They’re always saying that relapse is part of the process. That recovery is never a straight up-and-forward trajectory. They say don’t view relapse as a failure. Well when I was getting ready to leave my treatment center, I didn’t quite see things this way. I saw recovery as black and white- you are either moving towards recovery or you are moving towards an eating disorder. I ignored the warnings and told myself I would take recovery by the horns, that I would do things the way I thought was best. This proved to be a flawed approach to say the least.
First things first- lets not call them mistakes. I prefer, learning opportunities. Or better yet, growth edges. Yes that’s it- growth edges. After being discharged from treatment for an eating disorder, I had many growth edges to be learned from. It’s not surprising looking back- I felt like I had just gotten off of one of those tilt-a-whirls at the carnival, and was trying to stand up straight while my world spun wildly around me. I was both stubborn and ill prepared for what was to come. My hope is that putting this down in writing may help others in avoiding the same growth edges. So here goes: My top five missteps that I experienced after getting out of treatment:
- I ditched my dietician- I always had beef-no pun intended- with the whole dietician thing. I hated having someone try to steer my every food choice. I hated reporting back about challenges. I hated having someone see my weight when I wasn’t supposed to see it. So, after being discharged, one of the first things I did was call and cancel the appointment that they had made for me with an outpatient dietician. Keep in mind, I was still recovery focused at that point. I wanted to recover. Like I said, I just wanted to do it on my own terms. This meant a little less chaperoning with the food stuff. What I didn’t realize at the time was that recovery “on my own terms” really meant recovery on ED’s terms.
- I didn’t ask my friends to curb the diet talk- I actively participated in groups in which we discussed how we shouldn’t be ashamed of our illnesses. I spearheaded discussions with others about how to be proactive in our recoveries by addressing triggers with family and friends. Yet I failed to follow my own advice. Talking about how to ask friends not to bring up their most current juice cleanses in group therapy is pretty different from actually talking to them. I told myself not to bother them. I told myself that they would become annoyed by me, and that I would have to be the forever identified patient if I discussed my triggers with them. This definitely hurt my recovery. My friends didn’t have eating disorders. So they didn’t intuitively know what was triggering and what wasn’t. Who could expect them to? After all, a lot of the things that triggered me were things that your average college girl would love to hear. (“You look so good!”) Looking back, if I had simply talked to them, I know they would have been receptive. My tensions would have been diffused, the lines of communication would have been opened up, and I would have had one less challenge to work through in my recovery process (I know this because I did end up listened to my own advice and addressing things with them after my relapse. Hindsight hu?)
- I tried on my old clothing- Everyone said not to do this. I said not to do this! I sat in group and earnestly looked others in the eyes and implored them to just throw out their sick clothes. Who needs em, I said. Why would you ever put yourself through that? What good will come out of it? Eating disorders are weird aren’t they? Most of us can more than eloquently talk the talk, but the walk is another story. I, for example, was actively plotting in my own mind (read: my eating disorder was plotting) how I would be trying on those jeans as soon as I got home, while I was telling my fellow group members to avoid doing just that. “I just need to check” I told myself. “It’s actually more recovery focused in my case to try them on to see how far I’ve come!” Clearly I was being fooled into listening to my ED voice. That actually proved to be a great learning experience- After treatment, my ED became even trickier, using staying recovery focused as a cover up to actually engage in certain behaviors. This realization was helpful to me, after I relapsed, in becoming that much stronger in the fight against ED.
- I didn’t feng shui- We talked about triggering places together in groups. I talked about it with my therapist. We made a plan together for my college housing- It was pretty simple actually. I associated my college room and bathroom with engaging in ED behaviors, so I needed to break those associations. The plan was to paint my bedroom-cheery yellow instead of the blue that was currently on the walls, and buy a new shower curtain/rug/sink stuff for the bathroom. But did I follow through? Nah. I got home and decided that I could handle it without all of that hassle. I told myself that it wouldn’t help anyway. Spoiler alert- it does and did help. I found this out when I actually did it the next time around.
- I stopped journaling- Journaling was one of the little pieces of the puzzle that saved my life. I was emotionally immature, stunted by years of retreating into an eating disorder, and consequentially, I struggled with discussing all and any feelings. Then I began to journal. This outlet allowed me to tap into all the tough stuff in a different way. I used it to track my thoughts and feelings, and quickly began to notice links in the environment. I brought it into therapy and had my therapist read it out loud for both of us to process. It was incredibly eye opening, so naturally, when I got out, I stopped doing it. I say naturally because I still had ED in one ear at this point, and he was extremely threatened by this shiny new coping skill. So he yelled back. And I listened. “I don’t have time.” “I had a good day- what is there to even write about?” “It’s too hard, and it doesn’t even help.” “You feel the same, so why bother?” Recognizing that feeling one way in the morning doesn’t mean that I will feel that way four hours later, was important in my recovery process later on. This allowed me to confront those nasty ED thoughts- “I feel like journaling doesn’t help me, but feelings aren’t facts. I had a rough morning, so my motivation is down. But think about how much journaling has actually helped so far. Think about the real conversations I have had with therapists about how this is not only helpful but necessary for my recovery. Listen to yourself, not ED.”
Recovery is never a straight trajectory. There will always be ups and downs. But, as I discovered through my own process of trial and error, you either succeed, or you learn. Yes, I relapsed, but you can bet I learned from it. One of the main lessons was this: it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down- keep trying. The more you try, the more likely it is that, in spite of the ups and downs, the general direction will be up. Besides, ED hates perseverance.