Eating disorder recovery can be a tricky thing for support systems and loved ones to talk about. Finding words can be tough. I realize that. And I have so much respect for people that try that I almost don’t care what words you use. So long as you’re offering support, acceptance, and unconditional love, who the hell cares how you phrase things.
Every time I hear people dragging the good old war metaphors into eating disorder recovery discussions, I get the same sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as when people use the phrase “binge-watch” to talk about Netflix. It just … it just feels gross. And while the reasoning for the latter should seem obvious (by the old gods and the new, folks, just say “marathon-watch”), I’ve spent a couple of months now trying to figure out why I feel nauseous when people reference my “battle” or my “fight.”
It’s not exactly an uncommon metaphor. So I feel a little weird calling it out. For some people, it’s empowering. Because here’s what it does: It externalizes the eating disorder. It makes it something you can see and touch and tackle to the ground in a no-holds barred gladiator match to the death. And in a battle, there’s only one possible outcome. Someone will win, and someone will lose.
In defense of the metaphor, we know that eating disorders are a formidable foe. They have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Our “battlefield,” if you want to put it that way, is haunted by the ghosts who have come before us, and those who will still follow. It’s sobering. It’s powerful. I see why people use those words.
But I hate it. I hate it so much.
For me, I often hear the metaphor replacing the noun when it comes to recovery. That formulation looks a little like this:
We know you’ve been battling this a long time.
If you need help with your battle, just give me a call.
Every day you keep battling, you’re doing a great job.
I just want to stand on something and shout at everyone to call it what it is. I am recovering from an eating disorder, dammit. It’s not a curse word. It’s not something I’m ashamed of anymore. I don’t need you dancing around the issue, afraid to call it what it is. What you’re demonstrating, to me, when you do this is that my mental illness is something that needs a euphemism — that I should be ashamed of it, because you are.
I know this isn’t what people mean, when they say this. They’re trying to help. And I appreciate the sentiment. I really do. I try to accept the message as it’s meant. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still feel a twinge when I hear it.
But that’s a personal issue. That’s an issue with wording. That’s something that can easily be addressed. My issues with war metaphors stem deeper than that, down to the actual substance.
Because in my mind, it just doesn’t fit what I’m trying to accomplish.
I am not trying to stab my eating disorder on the steps of the Roman Senate. I am not meeting my eating disorder in the Coliseum, watching it bare its lion-sharp teeth at my throat, and demanding of my support system, “Are you not entertained?” (I am not trying to only use Roman metaphors, but if the shoe fits …)
The end of my story is not a winner-takes-all match where I kill my eating disorder, or my eating disorder kills me.
I’m just trying to live here.
I just want to be able to go about my life without worrying about (not) eating and (not) exercising — at least, a reasonable percentage of the time. I want to hang out with friends at a restaurant and eat an entire bowl of saag paneer because it is delicious, and not worry about what that says about me as a person. I want to go for a run because it makes my legs feel good to move and it clears my head from a long day at the office.
I’m not in it for guts or glory.
I’m not a goddamn warrior. I don’t want a medal for what I’m trying to do.
And I don’t expect to stab my eating disorder through the throat and watch it squirm, never to rise again. That’s not how this is going to work out. I know that.
The metaphor of “war” and “battle” demands a conclusion. It asks for a winner. It wants everything to be clear and easy and tied up in a bow at the end. Who won the American Revolution? Obviously. Who’s winning my eating disorder recovery? Hell if I know.
When you call me a “fighter,” it means you demand that I win. Because that’s what fighters do — they defeat their enemies, every time, every day, and the day they slip up, they die. That’s not what recovery looks like. There are good days and bad days and days that defy categorization. There are days where you just look around at your emotional state and go “Well, that doesn’t make a damn bit of sense at all.”
But you keep going. Because it’s all a part of your life, the ups and the downs and the turns. And setbacks aren’t “losses” when you think about it this way. They’re just experiences. You learn from them. You embrace them. And you keep living.
I’m not trying to strip the power of metaphor from anyone it helps. Plenty of people like the feeling of “recovery warriors.” It makes them feel in control of their trajectory. It’s a powerful way of sticking it to your eating disorder, telling it to go fuck itself because your body is Sparta and there’s only room for one Leonidas here.
But that doesn’t mean I have to use it for myself.
So next time you want to ask me how I’m holding up in my recovery fight, I’d really appreciate it if you could just not.
Just ask me how I’m doing.
Because that’s all I’m trying to accomplish here.
Can I stop fighting for a bit?
Can I just live?