On the Liminality of Recovery.
This weekend, my best friend and I were laying around her new apartment in Brooklyn, her on the rug, me on the bed, shooting the shit after a brunch of broccoli tacos and chorizo scramble. When the topic of our workout regimens came up, as it so often seems to between female friends, I bemoaned my seeming inability to run without hobbling myself for a month and my laziness about keeping up with yoga. My friend, a regular runner and erstwhile bikram enthusiast, looked up at me and said, “You know, I’m always in the best shape when I’m the most unhappy.”
“Yeah, I think you have to hate yourself a little bit in order to subject yourself to CrossFit,” I joked.
“But really, when things are going well, and especially when you’re in a happy relationship, you don’t feel the same need or desire to work out as when you’re single and things aren’t going so well.”
This is true, but also untrue. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my adult life, but I am simultaneously less satisfied, more disgusted, more ashamed of my body than I’ve ever been. Unfortunately, exercise has always been entwined with misery for me — a misery that could well threaten the contentment that has made other parts of my life more livable.
Earlier that same day, while lying in a different bed, my boyfriend and I discussed our eating habits. July was a busy month for us — work travel, important job interviews, visits with family — and the siren call of Seamless probably lured us to delivery more often than it probably should have. After an earnest discussion about the things we could and should do differently moving forward (more salads, more grilled salmon, giving Blue Apron a go), I confided that, for me, actively making “healthy choices” or “eating clean” while being guided by the dominant rhetoric of wellness is a slippery slope. I’m afraid of giving any sustenance to the obsessive tendencies waiting for nourishment. I don’t want to give myself license to actively police my food choice for fear of being consumed by that self-discipline. I don’t want to make myself consider food outside of its properties of taste and texture for fear that I’ll end up thinking of nothing but food while consuming as little of it as possible.
After struggling with an eating disorder for the bulk of my teens and 20s, I’m nominally “recovered,” but that recovery is always precarious. Despite being at a healthy weight, a glimpse of my slightly rounded hips or stomach is often enough to throw me into a tailspin of negative self-talk. Going too hard in on french fries at dinner can directly lead into over-googling juice cleanses the next morning. The speculation of coworkers that I was pregnant nearly brought me to tears at my desk. Fortunately, I have not fully relapsed into anorexia, but, I think, it’s not due to any strength or force of will. Rather, I see it as a sign of weakness — another sign that my recovery is far from total.
The dominant narrative surrounding eating disorders is, like so many others, straightforward, clear cut, and chronological. A sufferer, usually young, white, and female, and influenced by a combination of cultural beauty standards, parental conditioning, and innate perfectionism, attempts to achieve purity and collective approbation through starvation; after reaching a critical threshold, treatment begins; and, after a period of struggle, healing is reached and the woman can continue about her life. Predictably, this fiction rarely plays out in real life. As many as 80% of people with eating disorders relapse at least once, and the recovery rate hovers around 60%. “Full recovery,” however, is a misnomer that gives primacy to maintaining close relationships and living a “normal” life. It is certainly possible to maintain the appearance of an ordinary life while obscuring or burying the impulses that characterize the pathological anorexic for the benefit of outsiders. It is absolutely possible to remain in liminal recovery. It’s the state I’ve been in for years.
I managed to play well for long enough to actually be allowed to attend college and avoid being sent to a hospital for inpatient treatment (treatment which, in retrospect, may well have benefited me.) In college, I briefly took caffeine pills and always drank way too much coffee and smoked too many cigarettes, complained about the cafeteria food and pushed Sunday brunches around on my plate. When I first moved to New York, I ate a protein bar for lunch and a tiny arugula salad without dressing for dinner and would walk for miles and miles on an empty stomach. When I treated myself, I would tell myself that someone who was anorexic wouldn’t order a croissant and a cappuccino at a cafe. What I didn’t say was that those would be the only two things I’d put in my body all day.
I began to consider myself to be a person in recovery when I was 23. I’d moved in with a boy I’d been dating — a boy who was naturally very thin, next to whom I felt like a manatee with legs — and together we’d eat. We’d cook elaborate pasta dishes; we’d check out craft beer bars and cheese shops; we’d share ice cream in bed. He never once shamed me about my body, but he shamed me for my eating disorder behind my back. When he finally left me for a willowy WASP with an unkind face, I came the closest I had to relapsing in years. It’s a funny thing to say, considering how miserable it was, but online dating saved me. If it weren’t for dinners out and drinks after work, I likely would have fallen back into my disorder without noticing. As it stood, I’d go weeks without buying groceries and leave produce to rot.
I’m going to be 30 on my next birthday. I worry that I am too old to feel this way, to worry that I’m one upsetting event away from counting out my almonds and killing myself in the fitness studio. I am afraid that a relapse would erase all of the happiness that I have worked very hard to achieve, but that it would validate all the feelings I’ve harbored for half of my life — that I am gross, ugly, undisciplined, unlovable. I’ve not yet crossed the threshold into the realm of the recovered. I don’t know what I can do to get there.