Relapsing Honestly

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“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” – Abraham Maslow

Emerging from an eating disorder can feel similar to waking up from a nightmare. The initial shock subsides as you find your way into the motions of normal life. Although you know that the worst has passed, there remains a constant and unmistakable lingering at the back of your mind of that very real dark night of the soul.

With creativity, determination and strength you have made it through to the other side, and in the process, have had to learn to get very comfortable with being uncomfortable.

As your healing journey develops you catch yourself in moments of awe at the things you are doing, at the beauty of the world around you, and of how much you’ve been missing out on. Although recovery felt foreign for a time, you begin to get used to your new body, people’s positive feedback, and the color that has returned to your cheeks.

You become more present in each moment of your new life, thinking less often about food, your body and exercise.

You are so happy to have closed that chapter and understandably would rather look forward rather than back.

Until one day you feel a familiar pounding in your chest while grocery shopping or looking over a menu — you shrug it off and continue on. You’ve become so enthralled in your new life, consequently your determination and focus on recovery begin to wane.

Perhaps it began with jumping into more than you are ready for. The world without and within is exploding with opportunities and you eagerly accept. Self-care takes a backseat, therapy and support groups begin to feel unnecessary as you explore your new found freedom.

You become so externally focused that you barely notice that you’ve eliminated a food group, have started weighing yourself again, and comparing your body to others. Then seemingly out of nowhere, you have a major slip. An urge to binge, purge or starve comes over you at a weak moment, and you cave.

Dumbstruck and frustrated, you vow to start the next day over and pretend like it never happened. “It was just a fluke,” you tell yourself.

For those of us in recovery, this is a far too familiar scenario. There is a moment after that first lapse where we have the opportunity to reach out for help before we begin the spiral backwards. Unfortunately, there is a false belief that our struggle is a burden on others, which causes us to put on the everything’s-ok face. Even though it may feel like we don’t have a choice when it comes to riding the waves of recovery from mental illness and addiction, we always have the choice to ask for help.

Being honest with ourselves is the first and most crucial step to preventing relapse.

Through recovery, you begin to see through the veil of illusion that your eating disorder created, and recognize the cracks in its lies. As a recovery warrior, you now know how predictable ED’s games are and can sense when things aren’t right.

The moment that you notice yourself considering engaging in those old behaviors, thinking those old thoughts, or anything along the lines of “not a big deal” and “just this one time,” your internal alarm system should be going off.

The second component to protecting yourself from a relapse is practicing honesty with others.

We can’t do everything on our own, we weren’t designed that way and the recovery process is no exception. Overcoming an eating disorder takes a team. You aren’t weak for asking for support, vulnerability takes far more courage than slipping back into old patterns.

It is never too soon to let someone know that you are struggling, and contrary to what ED may tell you, it does not make you a burden.

Recovery is for you. I have noticed that those of us with a history of disordered eating are constantly focused on the external world. We want our recovery to be wrapped up in a pretty bow so that our families and friends don’t have to worry, but that just isn’t reality.

The sooner that we can take committed actions that align with our true values, the less time we stay trapped within our own nightmare. When I find myself taking steps backwards, there is this moment where I can choose to pay attention and ask for help or I can negotiate with ED, settle for a manageable eating disorder and merely get by.

But I don’t want to spend my life only getting by, and I hope you don’t want that either.

Rather than hovering in a half-recovery space, between the nightmare in your mind and the beautiful possibilities without, reach for your highest recovery potential and don’t settle for compromise. Backsliding is a natural part of the recovery process, but it’s up to you to decide whether to allow yourself to slip further or to reach out for a hand from above.

Practice living honestly through relapse and recovery so that you can continue finding your way to the full life that you so deserve.

