Letting go of the idealized recovery

If you hear some in the eating disorder community talk about recovery, you could be forgiven for thinking that they were trying to get you to buy a timeshare at a resort. Recovery, they say, is where you love yourself. You love your body. You accept your imperfections. Your life is good, so good. You’ve gotten to the root of your disorder. And you are never, ever, NEVER going to relapse. You are IN RECOVERY and you are here to stay.

Like I said, it sounds kind of like a travel brochure. Or a secret society with an even more secret handshake.

Of course, plenty of people acknowledge that recovery isn’t perfect. But if you look at the way the eating disorder community tries to construct recovery, it tends to be built as this idealized form of what Life is Going to be Like from Now On, Forever and Ever, Amen. This isn’t what recovery is like. Getting hit in the face with the rude reality of the day in, day out, utter slog of recovery (didn’t I just eat yesterday?) was enough to make me seriously consider quitting.

While in treatment, I planned out my recovery life. It was going to be perfect. I would love food, love eating, love my body. Mornings consisted of waking up and looking in the mirror at the sexy beast staring back at me. I would never have a bad hair day. I would no longer be dependent on pots of coffee to function, or toothpicks to prop open my sagging eyelids in the wee hours of the morning. I was going to be independent and self-assured and happy.

At discharge, staff tried to temper my expectations. But they did so in an interesting manner. They didn’t say “This is probably not what your recovery is going to look like.” Instead, they said, “Don’t expect it to be like this YET.” As time went on and I remained as depressed, anxious, and messed up about food as before, I started to give up. This wasn’t the timeshare I had signed up for. Even now, when most objective measures would indicate that I was doing well in recovery (no, not fully recovered, but doing well), my life and my recovery doesn’t look like that travel brochure.

In reading many of the media accounts of recovery and the stories that are shared online, there tends to be one of two narratives. It’s either “I think food will be an issue for the rest of my life,” or the travel brochure-esque description above. The problem is that I think both of these set people up for failure. Either we don’t expect any sort of recovery or improvement, or we have this idealized notion of recovery that can never possibly come true.

People often send me emails about what made me decide to recover or what my turning point was or what convinced me to want to get better. I always feel bad writing back and saying that’s not how recovery worked for me. I fought recovery long and hard until I slowly stopped fighting so much. I didn’t want to get better until I was most of the way there. I didn’t make some epic, life-changing decision to devote myself to recovery. Some people do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not the only way you get better.

Nor is recovery a cakewalk. There’s a saying floating around in the world of Pinterest or Tumblr that “The worst day in recovery is still better than the best day in relapse.” To be really honest (am I even allowed to say this?), sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, when life is really painful, the ED is numb and that feels a whole hell of a lot better than recovery. I know it’s not in my best long-term interests to return to the ED, but there you have it. I didn’t fall into the trap of an ED because I wanted to be thin. I fell in the trap because I finally found something that would make the anxiety and depression just a little bit better.

This doesn’t stop once you start working on recovery. I still get anxious and depressed, sometimes overwhelmingly so. Lately, it’s been rough. Really rough. Like sometimes hard to get out of bed in the morning rough. And yes, ED behaviors kicked back in. You resist for a while, but the anxiety sapped me of my appetite and the depression robbed me of my ability to care. I am burned out and exhausted. But I am looking for a new psychiatrist and revisiting some old skills and regaining the few pounds I lost.

There are no rainbows or unicorns here. This is not the recovery I signed up for. But it’s the one I’ve got, the one I’m busting my ass to protect. Yes, I slip. Yes, I have extensive co-morbids that aren’t going to go away. Yes, I will probably remain vulnerable to relapse for my entire life. Seriously? I’m okay with that. Ignoring the facts doesn’t make them less true.

Here’s the thing: I am grateful every day for my recovery, even when it’s not perfect and I find myself restricting again or laying in bed with the covers over my head, so terrified of the world I literally can’t get out of bed. Shit still happens, life can still suck. Despite all of this, all the craziness, all the messiness, I am still coping better and functioning better than I ever have before. I am still mostly free of ED thoughts, even when you factor in this latest slip.

It was only when I let go of the idealized, over-sanitized, travel brochure version of recovery that I started to embrace everything I had worked for.

