I first sought treatment for my eating disorder when I was 17, after struggling with disordered eating in one way or another since I was 11 years old. I quickly became disenchanted with the mental health care system (this is a story for another day) and went about recovery on my own. I did a sort of makeshift family therapy where I made my friends and family all watch me like a hawk. They took control of my eating until I was ready to take control of it. And then by the age of 19, when I had put on considerable weight and spent time travelling and exploring the world (building up a self-concept based on more than my weight) I finally started to view myself as ‘recovered’.
There was just one problem that lingered in the back of my mind. Because of my family therapy approach I had never really dealt with the underlying causes of my eating disorder. The way I have often described it since was that I ‘brute forced recovery’. I knew at the time that I hated being anorexic and I just forced myself to eat until it felt normal. It was awful. Like torture. But as you can see I am an exceptionally determined person. You wouldn’t believe the things I can accomplish when I put my mind to it. And it worked. This approach, whilst effective, left me with many unresolved issues. And I feared for many years that the coping mechanisms that underpinned my eating disorder were just boiling under the surface, waiting to take over once again. And I was right to worry.
Don’t get me wrong, I have since put it in a lot of work to understanding why I had an eating disorder and working on the factors that put me at risk of developing one again. All I am trying to say is that I think ‘recovery’ is an ongoing process and perhaps I was naive to think I was ‘recovered’ just because I wasn’t showing outward symptoms at 19. I mean, eating disorder relapse within the first ten years is exceptionally common. Why did I think I was so different? The thing is though that if you make it past ten years you are usually okay. Once again, I thought I could ‘brute force’ my way to ten years and then that dark period of my life would be over. I hoped and I prayed but here I am again.
In case you haven’t already picked up on it what I am trying to tell you is that I have had a relapse in my eating disorder. In addition to my recent depressive episode I have been showing some problematic behaviours reminiscent of my eating disorder days. I have been weighing myself all the time. I have been skipping meals. I have been wearing baggy clothes. I have been mirror checking more. I’ve been feeling very guilty for eating and for skipping the gym. I’ve been comparing myself to other women a lot, especially on social media. I have been poking and prodding at my body when I have free time. And my self-talk has been horrendous. I have said things to myself I haven’t said in years. And it’s scary to hear those words again.
When I described all of this to my therapist I called it an itty-bitty-teeny-tiny relapse. What I meant by that was that I didn’t feel out of control. At least, not yet. And also I didn’t want to worry them as although it was frightening to me, it wasn’t that serious. I wasn’t actively engaging in starving myself. It just didn’t feel right calling it a full relapse. My therapist was very understanding and agreed with me that it wasn’t a full relapse. However she disagreed in my choice of terminology. Instead of calling it a teeny-tiny-itty-bitty relapse she described it as simply a ‘lapse’.
The way my therapist distinguished between a relapse and a lapse was quite similar to how I distinguish between mania and hypomania: insight. I knew what was going on. She told me that instead of feeling guilty or ashamed about these symptoms reappearing I should feel proud and celebrate that I noticed them in the first place. I felt this was such an empowering way of looking at reLAPSE. Because like I said, I wasn’t out of control, I was still very much in control and noticing these things and then telling my care team about them. This goes to show how much I have learned in my long journey with mental illness.
So where to from here? I don’t know. I’m going to work hard to avoid my disordered eating taking over my life once more. I’m going to keep seeing my care team and do what needs to be done. I feel very grateful to have such a good team behind me. In particular I feel blessed to have a therapist who is so supportive and helps me view setbacks like this in such a positive and life-affirming way. I wanted to share this perspective with all of you lovely people so that if you ever beat yourself up for a setback you can remind yourself that you are winning because you noticed it and are trying to improve yourself.