relapse

Good Days, Bad Days

Sometimes I think I’m over it.

That it doesn’t matter how I look, or what size I wear, or what I grabbed to go from Chipotle on my way home from work because I’ve been pulling 13-hour days a few too many times this month, and sometimes you don’t even care that guac is a dollar more.

But sometimes I feel like I’ve been lying to myself all that time.

It can be any number of things that set the feeling off.

A glance down when toweling off after a shower, which even after all this time I studiously refuse to do, because the wave of sadness I get from looking at my new Buddha belly hurts more than I usually feel comfortable admitting.

Another goddamn rejection letter, when for some reason I really thought we were going to get somewhere this time.

Another lunch break sacrificed to a meeting or a project I don’t feel like I understand, or that I’m good enough to do. Hello, impostor syndrome, my old friend.

Whatever it is, it usually ends the same. Lying flat on my living room floor, staring at my bookshelf without any intention of picking up a book, wondering why my current lifestyle refuses to let me lose weight.

Yes. Yes. I know.

I know that diet culture is a cruel cocktail mixed by capitalism and the patriarchy.

I know that before I chose recovery I was no happier, in fact much less happy.

I know that I still reap the benefits of thin privilege in about a million different ways, and that my health is not in any way connected to the way my body looks.

I can rationalize my way through that. Most of the time I do. I can hit you with a Health at Every Size–based rant at the drop of a hat, literally or figuratively. Like, if you actually throw a hat at me, I will catch it and say “$20 billion annual profits of the US weight loss industry” in the same breath.

But some nights I don’t want to.

Some nights I want to wallow a little in the self-pity I try not to allow myself too often.

I want to acknowledge the weight of a small creature perched on my chest, pressing the breath from me and keeping me here on the floor, this small creature that does not feel exactly the same as my eating disorder did, but is close.

Quieter.

More subtle.

It is the whisper in the back of my mind that says “You failed at being thin. Just exactly the way you fail at everything else.”

I wish I weren’t writing about this. I realize that it isn’t helpful. But maybe the admission that I don’t always have it all together, that I’m not always here to be helpful, maybe that’s worth something. I don’t know. I’m not convinced my thoughts make sense, and I think it might be important to admit that, and edit a little less. Radical honesty does not always make for lucid prose.

But that’s all theoretical. What matters is tonight.

Tonight, I will let these feelings hang there, for the amount of time it takes to write this blog post. Because they are real, and they matter.

And then, also tonight, I will stand up, close my computer, and go do something else. I don’t know what. Sing along loudly to the Sweeney Todd  original cast recording, or finally start the latest Toni Morrison novel, or watch the rest of Season Two of Orphan Black. Anything else.

Because my residual ED feelings are part of my life, but so are all these things.

And they are real.

And they matter, too.

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Mental Relapse… That’s A Thing, Right?

Sometimes we've got to be our own calming manatees.

Sometimes we’ve got to be our own calming manatees.

Happy eating disorders awareness week, folks! Although really, for anyone who has, has had, or knows someone with an eating disorder, the idea of there being a week at any time in which we just weren’t aware of eating disorders is kind of nonsense. But it’s great to see resources, support, statistics, and awareness pouring out onto the interwebs this week. For those of you who were able to join me in the #AdiosED Twitter party on Monday evening, thanks for your support. It was a huge success, and we couldn’t have done it without you.

NEDAwareness week came at an oddly ironic time for me this year. Yes, I know it’s the same week every year, but it landed straight in the middle of a… well, I’m not really sure what to call it.

What exactly do you term a sudden preoccupation with your weight and the amount of food you eat, if you’re determinedly not weighing yourself and you’re eating maybe even a little bit more than you ordinarily do? Can it still be considered a relapse if to the outside observer, you’re doing totally fine, but inside you feel like everything’s falling apart?

Disclaimer: I am fully aware that outside stressors in my life are taking their toll on my mental health, and they are doing that in the way they have decided to do since my mid-teens. At the moment, I am working two jobs, taking a full load of university courses, trying to raise almost $1500 to publish a literary magazine, navigating at least three university bureaucracies, trying to figure out how to spell bureaucracy, learning how to do basic html code, and finish a 335-page senior thesis in the next three weeks. Oh, and find out what to do with the rest of my life post-graduation. I recognize that my inherent inability to say “no” to anything is beginning to wear on me, and I’m coping with it as I usually do. But knowing that this is the case doesn’t make it any easier.