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42 Responses to “Letting go of the idealized recovery”

  1. Hi Carrie
    I hope you’re OK.
    Accepting that recovery is life-long is hard; accepting that it doesn’t have to be perfect is even harder. Logically, that’s just another way of succumbing to the perfectionism, isn’t it? This mindset that recovery has to be as “perfect” as the ED felt. And for me, that’s so close to chasing the perfect ED that it doesn’t/wouldn’t feel like recovery at all.

  2. I believe that I will always be “in recovery” and that I should focus on the milestones…such as going x days w/o using y symptom or just simply being comfortable in my own body…rather than achieving some sort of idealized recovery. Recovery is perfectly imperfect.

    Every time I hear a success story of someone being “recovered” from their ED, I can’t help, but feel like a failure because I am still struggling after 14 years. But then I realize, that those people who claim to be recovered, probably got help early on in their illness. I did not seek professional help, specifically for my ED, until about 8 years into it so it’s understandable why re-training my brain after so many years of cognitive distortions is so difficult. Rather than feeling resentful towards those who have achieved full health and mental wellness, I need to be grateful that they didn’t have to struggle for as long as I have.

    Plus, as you mentioned, not everyone with an ED has co-morbid issues. For some of us, the depression goes away once we start nourishing our bodies. For others, like myself, the depressive feelings are a product of more than just a starved brain.

    My recovery is far more than maintaining a healthy weight, being devoid of disordered eating, and having positive body image…it’s about learning how to cope with life situations rather than reacting to it. My recovery may not be perfect, but I have come a looooong way over the years and I am proud of the beautiful, young, empowered woman that I am today.

  3. Oh, God, Carrie, this was SO applicable to me – and my current position in my ‘recovery’ journey – really helped this morning to read this post and be reminded that, just because I’m not ‘cured’ (ie. as per your very good analogy of a travel-brochure-style recovery), it doesn’t mean I’ve failed yet AGAIN. It really sucks but, although there do indeed seem to be sufferers out there who CAN achieve a hunky-dory recovery, I think for me, the best I can hope for is to teeter along on my tightrope of recovery which, while tricky and exhausting, is better than falling off straight back down into the jaws of Hell. I think I’m never going to be comfortable with a ‘normal’ weight, never be comfortable around food, never enjoy food, always be exercise-obsessed, which, as you say, leads me to think, ‘Actually, what IS all the damn point of all this struggling? Why not just throw in the towel now and give my brain a break…?!’ But the reality is that, however ‘numbing’ relapse is, and however ‘alluring’ (no more meal-planning, no more HAVING TO EAT at set/certain times, no more fears of ‘what if my weight goes up and up and up…and up?’), the reality is that it’s all way too temporary (and unsustainable) a form of ‘relief’, which is, presumably, exactly why people like you and me are still striving for ‘recovery’ in whatever shape of form. Because we know, however many times we ‘slip’ (why is it just so EASY to forget all the ‘bad’ about anorexia, and only remember the ‘good’?!?!?), ultimately, it all ends in tears. Sometimes I feel I’m driving myself completely bonkers by the constant thoughts of ‘Okay, I don’t want the ED any more, I’ll “recover”‘ – but then, I recover somewhat, then find myself thinking, ‘Actually, this is just as bad – if not worse – than being in the grip of the illness, I think I’ll go back to the illness, at least it’s “safer”‘ – and so on and so forth, and round and round in circles, which makes me think, ‘Where the hell AM I going? Does this mean my life is crap both with AND without the ED? In which case, where does that leave me, in regard to ‘what I want from life…’?! BUT…in ‘recovery’, however ‘quasi’ it may be, not only is one physically better, which is obviously important (or so I’ve been told!!!, but, more importantly, there is HOPE…hope that, if I stick at it, there may, EVENTUALLY be a corner with something nice around it but, with the isolation and paranoia and obsessions and time-spent-unconstructively that comes with being ‘actively anorexic’, I’m going to have neither the time nor the energy (nor, even, the ‘desire’) to walk up to said corner and have a peek around it. So, however hopeless ‘recovery’ may seem, however pointless, however distressing, however exhausting/impossible/crap, if I hang on to the HOPE, then maybe, ONE day, I, too, can have my ‘glossy brochure recovery’…maybe not, but there IS that maybe…with full relapse, that ‘maybe’ doesn’t even get a look in. So, Carrie, keep going, you might not be there yet, but you really never CAN know what’s just around the corner…!!!

