Restoring a Masterpiece: Myself

A close-up view of a painting under restoration

**Content warning: This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences in recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. Please use your discretion when reading and speak with your support system as needed.

Lisa Whalen’s book,  Stable Weight: A Memoir of Hunger, Horses, and Hope, will be available from Hopewell Publications on March 2, 2021. Her writing has also appeared in An Introvert in an Extrovert World; The Simpsons’ Beloved Springfield; Introvert, Dear; and Adanna, among other publications. Whalen has a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education and an M.A. in creative and critical writing. She teaches composition, creative writing, literature, and journalism at North Hennepin Community College, where she was selected Minnesota College Faculty Association Educator of the Year in 2019. In her spare time, she is an equestrian and volunteer for the Animal Humane Society. Learn more at her website and follow her on social media @LisaIrishWhalen.  

Years ago, a graduate school professor showed my class a documentary on restoring famous paintings and frescoes, like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Guardians had managed to protect the fragile masterpieces from vandals, fires, and rain, but they couldn’t prevent centuries of dust, pollen, soot, candlewax, cigarette smoke, and the other pollutants of daily life from accumulating on the surface. The grime dulled paint colors so rich, vibrant, and complex that modern technology hasn’t been able to reproduce them.

Experts used Q-Tips to clean a single, square-inch section at a time. The work was taxing, tedious, and seemed like it never progressed, until one day, restorers stepped back and saw what looked like a miracle. Cleaned sections of the painting leapt from the surface. Their colors sang. Their backgrounds deepened. Their foregrounds glowed with light.

Occasionally, restorers discovered treasure: an artist’s signature hidden in the corner, a coded message scrawled across the background, a self-portrait layered within a battle scene, a sketch visible beneath the paint. One group of experts found what they think is a Da Vinci fresco, Battle of Anghiari, thought lost to history. It’s barely detectable behind a false wall on which another artist’s work is featured.

I’m not an artist or art historian, but restoration kept coming to mind while I completed eating disorder treatment. Years of photoshopped images, fad diets, poor self-image, and negative beliefs had accumulated in my psyche and dulled the vibrant person I’d once been. My therapist, nutritionist, and I were like restorers cleaning my mind. They shone a light on my thoughts, taught me techniques to create gradual change, and handed me tools I could use to strip away symptoms. Sometimes it seemed like I spent months of tedious, taxing work on a single self-destructive habit without any sign of progress. Then, I’d step back and see that compared to six months prior, parts of me shone.

Perfectionism was my most stubborn pollutant. I struggled to dismantle the false wall it had constructed in front of an original work I thought laughably inferior. Learning to cultivate gratitude was the only tool that convinced me that a flawed original is always preferable to fake perfection.

Much later and with hindsight’s clarity, I’m grateful for what my eating disorder has taught me. If I hadn’t needed treatment, I wouldn’t have discovered pleasures like yoga and riding horses—activities that help me appreciate my imperfect body. I wouldn’t have written a book or risked being vulnerable enough to let the real me shine through.

I’ve been out of treatment for years now, but I hold on to the idea of restoration, knowing that if I continue working to clear away destructive habits a little bit each day, eventually I’ll uncover a masterpiece.

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