Instead of going back down the eating disorder path physically, I feel as if I’ve been taking the opposite road. I cannot actually motivate myself to do anything besides my (not-insignificant) walk to class and to work every day. The gym? Forget about it. Healthy eating? Okay, but once I’m through with dinner I’m going to barrel through that ice cream, because I’m stressed, okay, and sugar makes me feel better.

Briefly. Until I realize that I’ve felt this way before, during the early stages of recovery, when I was rapidly gaining weight like nobody’s business. It’s the same feeling of fear. Of being out of control. Of disgust and shame and wanting to talk to anybody about it but not being able to because I’m supposed to be better.

I had to stop and look at this image for at least five minutes when I first saw it. This is actually scary accurate. That's why it gets included in this post, and you get a bonus image. Puts things in a really visual perspective.

I had to stop and look at this image for at least five minutes when I first saw it. This is actually scary accurate. That’s why it gets included in this post, and you get a bonus image. Puts things in a really visual perspective.

Is this a rant-post? Partially. But I also think that there should be more attention paid to relapses that don’t involve resorting to behaviors. I haven’t stepped on the scale in over two weeks, admittedly partly because I’m afraid to but also because I can’t see what good that would do. I haven’t skipped a meal in months – in fact, I just came from a snack. To all intents and purposes, these are the fluctuations in the eating patterns and exercise habits of a recovered person. Vegetables and time logged on the treadmill take a back seat during the final semester of university, when there’s more things to be done than there are hours in a day. Maybe that’s normal. But I don’t feel recovered. I feel just as out-of-control and afraid as I did months and months ago.

And yet, because physically I’m healthy and functional and not losing weight, you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who would treat this as a relapse. I don’t need to go speak to a medical professional. I don’t need intervention. What I need, most people would tell me, is a nice long nap and a dose of perspective. But that’s not helpful in the midst of this.

Those are some of the complications of recovery that I never thought about until I experienced them. People expect you to be “better” once and for all. Particularly in my position, when I spend so much time writing about eating disorders, talking about recovery, organizing recovery-based events, and what all. People assume that once you’re “recovered,” you no longer need support and your mental state will take care of itself. This is not always the case.

During #AdiosED, one tweet particularly stood out to me, and I bring it back for you here because it’s the most honest thing I’ve read in a long time.

True facts. But the need for a hug doesn’t stop after you’ve been labeled (or have labeled yourself) recovered. Hard times still show up. There are still days when it’s hard to think about inhabiting your body, or look at it, or move around in it in certain ways. I had hoped that there wouldn’t be, but sometimes there are.

If you have a friend in recovery, and you’re comfortable talking with them, ask them how they’re doing from time to time. Be prepared for celebrations if they’re invited, but also be prepared for an honest, open discussion about how sometimes things are still hard.

And if you’re in recovery, and you’re feeling like you’re having a rough time, either mentally or physically, don’t lose hope. This will pass. It won’t go on forever. Because you are stronger than your eating disorder. It puts up a hell of a fight, but you don’t have to take it. Even though it’s hard at the moment, I don’t plan on taking it.

Let’s Talk Regression

statregressionlollipop(No, not that kind of regression. I’m studying English. I don’t even know what that kind of regression means.) 

As some of you who have gathered from the amount I complain about writing final papers for university on this blog, I am still working my way through a college degree. On the other hand, I’ve only got one semester left to go (Know any good jobs for a highly qualified English and Creative Writing major, fluent in French and with tons of experience on social media and internet writing? Email me!), since I’m back home again for the holiday season. And you know what Hallmark, Lifetime, and Perry Cuomo have to say about being home for the holidays: apparently there’s no place like it.

But this is my fourth year of coming home for the holidays from college, and I’m beginning to notice a pattern. I wouldn’t call hanging out at my childhood home with my siblings and my parents relapse-inducing. My family has been more supportive of me than anybody else in the world, and I know that I’m way luckier than many in that respect. It’s not a relapse, per se, because I’m not engaging in behaviors any more than I would if I were spending the holidays at my campus apartment with my lovely roommate.

I just find myself having thoughts and emotions that I thought I’d left behind me years ago.

Maybe it’s the environment. Sleeping in my bedroom kind of brings me back to the way things used to be when I was seventeen or eighteen, during the worst times I spent with anorexia. Obviously, I’m much healthier both physically and mentally than I was in 2010. But I’m catching myself engaging in way more negative self-talk in my childhood zip code than in my young-adulthood town.

“You haven’t worked out since Thursday. What are you doing? Seriously?” (My negative self-talk voice has never been particularly interested in the fact that there’s currently seven inches of snow on the ground. God bless you, Michigan winters.)