    • @Mo…Your incredible insight in this particular comment have given me MUCH needed strength…today…I find myself reading and re-reading this “hitting-home-in-a-big-way” lightning bolt of yours…and the ideas of ED stagnation as “not sustainable” and “Hope” really reach out to me. Indeed, as hell-infused as recovery choice is…my current reality of AVOIDING reality (especially health-related…mind and body) is simply too difficult to continue. I am dreading a programmed entry into hospital (could get “the call” at any moment regarding a liberated bed)…and instead of coming to grips with the need to ready the household (and myself!) I have been spending…WASTING…hours of life on the foodie blogs archiving recipes I will most likely never make…Such denial…such a tragedy for my family and myself…MUST keep the “HOPE” element you speak of in the forefront…with the idea that something more wonderful…more positive could really be “around the corner”…and if I am not around to consider the possibility of POSSIBILITY…then the ED (anorexia of 10 years) serves no purpose. Thank you for brilliance…and a reason to get through the day!

  4. This is so true! Recovery can be bloody awful. I thought that I would feel amazing and instead it feels lke my body is trying to punish me for the years of abuse. They don’t tell you about the pain of nerve re myelination or edema or the bloating, indigestion or acid reflux to name but a few. It’s a hard slog and crutch that you used to cope with life is no longer an option. I’m 70 days into recovery and although it’s tough, really tough, it’s worth it. My ED robbed me of things that I want to have now. Even the not so good things. One of the shittest things about having an ED is that not only does it numb the bad times, it also numbs the good. Keep going xx

  5. I think the perfectionist in me still thinks recovery is a perfectly linear process and when I get off course I beat myself up. My favorite thing you said was, “Sometimes, when life is really painful, the ED is numb and that feels a whole hell of a lot better than recovery.” I crave that numbness all the time. Everyday. And very few people are brave enough to say what you just said.

    I am also learning that everyone, even the most “normal” people, have these low points in life and their own daily struggles. Embracing the idea that it’s just part of life, like you said, is the only way to deal. Thanks for your raw honesty in this post.

  6. “Sometimes, when life is really painful, the ED is numb and that feels a whole hell of a lot better than recovery. I know it’s not in my best long-term interests to return to the ED, but there you have it. I didn’t fall into the trap of an ED because I wanted to be thin. I fell in the trap because I finally found something that would make the anxiety and depression just a little bit better.”

    Thank you so much for that. I’m currently going through another rough patch and even though I tried to write about it, this whole post sums things up quite well (even though I’m not nearly as far in as you.) I won’t ramble. Just…thanks.

  7. I love this, Carrie. Thank you.

  8. I love this post; however, for me, right now, the worst day in recovery IS far better than the best day in relapse. That is partly because by the end, my ED caused so many other health problems that my quality of life was pretty terrible in ways that had nothing to do with food. That being said, there is this amazing freedom that comes with letting go of the ED that really is as beautiful as some of those travel brochure-esque ideas of recovery. I think the misleading part is when people assume that recovery from the ED will also solve other problems like loneliness or breakups or family disputes or anxiety etc, and that certainly doesn’t happen. But I truly believe that a sick body/brain doesn’t stand a chance against a healthy body/brain when it comes to happiness and peace.

    • I do agree–when you average everything out. When you look at large chunks of time, there is absolutely no doubt that my life is better now, even when it’s tough and nasty, than when I was ill. But does it mean that every single day is better? No. I had good days when I was ill, too.

      When you look at satisfaction with life vs having a “better day” or whatever, then there’s no contest. At all. I am much more effective in my life when I am well and whole and nourished.

  9. Oh my freakin goodness. This is me, right now. Thank you so much <3

  10. I went on your blog today to reread (for the millionth time) ‘what recovery looks like’ posted back in 2008, because it reminds me WHY we keep slogging at recovery. And then there was this post. Thank you, I have another to add to my collection to deal with bad days!

