part of the past.
I absolutely consider myself to be fully recovered. I don’t think about calories, food or weight and I certainly don’t worry about them. Lindsey Hall Cohn, the coauthor of my first book Anorexia Nervosa: A Guide To Recovery, also considers herself to be fully recovered. Having met her and worked with her so closely, I assure you she is most definitely fully recovered. Carolyn Costin, another eminent figure in the eating disorders recovery world, is also fully recovered and has been one of the first-if not the first- to go on record about that.
I respect both models of recovery and recognize that what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. Each person must choose whichever approach feels right for the particular stage of healing s/he is in. It’s important to realize that this choice is not binding. Recovery is a learning process and every victory will become an active and ongoing part of one’s life, no matter how the battle has been fought.