Your recovery from an eating disorder is going strong. You've been making progress in terms of facing challenge foods, working diligently with your therapist and nutritionist, and are finally starting to see the amazing life that you have without active eating disorder behaviors. Then, a major stressor hits you. Perhaps your relationship just ended, you got a new job, or have an upcoming graduation.
You start to justify making changes to your meal plan, skipping therapy appointments, and notice that your thoughts are becoming more preoccupied with food and your body. Your eating disorder voice becomes louder, and yet you are in denial that it is starting to take control again. Perhaps this regression ends in a slip of old behaviors or maybe even a full-blown relapse.
It is normal to feel triggered and to experience setbacks while you are in the process of recovery from an eating disorder. If you do experience this, it is important to try to practice some self-compassion. You have not failed and you simply need more support. Recovery is typically not a linear process and you may have both successes and setbacks along the way. However, the important thing is that you learn to identify any early warning signs of a slip or relapse. That way you can catch them before things may start to spiral out of control.
The following is a brief written exercise that you can do as a personal relapse prevention plan:
1. Make a list on a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. Label one column as green light signs, the other as yellow light signs, and the third as red light signs.
Under green light signs put a list of the ways that you will know if you are strong in your recovery from an eating disorder. For example, I do not weigh myself or spend much time focusing on my body.
2. Under yellow light signs put a list of the ways that you would know if you are starting to slip back into old patterns of thinking or behaviors that might lead to a full relapse. For example, I start become more rigid in terms of my food choices.
3. Under red light signs put a list of the ways that you would know if you were engaged in a slip or relapse. For example, I do x ED behavior.
If you feel comfortable, you might consider sharing this plan with your treatment team and/or loved ones so that they will be able to identify any warning signs of a potential slip or relapse. Additionally, if you do notice that you are slipping into yellow light or red light signs, it is a sign of true strength to reach out for help from treatment professionals.
If the eating disorder voice is starting to get louder, it is critical that you reach out for help and support and also that you remind yourself why you started the recovery process to begin with. Living in an active eating disorder is ultimately a very miserable place to be. No one chooses to develop an eating disorder, but you can choose to work towards recovery at any time. Even if you've had a slip, relapse, or setback-it does not mean that you failed. What matters is that you are able to recommit to recovery and that you learn something from this experience. After all, you've come way to far to give up now.
No matter what lies your eating disorder voice may be telling you, your life is worth so much more than obsessing about food, calories, and your body. Full recovery and freedom from an eating disorder is completely possible. However, recovery is a marathon-not a sprint. It may take some time, but ultimately you will find a fulfilling and passion-driven life that doesn't involve an eating disorder.
Marya Hornbacher summed it up best when she stated,
"I don't remember when I stopped counting, or when I stopped caring what size my pants were, or when I started ordering what I wanted to eat and not what seemed 'safe,' or when I started just eating when I got hungry, instead of questioning it, obsessing about it, dithering and freaking out, as I'd done for nearly my whole life. I don't remember exactly when recovery took hold, and went from being something I both fought and wanted, to being simply a way of life. A way of life that is, let me tell you, infinitely more peaceful, infinitely happier, and infinitely more free than life with an eating disorder. And I wouldn't give up this life of freedom for the world."
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW is a therapist, body-image activist, and intuitive eating counselor, who specializes in working with adolescents, survivors of trauma, and eating disorders. Jennifer blogs on The Huffington Post and Psychology Today. "Like" her on Facebook at Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LGSW.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.