  11. Thank you so much for your honest, wise words Carrie..and for daring to utter what so many of us struggle with on a day-to-day basis.

    I ALWAYS read the intelligent comments from your devoted “flock” of readers…as I glean so much from their insight as well. In full accord with C’s comment regarding “chasing perfection” ..be it in the “perfect” ED…or the “perfect” recovery…Totally sums it up for me….I wish all of you continued strength and the courage to “peek around the corner” as Mo expressed so very well.

    • ‘Hear, hear’…!!! Thanks for that, Donna – I’m so FED UP of the constant daily battle, at mealtimes, with the ‘Shall I?/Shan’t I?’ tussle. But reading your (and the other posters’) comment/s, has reminded me that I cannot have the ‘luxury’ of ‘shan’t I?’ ‘Shan’t I?’ is not an option…not if I want the ‘peace and happiness’ that – as Kaylee so rightly says – can ONLY come from a healthy body/mind: perhaps my MIND will NEVER be ‘healthy’ but if my body is in a better state that can, surely, only help matters?! So now, I shall not sit here with food in front of me in a state of unbearable dithering over whether to eat or not to eat and, rather than thinking, ‘MUST I?’, telling myself, ‘I MUST’!!! Ah, if only it were that easy…!!! But one can but try! Wishing you all the best in your own journey towards a better life.

  12. I think all of you are incredibly wise,brave and informed.I don’t know what you go through on a daily basis but because you CHOOSE to stay on track and you know what has to be done says ypu are in recovery.I am in awe of your bravery and for sharing to help others.

  13. This was extremely depressing and frustrating to read. So I am going to feel really bad forever? Then why should I eat today if it doesn’t get better, if I won’t experience happiness or joy. Very depressing this post.

    • No, it does get better. Really. It’s just not the perfect version of recovery that I had pictured.

      I don’t want this post to signify that I think recovery is hopeless, because that’s not it. Like I said several times, I am very grateful for my recovery even if it isn’t as perfect and marvelous as I thought it was going to be.

  14. Thank you so much for writing this post. It can really feel like because you’re not happy in recovery, or you didn’t initially choose to be there, you’re not doing it right and might as well give up. But I think more people need to be realistic with there expectations – because recovery is not easy.

  15. Thank you for writing this. It is so parallel to what I was writing last night, so I made a new post connecting to your post since I think it will be helpful to others too.

    I did not find it discouraging to read your thoughts on recovery. I found it real and empowering and it gave me a sense of being “a part of”…

  16. Thank you so much for this. I really needed it.

  17. I Have ED stuff going on for thirty years. Not all the time but most of it. The only version of recovery for me is that I am still alive but I feel defeated at the moment and it worries me and is not a positive thing when it is said that those who choose to set out upon the recovery path are brave and determined and all the other beautiful attributes that are mentioned. Does that make the ones that can not actively choose recovery somehow less strong and brave ? I would embrace recovery if I could- I don’t want to die from this- its painful and distressing for myself and my kids.
    There still seems to be this inference that if one is not receiving some sort of help or actively implementing some plan called recovery then they are somehow guilty of giving into anorexia. The language we use around this illness is sometimes very destructive instead of being constructive and inclusive of all with anorexia. What if one can not choose to recover ?
    Do support sources, both medically and socially then get withdrawn ?
    I am not trying to be negative or play the devil’s advocate-this is just my situation and the situation of my children ( the moral judgement of me as a mother is relentless, hence, the social isolation). Thanks for this blog-its really, really helpful.

    • I hear you on this. Sometimes, being “stable” is the best you can do- and being “recovered” feels like some nebulous, unattainable ideal for the young, the childless, the… people who aren’t you… or me… I want recovery but in spite of all my research can’t figure out how to achieve it. Stable’s all I can pull off right now with how busy I am. The ed is still active in my head, I’m still underweight, and I need mg therapist to help me manage my anxiety and to stay where I’m at and not fall lower. But moving “up”? Not really an available option right now, and that doesn’t mean I’m not “trying”- I’m trying my damnedest to stay where I’m at and not go lower. That’s got to be enough for now.

