Avoiding Relapse in Eating Disorder Recovery

A few months ago, after eight months behavior free, I binged. It seemed like it happened completely out of the blue. I was shocked and embarrassed. I was disappointed in myself. I was consumed with anxiety. Did this relapse mean I would plummet back in to the depths of my eating disorder? Was I starting over from square one? Would I lose all the freedom I had gained during my eight months behaviors free?

I saw my therapist and we discussed the relapse, and more importantly, the weeks leading up to the relapse. Two things commonly said about relapsing in eating disorder recovery are “relapse is part of recovery” and “the relapse starts long before behaviors are used.” In talking with my therapist I immediately began to see the importance of these sayings. It became very clear that I had been gearing up for a relapse for a while. I had become less vigilant about my recovery, in a number of ways.

My therapist reminded me to be compassionate and remember that relapse happens often in eating disorders. Recovery is a journey and a process, it doesn’t all happen at once. He reminded me that the most important thing was to learn as much as I could from the relapse. So we analyzed what circumstances led up to the relapse.

Getting Too Busy and Out of My Routine

In the weeks leading up to the relapse, there were a lot of things happening. I was traveling a lot. I spent a week out of town with my husband for his new job, we went away for our one year wedding anniversary, and I went to a music festival with my sister in NYC. All within the span of two and a half weeks. I was frequently in unfamiliar surroundings, and often completely out of my routine.

A big part of my recovery has been my spiritual practice which involves a daily routine of readings, journaling, and meditation. While I was traveling, I quickly fell out of these practices. Before I knew it, I had gone almost a week without my full routine, and I began to feel really off kilter.

I had also been working at two different jobs and participating in a lot of extracurricular activities in the weeks leading up to my relapse. My therapist and I spent a lot of time talking about why I’d chosen to make myself so busy. We came to the conclusion that I was making myself busy to avoid the anxiety I was feeling about the transitional time I’m going through right now. I became so caught up in my busy lifestyle that I didn’t even realize I had an intense amount of anxiety and fear building inside.

Not Talking About What I’m Really Thinking and Feeling

Early in recovery I learned that saying out loud what I’m really thinking and feeling, even if that seems terrifying, is essential to not engaging in eating disorder behaviors. Since I often used behaviors to avoid my feelings, I had to find a new outlet for those feelings. Talking to my therapist and other people that I really trusted became that outlet. I was often afraid of being judged, but whenever I spoke to people I trusted they were incredibly understanding and kind. Letting it out instead of keeping it all in was incredibly healing.

Leading up to the relapse I had been slowly isolating myself. I hadn’t seen my therapist in almost a month. I hadn’t been in contact with my most trusted friends. I had convinced myself I didn’t have time to call or that I didn’t need to call. I hadn’t made plans to see anyone because I was “too busy”. All of the anxiety I was trying to avoid by being so busy was building up inside with no release valve.

I Wasn’t Paying Attention to How I Ate

Right before I stopped using behaviors I read the book “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. This book literally changed my life. It introduced me to the concept that our bodies are made to know how to eat, but dieting and messages from society about how we are “supposed” to eat make it impossible to listen to our bodies. The book provides guidelines for getting back in touch with your body so you can recognize its natural hunger and fullness signals.

One of the suggested tools for learning to recognize hunger and fullness signals is mindful eating. Mindful eating is a practice that requires paying close attention during the process of eating. When eating mindfully, you generally eat without distractions like TV or a computer. You eat slowly, really savoring every bite. You check in with yourself while eating asking questions like “does this still taste good? Do I want another bite? Am I full yet?” Eating becomes almost a meditative ritual that allows you to connect to your body.

Earlier on in my recovery I used mindful eating a lot to learn to recognize my hunger and fullness signals. Reconnecting to my body enough to know when I was hungry and full allowed me to find a lot of freedom around eating.

Gradually I began to trust my body and moved away from mindful eating. I thought I was familiar enough with my body’s signals to maintain the habit of eating when I was hungry and stopping when I was full. I started to eat while distracted more often. I stopped paying attention to how my body was feeling during and after eating. I didn’t notice that my ability to pay attention to my body’s signals was decreasing. Slowly, I started overeating, just a little. Not bingeing, but eating past the point of fullness. Slowly I started waiting a bit longer between meals. I would wait to eat until I was overly hungry, which often resulted in frenzied overeating. It didn’t take long without mindful eating for my eating to get really out of sync with my body.

So What Did I Learn from this Relapse?

The most important thing I learned is that recovery takes work, even if it’s been a long time since I’ve actively used behaviors. I have to keep doing the things I did in the beginning of my recovery in order to stay behavior free.

The most important thing I have to do is confront my anxiety and difficult feelings on a regular basis. This means I need to be talking about my feelings on a regular basis. I also need to slow down and take a lot of time for self-reflection. If I allow myself to get “too busy” to reflect, I am likely to miss the fact that I’m having difficult feelings in the first place. If I am avoiding feeling my feelings this will eventually lead to a relapse.

I learned just how important my daily spiritual practices are and that maintaining them is essential. I have gotten back in to reading, journaling, and meditating on a daily basis. I am trying to get back in to a regular yoga practice, which helps me to be more present in my body.

I also learned that I have to be aware of my body and the way I am consuming food. I need to pay close attention to when I am hungry. While I am eating, I have to be aware of how the food tastes and how my body feels. I am trying to commit to not being distracted while I eat, which is hard. I am giving up my membership in the “clean plate club” and becoming comfortable with leaving food uneaten if I’m full.

I am still disappointed that I relapsed, but I am doing my best to view this as an opportunity to deepen my commitment to recovery. This relapse provided a lot of valuable information about what I need to do to maintain my recovery. Sometimes I wonder if I will always have to work this hard to maintain my recovery and it seems overwhelming. But I have heard from many people with long term recovery that it becomes easier as time goes on. I believe that one day, I will just be able to live my life without thinking about my eating disorder at all. For now, I need to put in the work and trust that it will pay off.

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