The cycle of relapse and recovery is neither linear nor stable. Life is messy. And eating disorders make it messier.
You were sick, but now you’re well again, and there’s work to do.
This quote is from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel Timequake. It is a nice sentiment that I quote regularly. It promotes moving forward over wallowing in past mistakes.
The downside, however, is that it isn’t a viable life motto.
There is always work to do, whether you are sick or well, and there are times where you are, simultaneously, both and neither.
I developed an eating disorder when I was in high school.
The exact moment that I started to starve my body is lost to me, but it was sometime between my hips widening with puberty and my senior year.
It is almost ironic that I developed an eating disorder. Ironic in that I spent a year of elementary school adamantly fighting a rumor that, when I was absent due to mono, I had been hospitalized for anorexia. I was very skinny as a child. I stood out. And standing out at that age was dangerous.
I went from the perpetually skinny girl in middle school to developing quickly in high school. Suddenly, I had breasts and curves. I was still considered skinny, but I began to hear comments that pointed towards a future that would include me being overweight. If I had grown so quickly once, then I could do it again.
Fear of losing control overwhelmed me. I feared those comments coming true. Fear of people being right about me.
The eating disorder continued unabated until the end of my freshman year of college. I’m not even sure if I realized I had an eating disorder until after I began recovery. But it has been in the forefront of my mind every day since.
I yo-yo in and out of recovery regularly. I have never fully escaped the obsessive thoughts, the unending counting of calories, the constant listing of all I’ve eaten in a day, and the repeated Google search for how many calories each activity burns. Every time I tap my foot I think of the calories being worked off, and every time my friends pour me a drink I calculate the time it will take for me to burn it off.
A month ago, when I graduated college, I began to take advantage of the extra time I gained from no longer being in classes. I cooked breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. I ate each meal. I did yoga, but I did not excessively exercise. Recovery.
A controversial statement
This is where I make an overarching statement that could be controversial: when it comes to an eating disorder, relapse is always deliberate.
I am in no way blaming people for relapsing. I don’t blame myself for having a bad day. Or for skipping a meal, staying on the treadmill too long, or for denying myself the dessert I’ve been craving for weeks because I weighed myself that morning.
Blaming yourself is dangerous and leads to actions that are detrimental to your health and wellbeing. You’re supposed to recognize the setback and move on. And do so with even more determined to overcome it the next time.
Here’s what I mean…
What I mean by relapse being deliberate is that there are (when you know what you are looking for) clear and obvious markers that warn you that a relapse is in process.
Since there are multiple forms of eating disorders, these markers vary. I have to rely on my personal experience for what comes next.
For me, it always begins with one deceptively simple thought: “I ate way too much today. I’ll just not eat tomorrow.”
Listen to the warnings
The disorder inside of me whispers the thought just loud enough for me to hear but soft enough that I forget how deadly it is. I forget that it is a warning. I accept the thought and go about my day.
Actually, the thought is dangerous from the moment I think it. For the rest of the day I have an excuse to binge. “I’m going to starve myself tomorrow, so I need to eat all I am craving today.” The more I eat, the longer I plan to restrict.
The one day fast soon becomes a week-long fast. “I’ll only eat X calories for the next seven days, I’ll bargain.”
I’ll go back to recovery on the eighth day. I lie to myself.
When I relapse, my eating disorder will do absolutely anything to keep me out of recovery. Most of the time it does so by pretending that I am still in recovery.
A huge marker for me is a slow slip into fasting. I can eat less and less, still feeling full.
It’s slow, making it even more insidious. I notice it, but I don’t think of it as a relapse at first. It’s normal to me.
Next thing I know, a month or two has gone by and left me back in the dangerous cycle of restriction and fasting.
Every action I take from recovery to relapse is a deliberate step. Even though it is the eating disorder part of my mentality and not the logical rational part that takes the step. In the back of my mind, I know what I’m doing. I know that I am sick. Again.
As I deal with this all over again, I am proud of myself. The recognition that these are deliberate steps towards relapse matters. It is through recognition that I can backtrack and halt the process before I’m all the way down the rabbit hole.
It is through recognition, and telling my trusted friends the warning signs, that I can have others hold me accountable, that I can hold myself accountable.
With respect to Kurt Vonnegut, I think I need to change his quote a bit:
I am sick, and there is work to do.