    • Oh my god Bron you so spoke my mind! I agree I for many reasons have chosen not to go to a normal weight and I’m struggling to deal with weight fluctuations in both directions and the idea my weight must be where my key worker dictates really makes me angry! I feel I’ve come plenty far enough in a very short space of time and it’s extremely disheartening to have this criticised ! I wish that recovery was more inclusive as it only leaves many feeling inadequate either because they are struggling to maintain or not go lower or their weight is higher but they still struggle and are told they no longer need help ! Sorry I might have read the post wrong. Sorry

      • Jess , sadly, you read it right.The negative responses from both workers and others within ED communities leaves many of us feeling like failures which of course drives our disorder further. I really don’t feel that it is a choice for some of us. There is not enough known about this disorder and a ‘one size fits all ‘approach is dangerous. But the most dangerous assumption of all is that we all have choices. Its probably the only ‘illness’ where we are shunned if we don’t ‘try’ hard enough. @HM- am sorry you also can not achieve the status of a ‘brave anorexic-who is trying and making good choices’.
        Not trying to be grim here but someone has to be making the statistics in the fatal percentage. Its awful to think of those who have died whilst suffering from EDs as not worthy of respect for their struggle . Their suffering should be acknowledged.

  18. I am now thirty and have struggled (with AN then BN) since late teens. In the past two or three years I have begun to despair about my apparent inability to ever shake this illness off…it dominates my life, but now in a ‘managed’ way. But it is exhausting. I am just so tired. Years ago I ‘bottomed out’ and I thought that would be the end of it, there were resolutions to live and all of that. But then it happened again. And again. Every destruction and re-resolution has been so consistently undermined. I now often believe that this illness will in fact kill me in the end, if not by being drastically physically compromised, simply from being so emotionally eroded by living with it day-in-day-out that life no longer seems worthwhile. Hope is at it’s last ebb…the rosy future full of affirmation never came. And yes, I did believe in it at some point. I wonder if secretly I still do, otherwise I’d end it all now…I am so sad to think of the ED statistics, and incredulous that I have already become one of the ‘will never recover’ lot that I used to regard with such disdain.

    • @ef…Kindred souls …we…I am empathizing with your exact state of affairs at this precise moment…Sending a virtual hug and let us hope for “rounding that corner” and re-discovering even a hint of what well-ness “feels” like…I have sadly forgotten that feeling.

  19. Great post!

    I definitely agree with the concept of idealised recovery!

    It can be disheartening for those in recovery, who are going through the process and anticipating the ‘amazing’ life that awaits them in the near future.
    I believe that the most helpful way of thinking is that the goal of recovery is normality! And that even though your recovery will be in slow, simple,small,steps, you CAN get there!

    Check out our blog!
    http://sizedupedawareness.tumblr.com/

    • I am understanding the intention of the positivity within this post but it is in itself an idealized attitude that ‘even though your recovery will be in slow,simple,small steps, you can get there.’ Some people don’t get there. They don’t get to manageable or normal . Some people die from this. Too many people die from this. As long as we all keep talking about how hard we must try, how committed we must be to recovery, how we must just eat and take these hard little steps etc etc then all those people who can not do this will fall away and die. If it is such a choice to recover then it would be a choice to develop an ED in the first place-seriously, what’s the difference ? I CAN’T get there and I am not alone in this. I can no longer keep up this facade of lying about how we can all recover no matter how hard it is. There is a difference between being positive and being idealistic and yet the idealism of recovery,ironically, has been highlighted by the very post that was intended to expose it.

      • I understand the point you’re making, but it’s really hard for me to know what you expect people around you to do in the way of support. Should they just sit back and let you be wherever you’re at right now?

        • I am glad that you do understand the point that I am making. I do not expect anything from the people around me except understanding and respect as is the same I show to them. There are sometimes no magic answers in life and it is not only Eds that place people within situations where they may be powerless, in the sense that there is no correct action that will erase the pain or grief of a given situation. For the people around me, it is inappropriate for me to expect them to ‘act ‘ and thereby, ‘solve’ the problem. I just believe that speaking out about the fact that EDs do kill goes a long way in breaking the stigma and taboo around this tragic fact. What do you believe people should do ? Every situation is different and when we attempt to apply the same rules to every situation it can be counter-productive , most of all, to those who require the most understanding. The people whose lives have been claimed by Eds can not speak here so lets not make the mistake of pushing others who are struggling further away by causing them to feel inadequate and leaving those who have lost loved ones a cruel legacy of guilt. It is okay to say with complete conviction that we don’t know what the answers and actions are.