“Yes, you’re baking cookies for the holidays. That can be fun. But that doesn’t mean you have to eat them, does it?” 

“Whoa, remember last time you were home? You’re up a solid xxx pounds from then. Slob. Look at how your pants are fitting.”

Whoa there, negative self-talk voice. Wasn’t this supposed to be the season of peace and brotherly love?

This is totally me this holiday season… Sorry not sorry.

This is totally me this holiday season… Sorry not sorry.

Now, I will say that I’ve made progress this holiday season, especially if we’re looking in the long-term to how I used to spend Christmakkuh about two or three years ago. I’ve eaten some of those cookies. (Dark chocolate crackle cookies with white chocolate chips. Om nom nom nom.) I’ve worked out, but not desperately, and I’m picking up a gym membership so I can go with my older sister, rather than doing preventative crunches in the basement. And while I might sit down and cry every so often (hey, I’m a cryer! That’s what we do), it’s not debilitating. I can still enjoy myself, and I am so glad to be home.

But it’s strange, that’s all, arriving at the vacation I’ve been waiting for all this time, only to find myself faced with body-image issues and negative self-talk that I just didn’t have time to engage in while trying to finish four research papers and a final exam in seven days. That’s the one positive side to exams: they keep your mind busy, so you can’t allow it to wander off to other, less-productive behaviors.

I’m trying to keep myself busy and to be gentle with myself for the three or so weeks I’ll be here at home. I’ve taken up knitting again with a vengeance – with two newborn babies in my family, I’ll have plenty of reasons to knit adorably small items of clothing in pastel colors. I’ve checked out the first version of In Search of Lost Time by Proust, because one of my life’s goals has been for a few years to be one of those people who have read Proust. And Netflix will be my best friend, as I work through my queue. (Has anyone seen House of Cards? It’s next on the list!)

Still, I’m not sure that constant activity is the best way to fight against these feelings of regression. I’d love to be able to spend an afternoon doing nothing more than sitting on the couch, petting my dog, and hanging out with my family without the evil negative voices coming back. That’ll be something to work for, I’m sure, though it might not happen today, or even this week. We’ll have to see.

Have you had similar experiences returning to spend time with family, either over the holidays or for any other reason? What are your best strategies for coping with voices you’d thought you’d left behind? I’d love to hear from you!

In the meantime, I’ve got twelve episodes of New Girl that I can probably make a sizable dent in before the end of the day.

Mythbusting: Eating Disorder Recovery Edition

Mythbusters and associated logos are under copyright by Beyond Entertainment and the Discovery Channel.

Mythbusters and associated logos are under copyright by Beyond Entertainment and the Discovery Channel.

This post was originally published for Adios Barbie and can be read in its original context here.

September 1st was my one-year anniversary.

Not a romantic anniversary with a candlelit dinner and diamond earrings. The one-year anniversary of my recovery from an eating disorder.

I don’t know if taking a day to celebrate the recovery process is common, but I wanted to commemorate the year I began taking care of myself. I’d thought I was taking care of myself before – avoiding weight gain, exercising, eliminating “bad” foods. In the name of getting healthy, I reached what looked to be the point of no return.

Operative words being “looked to be.”

Here I am, one year later, at or near my body’s set point (my body’s natural, comfortable weight). All my blood work comes back consistently normal. I can run up stairs without getting tired now, and I don’t wear hooded sweatshirts in 80-degree heat anymore. I think celebrating a different kind of health is worth it.

There are plenty of resources for people beginning recovery from any kind of eating disorder.NEDA provides an extensive list to get you started. Doctors, therapists, nutritionists, and well-meaning friends and family might be present at every turn, or they might not be. And yet, it’s still difficult to get a straight answer for the most pressing question on people’s minds.

What is recovery going to look like? Will it go on like this forever? Will I be strong enough to make it?

My experience was my own, and I can’t pretend that it will ring true to every person beginning a recovery journey. But I think this episode of “Mythbusters: Eating Disorder Edition,” if you will, is pretty universal. Take it from me: this article is not a magic spell. Recovery is hard. But it doesn’t need to be any harder than it has to be.

Myth One: You need to meet with a full treatment team three times a week, or you don’t really want to recover. And if you don’t want it, you’ll never get better.

Truth: You probably do need support, but what form that takes is up to you.

Recovering from an eating disorder isn’t easy. If it were, we wouldn’t need to talk about it. And as with any difficult life issue, it helps to have people on your side.

