Recovery from an eating disorder, self-injury, another addiction or mental health condition can mean quite different things depending on whom you ask. When I joined a recovery group in my old institution in 2010, it was made clear that recovery is different from cure. You could be recovered while still having symptoms of your mental illness and, I assume, someone could be symptom-free but not recovered too. Recovery, in this situation, means living the life you want given the circumstances you’re in and taking responsibility for yourself.
In the eating disorder, self-harm and addiction communities, recovery is much more tied to cure. You cannot, it is assuemd, be recovered while still engaging in disordered eating behaviors or self-harm or, in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, even drinking a sip of alcohol. I understand this. After all, how can you be fully taking responsibility for your life, living a full life when your life is ruled by food or alcohol or drugs or self-harm? I do see the point. When you’re powerless over an addiction – admitting this is the first step in twelve-step programs -, it takes abandoning the addiction in order to regain power over your life. I am not fully sure this applies to eating though.
The first definition of recovery – the one of taking control of your life, whether you’re still symptomatic or not -, was also devised by people with severe mental illness. You know, treatment-resistant, thought-to-be-lifelong conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. People in the eating disorder and self-harm communities tend to assume that their conditons are curable, so their definition of recovery requires being symptom-free. Even so, people like Arnhild Lauveng prove that becoming completely symptom-free is possible with thought-to-be-lifelong conditions like in her case schizophrenia too.
I tend to side with the first definition of recovery with regards to most of my symptoms. I don’t even consider some of my symptoms to be entirely negative. Even when I do, it isn’t a priority for me to get rid of them. Rather, it’s my priority to live a fulfilling life in spite of my symptoms.
Having a fulfilling life, for clarity’s sake, does not mean not getting support or help. In the recovery group I was part of, my planning to go to a workhome – one of the more intensive forms of support within the autism community -, was seen as recovery, because I took steps towards taking control of my life. (I originally typed “restrictive” instead of “intensive”, but realized that there is a huge difference and this place was not that restricive at all.) Indeed, living your life with lots of support, but you being the one directing your support, is very much what recovery is about.
However, with regards to my eating disorder and self-injury, I would very much like to become symptom-free. That doesn’t mean that to have stopped bingeing or purging or self-harming for a set amount of time means I’m recovered. Recovery also means having overcome the emotional struggles that underly my food issues and self-harm. In this sense, since my eating disorder is probably and my self-harm is certainly part of my borderline personality disorder, I do hope to become symptom-free from BPD too.
Even so, for me living my life is a much higher priority than becoming symptom-free. I want to go find a place to live, whether it’s with my husband or in supported housing, and I want to take up some course again. Probably not a college-level course, but maybe a writing course or something. I also want to exercise a few times a week, which is good for keeping me healthy even should I not entirely overcome the overeating.
You can’t stop eating entirely, so I can’t decide that recovery means no more indulging into the addictive substance or behavior. In this sense, I realize I’m not fit for twelve-stp programs, even of the compulsive overeater type, because they do require you to be completely clean from overeating in order to consider yourself having entered the first phase of recovery. Becoming binge-free would be great, and I do strive for it, but it’s less of a priority than having a fulfilling life.