Why Is the “H” Word So Hard to Hear?

For so many of us in recovery, being “healthy” creates quite a conundrum. Although we commit to health and desire the benefits that come from being healthy, it can be painfully difficult to hear the words: “You look healthy.”

Can you relate?

I recently had to go to the cardiologist for high blood pressure. For many years, my blood pressure trended on the low side because of my eating disorder, so the fact that it was high was confusing. Upon hearing my medical history, the doctor freely commented that I looked “healthy.” I immediately cringed. My insides felt punched, twisted, and stomped on. Now with high blood pressure and a healthy looking body, my sense of identity was rocked. Even though I have worked long and hard to not hang my identity on my eating disorder and I have strived to maintain health, the habitual tendency to still want to look the part kicked in.

In the hours that followed my doctor’s appointment, I journaled, did some deep breathing, and talked with my husband about how I was feeling. As I worked through the discomfort and confusion, I arrived at these questions: Why is the “h” word so hard to hear? Why does it amp up eating disorder thoughts and urges? Why does it feel more safe or comfortable to look sick at the same time that I want to be healthy?

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For many of us, our bodies were (and sometimes still are) primary defining markers of identity. We mentally list our diagnosis before any other adjectives or descriptors. Our worth and world hinge on ill health. This is not surprising because we use our bodies instead of our voices to express pain, disappointment, sadness, etc. If we look healthy to the world, then how will anyone know the truth, that things sometimes aren’t quite right, that we aren’t always OK?

In my experience, we cling to our eating disorder bodies not because we truly want to “look” sick, but because we are still in the process of figuring out and trying on healthy ways to express ourselves. If our bodies are “healthy” before we feel comfortable and practiced with our communication and coping skills, it can be challenging to feel grounded in recovery and confident in our bodies. In this sense, we long to look sick if we think we need to protect ourselves from a feeling or situation that we aren’t prepared to deal with.

How do we revise our relationship with the “h” word? How do we learn to identify with more than our bodies? And how do we separate our bodies from our pain? These are questions that I still grapple with in my own recovery. I believe they are important questions for each of us to answer because they open up the possibility that our gut reaction to the “h” word could be different. If we can disentangle our identity from our eating disorder and our pain from our bodies, we have a good shot at feeling pride, gratitude, and admiration for our healthy bodies rather than disgust, shame, and embarrassment.

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Although the cardiologist’s comment bothered me, in the end, his words were a gift. Ultimately, they showed me the material I still need to work on in my recovery, which is how to make peace with the “h” word. Just because it’s hard to hear, doesn’t mean it has to be so forever.

If the “h” word is hard for you to hear, I encourage you to reflect on some of the questions I asked here. I would love to know what you come up with and learn about your strategies for making peace with being healthy on the outside as much as on the inside.

Photo Credit: Raychel Mendez

4 Comments

  • Stayingstronger says:

    I can relate to this beyond words. Thank you for posting. It’s just what I needed and can pass it on to my support systems. Stay strong

  • Mirijam says:

    I can so relate to this as well! One of the main things that helps me come to terms with the idea of looking healthy is that I want people to be able to trust me, rely on me, ask me for help, and feel they can challenge me in areas where I can grow. I have observed in myself that it is difficult for me to ask people for help who look especially frail, or unwell, or seem to not be able to cope with their own problems; I feel compelled to be especially careful with them. Looking at it from other people’s perspective, I do not want to be this kind of person for them. I don’t mean always giving the appearance of being strong – just a general sense of being, and looking, “healthy” (I have to admit that despite my own advice I still hate seeing that word in connection to my body), of being able to cope with a certain amount of stress. If that makes sense.

  • Nathalie says:

    This is interesting to me, because I come at it (as I’m sure many do!) from both sides; I’ve bee in that position where “you look well/healthy” has made me cringe and inwardly wail “but I’m not!”
    On the other hand, I know others in that position of recovery and I find myself wanting to offer support and encouragement and stumbling on words like “healthy” because, though I know the word itself is a positive thing, and that is how I mean it, the person I want to say it to may not necessarily take it that way! So it leaves me in a bit of quandary sometimes…

  • GH says:

    I hate that as a society we feel compelled to comment on people’s appearances. We’ve all heard the “you look tired”, or “have you lost weight?”, “you’re too thin”, and the dreaded, “you look healthy”.

    In the end it’s meaningless. During my weight loss, before I got too thin, people thought I looked “healthy”, but I wasn’t. I was deeply disordered, it just wasn’t showing yet. Or when I put on a few pounds and all of the sudden, I look “healthy” now. Like I’m all better now.

    I resent that they even pass judgment on my state of health. And that they feel like offering it to me.

    If someone wants to say something to me, ask me how I’m doing. I wish the doctors I’ve gone to for my amenorrhea would think to do that. Instead of saying how “healthy” I look and congratulating me on my weight loss.

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