I was recently etroduced to the work of Dana Shavin. Her memoir, The Body Tourist, chronicles her experiences following her recovery from anorexia. I asked her for any insights she might have for my readers about illness and recovery. Here's what she had to say:
The Best Worst Question of All
“What’s the most important thing you learned in your recovery from anorexia?”
I was asked this not long after I left the hospital, by a friend of a friend who was
struggling with depression. It was a great question, because it made me think hard about
what things had really helped, and why and how they helped. And it was a terrible
question, because it asked that I hang my recovery on the peg of one “most important”
thing. To do so would have been to ignore the complexities of anorexia, and the
multitude of important lessons of both illness and recovery.
That said, here is a partial list of the most important things I came to understand that
helped me in my recovery. There are many more things—people, books, therapy,
journaling, taking positive risks, asking for support—that also played a role. As you read
through these, I hope you’ll think about what has helped, or is helping—or would help—you.
--Eating disorders trick us into believing we are thinking clearly, but in truth they are side
trips that lead us away from the real questions we could and should be asking ourselves.
What if, instead of what won’t I eat today and how much can I exercise, I asked
questions like: what are my dreams? My goals? What am I passionate about? What gives
me meaning? What do I want to DO with my time in the world? These questions took me
outside my small, stuck world of anorexia and reminded me that there was a larger world
--Starving, binging and purging, and eating and exercising compulsively are behaviors
rich in metaphor; but ironically, we can only really understand their message once we
STOP engaging in them. I so wanted, while I was ill, a guarantee that my life would be
better/different/happier if I “gave in and gained weight” as I called it. But I learned that
in fact I could not create the better, different, happier life I desired until I stopped the
addictive behaviors. It took every ounce of courage I could muster to trust that I would do
the work of making my life better/different/happier as I regained to a healthy weight. But
it was enormously more empowering to do that work and reap the rewards (I became an
artist and a writer and a dog rescuer and a life coach) than it was to starve, day in and day
out, with no plans, no goals, and no dreams larger than to weigh a bit less than the day
--Recovery is a complex process that starts, but doesn’t finish, in the 28 days or 4
months or year you’re in treatment. It happens over time, and it requires a willingness to
continue questioning (kindly, and without judgment) all the things you thought were true
about yourself, and the world, that led to or sustained your eating disorder. The gift of
looking deeply, honestly, and over time at yourself and your behaviors is the gift of true
understanding and, ultimately, forgiveness.
--The size of a life isn’t inversely proportional to the size of a body (i.e. my life did not
feel larger and richer the smaller I got, as I thought it would) but grows in proportion
to how well we nourish the self. Allowing myself to become fully functioning, curious,
authentic, creative, interested in the outside world, flexible, and open-minded is what
grew—and continues to grow—and expand my life.
--A sense of humor goes a long, long, long, long way. Try to have one about yourself.
--Forgive yourself for whatever it is you are not. Forgive yourself for whatever it is
you can’t do. Forgive yourself for all the ways you believe you have failed. Everybody
fails. Tons of people are failing right now, at something. True freedom comes when you
understand this, and let yourself off the hook.
Dana Lise Shavin is the author of The Body Tourist (Little Feather Books, 2014), a raw,
candid, at times comical look at the six years following her “recovery” from anorexia
nervosa. Her website is www.danashavin.com.
You can find Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation's Fixation with Food and Weight on Amazon (as a paperback and Kindle) and at BarnesandNoble.com.