But support looks different for everybody.

If you don’t meet regularly with a physician, a therapist, a nutritionist, and a psychiatrist, that doesn’t mean that you don’t want to get better or that you’re not trying. It just means that your needs are different from other people’s needs.

Some people benefit from in-patient treatment centers. Others try out-patient programs at hospitals or other facilities. Some meet with a therapist a few times a week, go in for nutritional counseling, or try to go it on their own with family and friends on their side. I’m not suggesting that anyone should discount therapy or nutritional counseling. They’re valuable techniques that help many people sort out complicated problems. By all means, give them a go. But recovery and treatment are not one-size-fits-all.

Use your voice, not your eating disorder’s, to direct your life. Doing recovery your way (whatever way that is) means you’re beginning to take charge. For many, this comes with some kind of professional help or guidance from a trusted therapist. But the biggest change has to come from within. Find the help that works for you, and don’t give up.

Myth Two: Shifts in weight will happen at a rate of X pounds/week.

Truth: Honestly? Who the heck knows.

Not all eating disorders result in a drastic change in body weight. But some do. Whether you are hoping to lose weight after fighting with BED, gain weight after anorexia, or settle into your body’s set point and a regular pattern of eating after any eating disorder, your body is influenced by a number of factors. The duration of your disorder. Your height. Your family history and genetics. Your body type. Your metabolism. Your current level of stress. Heck, your sodium levels and how much you tend to sweat.

Your set point isn’t something that can be predicted. Bodies change with age and life circumstances, hormones and stress. I had a weight in mind I was comfortable with when I began recovery, but my body decided on a different one. All of this is scary, but it’s okay.

Medical professionals told me that my rapid weight shifts would stop after about six to eight weeks. I was also told a pound range that was normal to expect per week. Well, I gained about twice that per week, and it didn’t stop after eight weeks. It took me nine months. Disinterested strangers watching me might have mistaken me for a pregnant woman (Ah, recovery bloating). And that’s okay too. Your body is going to do what it needs, no matter how frightening that might seem.

The theory of a “set point”? I thought it sounded like the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. And then I found mine. It took longer than I wanted, but it does happen.

Every body is different. Just give yours time.

Myth Three: Relapsing means you failed at recovery.

Truth: Relapsing means you hit a setback. It’s how you deal with setbacks that matters.

A huge step in recovery is being able to step back after a moment of relapse and say, “Yes, I made a mistake,” or “I wish that had gone differently.” And then you continue on, planning to do better next time.

Relapses are not the end of the world. Of course, we try to avoid them at all costs, but sometimes learning what sparks a relapse can be important. What issues cause you to retreat back into destructive behaviors? What problems are still unresolved in your life? What is it about this situation that makes you want to wrench back control in this way?

Just because you have problems doesn’t mean that you can’t overcome them. You are strong and powerful and you can do it. You’ve proven that by deciding that you want recovery in the first place.

Need more reassurance? Watch this great video from Arielle Lee Bair on relapse in recovery. This inspiring poem by Portia Nelson captures the spirit of relapse and recovery—a comforting thing to keep in mind during hard times.

Beating yourself up over your mistakes is part of your disorder, not a viable way of ending it.

Myth Four: If you are underweight, you’ll feel way better as soon as you start gaining the weight back.

Truth: Weight restoration is hard.

Not necessarily because it’s hard to gain weight. It’s hard because it means looking your biggest irrational fear in the face and saying, “Come at me, bro.”

It’s hard. And it doesn’t always feel great, especially right away. In fact, weight gain can feel horrible (and terrifying) at first. Bloating, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, gas, night sweats, impossible clothes shopping… It’s not fun.

But it gets better.

It’s a gradual better. You might not even notice it while it’s happening because you’re caught up in all the problems. But when you take a step back and realize, “Hey, I’m not cold all the time anymore,” or “I just ate breakfast and I didn’t think about the calories,” that’s when you see it. And it makes the rest a lot easier to take.

Myth Five: Complete recovery from any eating disorder is impossible.

Truth: If you’ll pardon my French, bullshit.

Recovery is hard work. I’ve been working at it for a year, and I’m still not totally there. But every day, I get closer.

I fall in love with my former off-limits foods. (Looking at you, French fries. Delicious.)

I continue to re-evaluate my relationship with exercise.

I think critically about weight-loss tabloid articles and the latest fad diets.

I surround myself with body positivity, whether through online communities and articles or re-directing conversations with friends and family that turn to body-snarking.

