Living in My Post-Recovery Body: Everyday Confrontations with Death

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By Caroline Morris

Every day in my post-recovery body is a confrontation with death.

Some see anorexia as a necessary confrontation with death that, if outlived, can lead to a fuller acceptance of life. This is probably true, but I don’t think the confrontation really begins until recovery begins. Awareness of mortality—fear of death—is the conception of recovery.

Most emotions, including fear, are dormant during anorexia, but my recovery from anorexia was drenched in death: for years, death was all I thought about, wrote about, dreamt about.

In the midst of this terror, I found something that I must have lost since, some acceptance of death that went beyond mere resignation.

I am in the process of rediscovering it.

*

The only thing more exhausting than recovery from anorexia is what lies beyond it.

I don’t ever want to downgrade the struggle of recovery—it was the hardest I have ever fought, the most excruciating thing I have ever done.

Every night, I saw that my promises from the night before had disintegrated as I slept, that I hadn’t kept a single one. Every night, I fell asleep wondering whether I would wake the next morning.

There is a sense of urgency in recovery—or there was for me. There was a feeling that I was racing against time, a persistent panic that my labor might all be in vain. Now that things have slowed down, I am depleted. Most days, I have just enough energy to do what I must. Some days, I don’t have even that.

“Most emotions, including fear, are dormant during anorexia, but my recovery from anorexia was drenched in death: for years, death was all I thought about, wrote about, dreamt about.”

For a few years, I thought maybe my body needed time to recover too, that these debilitating symptoms were simply part of the process—temporary, in other words—but I am starting to see that this might just be how my body functions now.

I know there are stages to recovery—long, slow stages broken up by small but momentous victories. I thought I had experienced every stage already, but I am seeing that in some real sense, I might still be recovering.

My mind is my own and reconnection has shown its fruit in nearly every aspect of my life, but there is one area that I find wanting: there are days when I want to reject my post-recovery body, days that its frailty and brokenness are too much for me.

I have found myself wondering if the last step in recovery is the acceptance—the full acceptance—of the post-recovery body. I have learned to accept its softness and the marks it has garnered over the years, but accepting its functional imperfections is far more difficult.

Every dysfunction, every sudden pain, every sign that I am not the healthy twenty-eight year old I likely could have been is a reminder that I am this body, that I am mortal, that I will die. Those days and nights of paralyzing fear have passed, but I am still confronting death all the time, though in much more subtle ways.

I think somehow, somewhere along the way, I forgot: recovery does not usher you into some bright, new future or world but into the real one, the uncertain one I was previously unable to feel at home in.

If anorexia is an ascetic disorder that is to some extent connected to the problem of mortality, and that is the way I see it, the way I experienced it, then recovery involves an acceptance of death or a reacceptance of life under these conditions.

“Every dysfunction, every sudden pain, every sign that I am not the healthy twenty-eight year old I likely could have been is a reminder that I am this body, that I am mortal, that I will die.”

This acceptance of life and death necessitates an acceptance of the body “with all its messiness and unpredictability.”[1] Bodies age and are injured. Bodies fall ill. Bodies are precarious.

I posit that the final task of recovery is to accept that recovery may not lead to perfect or even good health and that the body will always be fleshy and fragile, part of the natural world, not built to last.

*

I have found that others also understand their anorexia as being somehow linked to uncertainty about death and a rejection of the mortal body.

Sheila MacLeod, whose own recovery involved “flowers and fruit, fruition and decay,” writes that the anorexic “can find no other way of being-in-the-world than through a process of self-starvation.”[2] She observes that what the anorexic is seeking is confirmation “that she is a part of nature, and therefore at one with her own body.”[3] Though her process of self-starvation is essentially a refusal of life, the anorexic does not want to die. What she wants is freedom from death—what she wants is to know how to live in a world that is constantly dying.

Similarly, many of Catherine Garrett’s participants saw their anorexia as sort of spiritual distortion and believed that true or undistorted spirituality entails “acceptance and nurture of the body rather than its transcendence.”[4] While many of her participants spoke of their anorexia in spiritual terms, the anorexic is not necessarily religious. What makes her asceticism spiritual is “the relation which both [her] beliefs and actions bear to cultural ways of dealing with death.”[5] Western societies do not have the rituals necessary “to acknowledge death and make it serve socially positive and transcendent purposes,”[6] and Garrett proposes that anorexia can do just that.

“Though her process of self-starvation is essentially a refusal of life, the anorexic does not want to die. What she wants is freedom from death—what she wants is to know how to live in a world that is constantly dying.”

Ascetic withdrawal in the Christian tradition is often followed by a return. Anorexia, too, can be understood as a flight followed by a return. Garrett suggests that anorexia is but one half of two “ritualistic attempts to construct the self,” not something in and of itself but “a means to an end; a condition of access to the positive cult.”[7] In order to return, to recover, to access the so-called “positive cult,” what morality has stifled—desire for food, flesh, intimacy, and knowledge—must be reawakened.

By inciting questions about “the demand for ‘purity’ through over-control of the body itself”[8] and reminding us that “virtuous living” “can turn pathological,”[9] anorexia challenges us. Giordano writes that the way to resolve eating disorders most effectively is to “change, or at least rearticulate, the way we—all of us—think about concepts such as right and wrong.”[10] We need to follow Giordano’s lead and challenge the way that eating—the way that everything—is moralized. But we especially need better rituals to help people deal with the fragility of life, since obsessions with controlling the body, manifested in prohibitions against it, are attempts to control the inevitable, decay and death.

In the meantime, Garrett believes that anorexia can serve a social purpose, just as asceticism has in the past, by reminding us that we are all like the fasting saint and the anorexic, “as we engage in practices which transform our being in the encounter with our own mortality.”[11]

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Caroline has a Bachelor’s in English and is pursuing a Master of Divinity with a concentration in Writing. Her key interests include: the relationship between anorexia and virtue, eating disorders, asceticism, evangelical dieting culture, and libidinal education. She is, as her post suggests, both recovered and recovering, and she is new to sharing both her writing and her self.

References

[1] Catherine J. Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia: A Durkheimian Interpretation,” Social Science & Medicine 43, no. 10 (1996): 1500.

[2] Sheila MacLeod, The Art of Starvation (London: Virago Limited, 1981), 138.

[3] Ibid., 139.

[4] Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia,” 1498.

[5] Ibid., 1495.

[6] Catherine J. Garrett, Beyond Anorexia: Narrative, Spirituality, and Recovery (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 124.

[7] Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia: 1490.

[8] Garrett, Beyond Anorexia, 124.

[9] Richard A. O’Connor and Penny Van Esterik, From Virtue to Vice: Negotiating Anorexia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 25.

[10] Simona Giordano, Understanding Eating Disorders: Conceptual and Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Anorexia and Bulimia Nervosa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 264.

[11] Garrett, “Recovery from Anorexia,” 1496, 1501.

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I think that an eating disorder comes to us for various reasons, for me it was the constant pressure from family & classmates about my appearance, how fat I looked from their perspective and the anxieties coming from this type of criticism, it made me discover (I don’t know if I should say “by accident”) bulimia when I was only twelve. Now with 39, I’ve been dealing with lots of health issues during this recovery period of mine, and it is true that I had thoughts about death and dying almost all the time, and in the other hand the need of destroying the body I was (and I am) inhabitating, drove me to the point that I felt like I was not connecting with my own physical self, I felt dettached from my body and I am still experiencing it somewhat, great article!

    Like

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