  20. You get it! The whole time I was reading this, I was thinking “THANK YOU.”

    I get so frustrated sometimes with so many of these “recoverED.” prototypes that we’re faced with. I don’t think I’m going to ever love my body. I am pretty sure that my body will always feel “safer” when it is thinner. There are days where eating is a hassle. I often don’t look forward to it. Sometimes I dread it. Sometimes it’s okay, and I enjoy being in a place where my eating disorder isn’t limiting me — While I don’t dread getting lunch with a friend– it isn’t the end of the world, I definitely do it more for the company than the food.

    I spent a long time trying to change that and it got me nowhere… Can’t be recoverED.? Might as well be sick! Eventually I had to let go of both and set the eating disorder aside (the idea of ‘successfully recovered’ vs. ‘successfully sick’) and think about what I wanted out of LIFE and what it was that I needed to do to be able to live a life that I wanted. Now it isn’t about loving my body or loving food– it’s about doing what I need to do to maintain the life that I’ve been working toward. Some days are harder than others, and I’m pretty sure I’ll always have days when I feel like saying “f— it, I’d rather starve.”

    But this seems to be working better than the idealized recovery. For me, at least.

  21. I love what you offered in this post. Very true. I didn’t want to recover in a way, because I didn’t want to do life. Life was a full of pains and suffering. I didn’t care about facing it. It happened to me that I had to, and there was no way to avoid it. I didn’t decide to recover to get better. I slowly gave up, and I fought every moment and in a way I still do. It was necessary as I got older. Educating myself for ED made me feel guilty for doing what I had been doing. I was smart enough to understand ED and what I was doing. I could not longer continue the way I was. I had to be responsible as a human being. And, recovery is not a fun road for a person who loves to escape from any difficult moments. Recovery is for me just to make myself easier to go through life.

  22. “Despite all of this, all the craziness, all the messiness, I am still coping better and functioning better than I ever have before. I am still mostly free of ED thoughts, even when you factor in this latest slip.”

    Carrie, this is great news–this is real life. I think of my almost 8 year old daughter who is 1 1/2 years post diagnosis, 1 year 4 months post WR. She’s eating easily, doing great, but she still has an anxiety disorder, and while food stuff seems to be going beautifully, I don’t know what is inside her head. For her also I can say that she is “coping better and functioning better” than she has before. Her mood is more stable. She has strategies to handle anxiety. She’s learning not to let things snowball and escalate into tantrums when she starts to get upset. Does she have a harder life than most people? Well, despite her blessings of a stable family and having everything she needs, yes, I think she does. Mental illness isn’t a picnic. That’s still there.

    Because of that, I think it is very sad to hear about treatment centers presenting this rosy idea of “recovery” as this perfect, heavenly, place with all beauty and no difficulty. Hey, even those of us who have never had to deal with a biological brain disorder don’t get that, do we? My little girl has asked me how to get the OCD to go away, and she understands that it won’t go away. She’s said, “that’s not fair.” And, yes, I told her, life is not fair, but look how strong she is, look how she can be in charge and make that “mean voice” very very tiny, very minimal. Look how through her choices she can have a great life.

    It isn’t easy. I’m glad you have people who KNOW you and your challenges and can support you. I hope my daughter also will always have that.

  23. Thank you, Carrie! This is what I needed tonight. I’m going thru a slip and m working to get back on track in the new year. As much as it sucks to feel this way it’s reassuring to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this way and hits rough patches. It’s a struggle and people often forget that. I’ve been following your writing for years and I’m so grateful for your openness and willingness to share your experiences. You’ve helped me in so many ways. Thank you take care :)

  24. A really great, inspirational blog about eating disorders help and treatments

  25. This father needs helpwith his daughters eating disorder

  26. Thank you for this! I really needed to read this! I haven’t been reading blogs lately, but I’m reminded of why I miss yours.

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