I might not love my body 100% of the time, every time. But I respect it for what it does, and it’s forgiving me for what I’ve put it through previously.

Looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Recovery: A Process, Not A Destination

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Feminine stereotypes? Forget it. I cut my hair short three years ago and I’ve never looked back. I get more angry at the team playing against my college football boys than most of my male friends. And, as I’ve written about before, I hate shopping.

A lot.

That’s not strictly true, of course: I enjoy shopping for shoes and tee-shirts. Things you don’t need to try on. Things that always look good and come in a variety of colors and patterns. That’s fun.

But every time I decide I need a new pair of pants, everything gets unnecessarily complicated. And I remember that recovery is a process, not a destination.

Obviously, there was a small event that sparked the need to write a post about this, and that small event happens to be back-to-school shopping. I’ll be starting my last year of college in about two weeks, and it seemed like a good idea to take advantage of one of the last times my parents will be willing to take me to the mall and get me a few new things to wear. After all, my Ramen-noodles-and-Goodwill budget days are just on the horizon.

As far as I’ve come in recovery, there are still some things that are incredibly difficult for me. Going up a size or two in clothes is one of those.

Now, I can rationalize my way through my discomfort until the cows come home. I can say that sizes across stores are not consistent, that size isn’t important and it’s how much healthier I am now that matters. I can remember how much I liked that pair of jeans I tried on twenty minutes ago, and how comfortable I was in them. And yet, when I hit that moment that the jeans in the size I thought I was no longer go over my thighs, I still get that sinking feeling in my stomach.

Why is this my particular issue? I don’t know, but every time I have to go to the mall, I notice that my thoughts become more negative, and my behaviors inch closer and closer to what could be considered a relapse. I want to be able to fit into the clothes I used to wear, though I know that there’s nothing wrong with my body the way it is now.

There are plenty of things to be learned from this pattern, but I’m going to focus on two of them here that might be useful to people other than myself. Meaning I’ll let slide the fact that I should probably stop shopping at Forever 21 for the sake of my sanity.

First, the fashion industry is not designed to bolster positive self-esteem.

This is as depressing as it is readily apparent. The media has recently bedeviled stores like Abercrombie & Fitch and, more recently, LuluLemon, that deliberately exclude what they call “plus-size” women and what logic and rational thinking call “the average-sized American woman.” Runway models are being recruited at eating disorder clinics. Fashion magazine editors are airbrushing out hipbones and ribcages on their models, leaving us with impossibly thin women with the consequences of extreme thinness erased with Photoshop. Sizes across stores are not consistent, and so it’s almost a given that you will go up three sizes just by crossing to the other side of the mall.

All this is to say that it’s not surprising that shopping might make somebody feel bad about themselves.

It doesn’t justify the practice, nor does it mean that looking for jeans is invariably a death sentence to your self-esteem. For me, it sometimes helps to realize that the problems I’m having are not because I’m crazy, but because there’s something endemic, something inherently twisted about the system. I’m not giving myself a free pass to mope, but I don’t need to blame myself for it.

Second, and I’ve said this before, recovery is a process, not an end point.

Sorry for the cheesy Tumblr inspirational pictures. Sometimes they're what you're in the mood for.

Sorry for the cheesy Tumblr inspirational pictures. Sometimes they’re what you’re in the mood for.

It’s more frustrating than usual that shopping can still get under my skin like this, because I really thought that I was doing well in recovery. I am able to go several days without worrying about my weight or beating myself up, and while my weight is still not quite as stable as I might like, it’s certainly better than it used to be. But that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect.

It’s been a year since I actively began recovering from anorexia. I’ve marked September 1st on my calendar as my one-year anniversary, and I intend on celebrating in some random and exciting way. I’ve made a lot of progress. And while I do believe that full and total recovery from any eating disorder is 110% possible, it’s not the kind of thing that can be done by snapping your fingers and wishing it away.

Recovery takes work. It takes slip-ups. It takes realizing what pushes you over the edge and figuring out ways to face it head-on.

My head-space is still healing from yesterday, but I know that I need to find a way to look at shopping in a new light. I need to find a way to sit with the discomfort I have with my new body, and hopefully in time embrace the way I look and feel.

I still feel like I’m living through a real-life version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the moment. My mind has been moved into a body that I don’t know how to manipulate. It’s like puberty all over again, and heaven knows puberty was awkward enough the first time around.

Recovery isn’t hopeless, and mental doubt and difficulty is not a prison sentence.

It just means that the road is always more winding and complicated than we want it to be.

But every road has to end somewhere.