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What I'm Learning About Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery

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Living with mental illness is a shit. Whether that illness comes from nature or nurture is neither here nor there. Through the course of the illness, you learn ways to manage distress and those ways are frequently unproductive. Often numbing.

I have found that a lot of people with psychologically poor health are highly sensitive. Acutely aware of others’ emotions and all emotions run deep. They cut into the flesh of the soul and the wounds bleed freely.

It is no wonder that those of us with deep wounds and high sensitivity seek ways to make life more emotionally comfortable. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, work, foodself-harm, starvation. All these things can be used and abused to distract from the onslaught of distress that comes with the gaping wounds.

I think those of you born with the tough flesh that doesn’t easily scratch, struggle to understand what it is to bleed so freely. Something has to happen to staunch the flow of emotions.

What That Something Is, Becomes the Choice We Have

I have learned to binge, purge, starve, self-harm, abuse prescription drugs, obsessively play games on my phone or hide away in books. I even dabble in mindless shopping and excessive Netflix binging. Anything to stop the leakage of emotional pain.

I have mood stabilizing drugs now. They’re like magical pixie dust. And through dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) I have also learned distress tolerance and emotional regulation skills. Lots of mnemonics like TIPP, STOP, DEARMAN. Simple skills like deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Difficult skills (for me) like mindfulness and meditation, and riding the waves of emotional pain. Really difficult skills like talking. Distraction skills like walking, journaling and music.

All These Things Are Wonderful

Combined with a determination and willingness to change old habits, I have made significant recovery over the past two years.

I no longer self-harm or purge – two behaviors people found particularly distressing. And, most surprisingly for me, I no longer think about those things or miss them.

I confess I can still become obsessed with phone games, books and Netflix. Sometimes they are little periods of emotional numbing and sometimes a compulsive insistence that comes with bipolar hypomania to just push through and do something to the exclusion of all else.

Disordered eating – binging and starving – is my oldest and most ingrained habit. I have worked so hard on these in the past two years and it has not been a flawless process. Regardless, I have learned to eat really regularly – even when I don’t want to – and as a consequence of reliably predictable eating, my binging behaviors have almost disappeared.

And then this week happened, which demonstrates that the evidence of true recovery is best gauged when life’s curveballs come and slap you around the head.

It Turns Out My Recovery Is Not Fully There Yet

I can’t face food anymore. I have crashed headfirst into restriction even while knowing the logical outcome.

I feel confident I can get my feet back on the ground quickly and I am busy gathering tools and support structures. But right now the psychological and the physiological have merged and I feel sick – physically and mentally. And my temporary Band-Aid is restriction.

I feel like a disappointment, to be honest. Nobody wants me to relapse. I don’t want to relapse. While on the one hand, I have full control over the situation, on the other hand, I feel out of control in this situation.

I know the best thing I can do at this point is to seek professional support and to never hide in silence. The level of shame I naturally feel all the time just exponentially increases when I stay silent.

So Here I am – Yet Again – Confessing to a Relapse

I want to leave you with hope though. I know that every time I fall down I always get up. I have a 100 percent track record of standing back up. Sometimes more quickly than others, but I’m confident nonetheless. All I need is patience and understanding, and with time I will once again find the willingness to commit. That time has just not yet come.

Getty image by simonapilolla

Originally published: February 23, 2022
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