Relapse: The Thing No One Wants To Talk About
*WARNING: This post contains content about an eating disorder relapse and may be triggering*
What do a camel and a mental illness have in common?
It starts with an ancient metaphor.
One day an Arab and his camel were crossing the desert. Night came and the temperature became colder. The Arab put up his tent and tied the camel to it outside. The Arab went to sleep.
The temperature became slightly colder and the camel asked the Arab if he could just put his nose in the tent to warm up. The Arab reluctantly agreed that the camel could just put his nose in, because the tent was small and there was no room for 2. So the camel's nose became warm while the temperature outside dropped.
A little while later, the camel asked the Arab if he could just put his front legs in because they were very cold. The Arab hesitated, but again agreed that the camel could only put his front legs in and no more. So the camel moved in his front legs in and they became warm.
After some time the camel asked the Arab again if he could please put his hind legs in the tent or else he won't be able to make the journey the next morning with frozen legs. So the Arab, now adjusted to having less space, allowed the camel in.
Unfortunately, when the camel moved his hind legs in, there was no more room in the tent for the Arab and the Arab was kicked out to spend the rest of the night in the cold.
An anorexia relapse can be very similar.
While I don’t personally struggle with addiction or other compulsive behavior disorders, I would tend to think that the beginning of a relapse could be pretty similar. Just the nose in the tent.
A small, insignificant event, can open the door to a chain of damaging events.
For me, it was a doctors appointment.
I saw my weight at a doctors appointment that I went to because I was having stomach aches and GI distress.
Having been in recovery from anorexia for a while, my weight was not something that I regularly measured or needed to know.
I knew I had a follow up appointment in 2 weeks, and I knew they would take my weight again, and all I knew was that I didn't want it to be up from that mysterious number that I saw on the paper that day.
I was a little more thoughtful about how much I was eating for the next couple weeks, paired with nausea, and a lack of appetite from my illness, my weight was a teeny bit less the next time I went.
I thought that it was no big deal because it wasn’t drastic and I was still in a healthy weight range and I basically convinced myself that there was no reason to care.
The thoughts about my weight came and went, but the GI symptoms persisted and I went through some days where I was choking down a smoothie as a meal trying to meet my caloric needs with a stomach ache and anxiety.
The next few months involved a series of doctors appointments for various things, and at each appointment, I saw the number again. Terrified of it going up, I watched what I was eating to make sure I wasn’t mindlessly eating when I wasn’t hungry, or eating anything extra.
This was just a really tricky way for my brain to convince me that restricting my intake was okay.
A few months went by, and slowly, ever so slowly, my weight changed a little.
At the same time, I was moving a lot, and working a lot, and I was basically anxious all the time so eating lost its priority in my life.
I can't really pinpoint specific things that I did or didn't do. I didn't purposely skip meals, I wasn't obsessively tracking food, but I was really stressed and sometimes eating a snack just wasn't convenient with my schedule or my body revolted against it.
All of this was slow. It was an accidental skipped snack here, a stomach ache there, a really busy workday with no breaks, anxiety that made me feel sick, forgetting to pack another snack, being out for a while with a friend, having a late lunch, etc.
Honestly, a teeny part of my brain new that knowing my weight wasn’t recommended for someone recovering from anorexia, but it was fine. Well, I told myself it was fine.
I was very successful, had plenty of energy, I was eating more variety, my body was responding well, etc.
And this was all fine and great until it wasn’t anymore.
I accidentally lost more weight than what is healthy for my body.
My energy started to drop, and my mood as well. I felt isolated.
The downward spiral continued on and on as I felt sick, dropped weight, and then panicked because I didn’t want to gain it back.
My body dysmorphia kicked in and no matter how much my body changed, I still felt uncomfortable in my skin.
A long period of caloric deficit left me drained, numb, and frail, but I relentlessly pursued exercise and work with the help of a lot of caffeine and some really poorly allocated willpower.
See, the thing is, that you never really realize how bad you feel until you don’t feel bad anymore. So during that time, it felt normal to feel like a walking zombie. I thought that everyone in America had low energy and that passing out at 9pm was totally normal, especially because I was getting up around 4 for work.
My exhaustion, and limited food consumption, and overall apathy for life itself didn’t strike me as a problem. Especially because as my body shrunk onto my bones I began to see an image in the mirror that made the anorexia in my brain very very happy.
As my bones and my muscles popped through, it almost seemed as if the chilled skin and frail existence was worth it. I thought that because you could see my abs, that I had made it.
What upsets me, is that in my sick body, I got a range of compliments from “omg wow you have abs” to “you’re like a model you can wear anything you want”.
There is no way to explain the title wave of shame that overcame me every time I was complimented on my body that I inherently knew wasn’t healthy, or authentic, or physically well at all.
It was like stealing a bunch of money from the bank and then getting complimented on how wealthy I was. I felt like a cheater and a liar. I wasn’t this healthy fit chick. I was using way more caffeine than I should have been to force myself through workouts while my body screamed for nourishment and rest. I was miserable and numb and anxious and lost.
I myself was adding fuel to the social media fire that plants really unrealistic expectations in little girls heads. Not too far from what dragged me down the hole in the first place.
I can only speak for myself in this situation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other people with “perfect bodies” are struggling with the same thing.
I was still meeting with a therapist and a dietitian every week, and it became evident to them that I was not in a place where I was going to help myself.
I denied the issue, claiming that I was just really sick and that this was normal and that I felt totally fine (hello caffeine and stress adrenaline).
Looking at my low weight, my treatment team refused to believe the “I’m fine” part, and suggested a higher level of care.
Unfortunately, it took extremely low blood sugar and a weak heart rate along with some other health issues to convince me that I was in fact killing myself, not getting really “lean and healthy”. I could barely think straight or focus, my brain in a fog from all of the stress.
With all of the strength I could muster, I called a local treatment facility and scheduled an evaluation appointment, then eventually committed to an intensive outpatient program, denying the recommendation for a much higher level of care. Treatment was the last place that I wanted to be, especially because of everything that I had fought so hard for in the past. I felt like a failure and a screw up. I felt so ashamed of falling back into the disease that I logically know is not helping me at all.
In reality, relapse is actually a totally normal part of the recovery process, and each slip and fall has taught me new lessons and given me new insights about myself and the world around me.
So as of late, the healthiest thing that I could do for myself is to rest, and eat lots of food, and show up to therapy, and gain weight.
Allowing my body to move into a more normal place is not easy at all. I have to climb against every single message that I see about preventing weight gain, burning fat, getting smaller, leaner, etc.
I just continue to remind myself that what is true for one person is not true for everyone. Healthy is different for everyone.
I don’t know how I got here. I felt like I was minding my own business and then turned around and realized that I had strayed from the path I was on. I feel like I got snuck up on, betrayed.
I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. I didn’t want to admit my faults, my weaknesses, my imperfections.
I thought it was all going swimmingly.
But then the whole damn camel was in my tent. And I was stuck in the cold.
And now I have to kick him out, and that sucks, but I have done it before.
I know what it looks like to crawl out of a mistake.
I know what it looks like to use my tools.
I know what it feels like to be happy.
Even after a dark storm, a long cold night, or a winter that seems to go on forever, the warmth will come back, the strength will kick in, and darling, the sun will rise again.
Don't be afraid to ask for help.