Lessons in Relapse
I always thought that my eating disorder had everything to do with my appearance. The weight loss started with me wanting to look better, get “healthy”, and be “in shape”. By becoming the better version of myself, I thought I would also become the skinny girl people would look up to. Even as my weight dropped and I became more and more conscious of how sick I was, I remained certain that my eating disorder had nothing to do with the emotions people in treatment were talking about: feeling safe, longing for connection, and numbing emotions. For me, restricting, compulsively exercising, and purging were solely about improving my appearance, and that was all. At my worst, my disordered behaviours were always present; there were no healthy moments and no triggers. I could not clearly identify what led me to act unhealthily. It was just the way I lived.
I remember the day I started recovery vividly. I had been in a partial hospitalization program for a few weeks, refusing to eat anything that was offered to me. Then one day something switched and it felt like a revelation. Everything that my caregivers had told me suddenly made sense: I finally understood that I was so much more than my weight, that my eating disorder was preventing me from living my life, and that there was so much more to life than food. For a few weeks, I felt like I was on a honeymoon with life: I made new friends, ate without feeling guilty, and finally felt accomplished with something other than losing weight. But after the honeymoon period, the hard part of recovery kicked in.
My first relapse was before a vacation to the beach with new friends. I had met them only a few days after starting my recovery process, and even though they knew about my eating disorder, they hadn’t known me at my worst. Part of me wanted them to know how sick I could be so I started restricting again, taking pleasure when they urged me to “eat more!”. I stopped keeping my meals and although part of me felt ashamed, the other part longed for them to try to stop me. I exercised for hours and hours waiting for them to tell me that I shouldn’t. I wanted them to know that my eating disorder was real and terrible, and that recovery was hard. In fact, I felt strong in my illness. I didn’t know how to ask for support and because I’ve only seen sick people receive attention in my life, I thought my illness would make me worthy of love and care.
But I also learned that my eating disorder was isolating. Eating meals with my friends became excruciating and fighting with them over going to the gym started to make us drift apart. I was using my disordered behaviours to feel more connected and supported, but this was backfiring. People close to me started getting tired of my desire for support yet my refusal to change. They wanted to help and though they were happy I was asking for it they also wanted me to listen. Only when I truly believed that they cared about me, even when I wasn’t hitting rock bottom, did I start recovering again.
This first relapse taught me something new about my eating disorder and myself: I believed that people only cared for me and supported me when I was sick, which I now know is not true. Friends can be there for you even when you are not on a highway to death.
In between my first and second relapse, there were many slips. I discovered how hard it was for me to handle feeling full, how hunger made me feel peaceful, and how I used restriction to satiate my depression and distract me from hardship. When I failed an exam or a relationship, over-exercising or starving myself gave me a sense of pride. During those times, I felt like I was at least good at something.
My second relapse was pushed by the fear of changes in my life. I had been on a student exchange program in Los Angeles for a few months and it was time to go back to my university in Montreal. This meant leaving the life I was enjoying for a place I did not like and had never been in recovery in. It meant leaving my treatment center where I felt safe, good friends and my new boyfriend. These changes scared me, and I had no control over them. On top of that, my boyfriend with whom I had felt supported, safe, and loved started to realize that maybe I had become too much for him to handle. He was no longer sure about whether he wanted to continue our relationship or not.
These uncertainties and the changes made me feel powerless and my eating disorder was my safety net. I wanted to feel like I had at least some control over my life, so I started restricting again. I had started my recovery journey on exchange and I did not want to leave LA without a boyfriend and my eating disorder. I did not want to lose it all. Since my boyfriend could not provide safety anymore and I expected Montreal to feel very confusing and scary, I turned to the only thing which made me feel safe: my eating disorder.
When everything was falling apart, restricting made me feel strong and in control. My eating disorder felt safe because unlike people, it could not surprise me. I knew what would happen if I restricted: no matter how painful starving can be, I couldn’t be disappointed. No matter how hard this situation was, it made me understand my eating disorder better.
Sometimes I miss my rock bottom. I miss being in the worst of my disorder because recovery is hard and it sucks. Recovery is full of surprises and up and downs, but recovery is also living. Throughout my journey, I have learned the reasons behind my eating disorder, but I have also learned that it will never fully give me what I need. Yes, it will sometimes provide me with temporary relief, but this is not the life I want to live. I have a tattoo on my shoulder saying dare to live, reminding me that no matter how scary living life to the fullest may be, it is worth it. Being in the midst of an eating disorder can feel safe and comforting, but it prevents one from experiencing what life is all about like taking risks and experiencing discomfort, happiness, excitement, and surprise. My tattoo is there as a constant reminder that recovery is worth it and that my eating disorder will never fulfill me. It is there to remind me of what I want my life to look like.