Free from Stigma

   I don’t remember the day that food became more important than my family or when the focus on my weight began to outweigh my friendships. I never chose to stop doing the things I loved—writing, listening to music, reading and enjoying the sunset. Nor did I sign up to lose my ability to focus on conversations, to dissociate during meals or to withdraw from the world around me. And I certainly would never have chosen to spend so much of my life wandering around grocery stores in a haze stealing the superfoods that took the place of my values. Speaking for myself and the estimated other 30 million people living with eating disorders, there is nothing glamorous about it.

    May is Mental Health Awareness Month—this year’s theme is about reducing the stigma surrounding those who suffer from mental illnesses. Stigma is a negative judgement perceived about a person or group that tends to be a consequence of inaccurate information. In the 2008 NEDIC study “Stigmatization of Eating Disorders” published by Gina Dimitropoulos, she shares data that eating disorders are more trivialized and shown less empathy than other severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia because they are mistakenly seen as “self-induced”. In addition to this common misperception, we live in a culture that encourages behaviors such as restricting, fasting and over-exercising.

  I can not imagine a world in which someone would voluntarily choose to be so preoccupied with food, exercise and their body that they are no longer able to be present with the ones they love. In my case it took moving four times, quitting three jobs, selling my car, fleeing the country and having more than half of my hair fall out before I knew something was really wrong. I was running from bizarre urges to binge, purge and steal (kleptomania is often associated with bulimia nervosa). I didn’t know why I was out of control until I finally found the “solution” to my struggle—health foods and exercise! I could hide my internal civil war with food and weight in a culturally acceptable package of fitness.

  Unfortunately you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that started it. My isolation and self-destructive behaviors worsened as my weight rapidly dropped. My brain was barely functioning when I finally took a friend’s encouragement to go see a doctor. I only agreed because my hair was falling out which I thought was due to birth control side effects. I began to cry when the doctor said “You seem to have a serious mental illness called Orthorexia, and you need help immediately.” Although I had never heard of Orthorexia (directly translates to “fixation on righteous eating”), I cried. Someone finally put a name to the unbearable pain that I was experiencing.

    In reality, I was extremely close to losing my life to an illness that I didn’t even know I was fighting. When I returned home, my family immediately checked me into an eating disorder treatment center. I remember being blown away by the schedule. 7 days a week? Come on, there’s no way this can be that bad. Blood tests showed that it was and that I wouldn’t have lasted much longer at the pace I was going. The sad part is that though I had spent almost two years struggling with bulimia before that office visit my weight didn’t reflect the help I so desperately needed.

I’ve experienced firsthand the misperception, judgment and shame that surrounds having an eating disorder—especially when it comes to weight. Throughout my struggles with anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia my weight has fluctuated +/- 40 lbs. I have suffered just as much (if not more) at my highest weight than at my lowest weight. The first thing people look at when I tell them I am in treatment for an eating disorder is my body. “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” I’ve actually had a doctor tell me that I “look great” and that purging is just something that I’ll grow out of. The wonderful humans that I have met while in treatment come in all shapes and sizes yet time and time again friends, family members, insurance companies and even health professionals determine how well we are doing based on what the scale says.

    Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. They are silently suffocating millions of brilliant and compassionate people as we speak. I believe that if we broaden our idea of what eating disorders “look like” that more people would reach out for help.I can’t tell you how many friends I have that are still trapped in a prison of compulsive eating, exercise and negative body image yet claim to be “too fat to need help”.

   I don’t expect that the media’s portrayal of eating disorders will shift overnight from glorifying emaciated supermodels to representing a broad spectrum of genders and bodies; but I do hope that as we evolve toward a more self-aware society we will begin to question the stigmas and stereotypes that we hold by trying to see each person for who they are.

   A woman at my center said,”I never chose to have an eating disorder, but I did choose recovery.” I love that concept. Let go of the things we can’t change and change the things we can. I plan to do my part in working hard daily towards recovery and remaining open about my struggles even while being weight restored. Although I may not be able to wake up tomorrow and be completely free from my eating disorder, I am proud to say that I choose to be free from stigma and shame about it today.

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