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?
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.
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.