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Eating disorders are family diseases

Netflix's Everything Now surprised me—it tells the story of sixteen-year-old Mia, fresh out of inpatient for anorexia nervosa, returning home to the reality of family drama and the social angst of seeing friends move on with their lives. This show is a lot, especially for me and my family, who saw my anorexia recovery journey. Many differences exist between my and Mia's story, but the details are irrelevant. The underlying message accurately highlights the eating disorder (ED) recovery experience firsthand and vicariously through loved ones. Everything Now absolutely nailed this: Eating disorders are family diseases.

Seeking treatment and looking or acting better does not equal "back to normal." Mia's return from inpatient is met with commentary around how great it is to see her "back to normal," focused on her healthier skin and improved mood rather than her body size. These comments' impacts are twofold. First, even though her family and friends are worried and have loving intentions, the words are triggering at worst and putting her under a microscope at best. They illustrate the lack of trust that goes both ways in ED recovery. Loved ones are terrified Mia will fall back into bad habits, and Mia is terrified of losing control over the balancing act of navigating recovery. She wants to be true to her ED voice while healing and placating her loved ones. It can be difficult to articulate this nuance to those who have never had an ED. Yes, recovery is the essential goal, but it is also devasting to feel the disorder disappear.

Recovery often comes with wanting to validate one's own sickness. During a simple pedicure, the eating disorder voice is angry, wondering whether strangers could tell that Mia's body used to be so much frailer. Similarly, someone once said they expected to see physical scars on me based on how I spoke about my recovery. I immediately took this as a negative, that maybe I was not sick enough or a traitor to my anorexia because there was no more tangible evidence of the disorder. The first is invalid because I was always sick enough for treatment, and so is everyone else with anorexia, especially those who may not fit the stereotypical image. The second is true: I am a traitor to my anorexia. That's the only way to recover. But that didn't make the return of a period feel easier for me or Mia as portrayed on the screen. It did not feel like an empowering milestone in health, it felt embarrassing and alien. Nonetheless, Mia's (and my) loved ones were celebrating this "back to normal."

But striving for "back to normal" can distract from the healing power of self-growth in recovery. Sexuality is another good example from the show, letting oneself feel and be felt rather than grasping for control and invisibility. This growth emanates in how one carries themself, and even though it may seem like they are growing back into the person they once were, it's not the full picture. The fragility of recovery can seriously cause someone to reevaluate their values and priorities while healing from past hurts. And for family and friends, it can be challenging to see these changes because everyone copes differently, and maybe those behaviors do not align with the past or clash with the present.


Coming back to reality means facing reality. When dealing with the "stuff" in my life, I was afraid I would want to turn back to the anorexia behaviors. Honestly, I did want to, and I was afraid I would actually do it. Leaning into self-growth can also mean embracing the satisfaction of being alive and not wanting to restrict intake anymore, even when things are tough. SPOILER: Mia deals with relapse in the show, which makes sense given her family's conflict. Even her friends began developing their own maladaptive coping habits to other life stressors, like drinking and sex-related self-harm. Mia's response may be explained by EDs chemically changing the brain structure, but it also highlights how life does not stop during recovery. People hit their own milestones, the good and the bad.

There comes a point in healing when the selfish shadow of anorexia has been shed, and the person and their loved ones have to deal with the very real shame and blame going in all directions. Recovery is not a solo journey, but the blame may feel very isolating to those feeling it. Whether it's the parents, devastated they had not intervened sooner, or the little brother, feeling selfish even though his complaint is valid, his needs were put on hold for his big sister's illness. Friends may question the past and whether they had enabled the anorexia behaviors. The person with the ED may feel immense guilt about the lies they've told. There's anger too, because it is terrifying to see someone with anorexia suffer the deadliest mental illness. But there's euphoria to see them better, too.

The urgency for Everything Now is real in recovery. Colors are brighter, that might sound sappy and cliche, but it's true. Muted feelings for so long completely changed the way I felt and perceived. So even though there were times in the show when I felt Mia's bucket list was a little overkill, it is metaphorically and occasionally literally spot-on. I've written countless love letters to recovery and am not going to stop any time soon because it really is worth it. I think Mia's story is going to help others find peace with it too.


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