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My Eating Disorder Story: An Insidious Descent Into Relapse (Part 7)

If you missed Part 6, please click here

After spending an entire year living in a 12-Step eating disorders recovery home for women, I felt my recovery was strong. It was unthinkable that I would ever slip back into my illness after having devoted so much time, effort (and money!) to my recovery.

I didn’t relapse overnight; it wasn’t just one event that sent me over the edge, and back into the illness. Rather, it happened over time, as little by little my thoughts and behaviors began to change. It was so slow and insidious that I didn’t even realize it was happening. In fact, I was in denial that I was in relapse for 10 years!

My relapse is a huge part of my recovery story. I want to share it with you in hopes that it will help you to know the warning signs to look out for.

Finishing my treatment program

Living in a recovery home for a year was one of the most challenging experiences I have ever gone through! Living with a group of women in close quarters, along with the mental and emotional struggle of doing recovery work all day every day was very difficult.

If I hadn’t gone through treatment, though, I honestly don’t think I would be alive today. I was in very dire circumstances by the time I ended up in the recovery home, and I’m so grateful that it was available to me when I needed it. All of the struggles I went through were absolutely worth it!

An important thing I learned in treatment was that just because I had a thought, it didn’t mean I had to follow it through with an action. I had a choice, and I could decide in each moment what I would, and would not, do.

Before I left treatment, I made a very solid relapse prevention plan with the help of my counselor, and also my friends in treatment. My plan encompassed all areas including food, relationships, and spirituality. I wrote down my warning signs that I might be drifting into relapse, and what steps I needed to take in each of those scenarios to get back on track.

Armed with everything I learned in treatment, my relapse prevention plan, and a strong support system, I ventured out into the world. It was time to live life on life’s terms, without relying on eating disorder behaviors to get me through my days.

It started out well

Image of Woman Lower Legs and Feet in Black Shoes Walking on Pathway Under The Sun
A new sense of freedom

The first step was finding somewhere to live. I couldn’t afford a place on my own, so I knew I’d have to get a roommate. I really wanted to live with someone who was also in ED recovery, but I couldn’t find anyone at the time who needed a roommate. I ended up finding a roommate through the want ads, and I moved into her 2-bedroom apartment.

It was a nice place, and she had a cat (a huge bonus)! It was close to a few of my recovery friends, and also to the main meeting place for our 12-Step group. I wasn’t yet working, so I had time to go to a meeting almost every day. I also went to therapy sessions twice a week with the same counselor I had at the recovery home.

I made sure I kept in close contact with recovery friends by phone, and also in person for lunch or coffee. I also had a sponsor, and I called her several times a week. I continued working my way through the 12 Steps (which I had started while in treatment), doing writing assignments, and discussing them with my sponsor.

At the recovery home, I learned how to eat moderately. Now that I was “out on my own”, it was a lifeboat I could rely on to be sure I wasn’t slipping back into my old ED habits. I continued with the meal structure and portion sizes I had learned, and it served me well.

I have fond memories of those early days in recovery. I felt so much hope for the future! It was still a daily battle against the ED thoughts, but I wasn’t fighting it alone anymore. I had support all around me, and the tools to help me get through difficult situations, without resorting to ED behaviors.

An important thing I learned in treatment was that just because I had a thought, it didn’t mean I had to follow it through with an action. I had a choice, and I could decide in each moment what I would, and would not, do. This was so key for me in my early recovery, and still is, even years later.

After about 6 months, I decided to look for another roommate. My living situation was ok, but I felt like she and I weren’t really a good match in some important areas. A friend I had gone through treatment with was looking for a roommate, so we decided to get an apartment together.

My focus begins to wander

Woman out of focus wearing blue shirt standing near a field in daytime, with hills in the background, and purple and pink clouds in the sky
Other things became more important

The new apartment was great, and it was wonderful living with someone in recovery. In addition to being roommates, we were both training to be massage therapists, and we attended the same school. We were pretty busy and weren’t usually home at the same time, but we made it a point to have dinner together once a week.

I continued to go to 12-Step meetings almost every day and kept up my twice-a-week therapy sessions. Things were going well! I had lots of friends in recovery, and I was enjoying being in school and learning skills to start a new career.

But I felt like something was missing, and I had a yearning for more.

I hadn’t been in a romantic relationship in a few years, and I was beginning to feel like I wanted that kind of connection again. I missed having a man in my life, but I hadn’t met anyone I was interested in.

Those were the days before the internet and dating apps (the 1990s). I started looking at the personal ads in the newspaper and I came across one that particularly intrigued me. I called and left a message and he called me back. After talking for awhile, we decided to meet up at a coffee shop later in the week.

I can still remember walking up and seeing him sitting there at an outdoor table. He was so handsome, and my heart skipped a beat when he smiled and introduced himself. We ended up talking for several hours, and it was obvious there was chemistry between us.

A relationship takes priority

Silhouette of man and woman hugging each other with sunset in background
My relationships with men always overshadowed everything else in my life

An exciting start

We couldn’t wait to see each other again, and we made plans to meet later that week for dinner. Once again, we enjoyed talking to each other so much that we hardly noticed that several hours had gone by.

I offered to drive up to see him for our dinner date the following week since he had already driven down to see me twice (we lived about 30 miles from each other). I knew he had a cat, and I arrived at his place with a cat toy in hand. He was handsome, charming, extremely intelligent, and he loved cats. This was clearly the man of my dreams!

We went out for dinner, talked for hours again, and went back to his place. I didn’t leave that night, and even today, it remains in my memory as one of the most romantic nights of my life!

After several months of driving back and forth to his place and basically living there, it seemed silly to hold on to my apartment. So I ended up moving in with him, and we lived there until we moved together to a new apartment about 6 months later.

Things changed

By this time I had dropped out of massage school because things just weren’t working out for me. I was just a few months shy of getting my HHP (Holistic Health Practitioner) certification when I decided to quit.

I had hoped to start a new career as a massage therapist. I still had self-esteem issues, though, and I lacked confidence in my skills and abilities. Because of this, I found it difficult to do networking and market myself. As a result, I couldn’t bring in enough clients to be able to make a living.

So I decided to get a “real job”, and found a position as a data entry specialist. It was a good company that didn’t pay top dollar, but it did offer great benefits. I ended up staying at that job for almost 7 years.

Unfortunately, my relationship didn’t last.

He wasn’t physically abusive to me, so it was easy to rationalize that his drug use wasn’t really a problem.

Some concerns

The longer we lived together, I started to notice some things about him that troubled me.

The first thing was that he wasn’t very supportive of my recovery. I don’t think he understood the seriousness of my eating disorder and the importance of keeping up with my recovery work. He joked around about me going to meetings and about my eating plan. He would also roll his eyes whenever a recovery friend would call.

I told myself that I was doing so well in my recovery that I didn’t really need so many meetings anymore.

As a result of this, I started cutting down on the amount of meetings I went to. Instead of going every day, or even every other day, I went only a few times a week. I didn’t meet up with recovery friends as frequently, or make as many phone calls as I did before. I began to turn down invitations to social events because I “was too busy”.

I rationalized that since I was in a relationship, I didn’t have as much time to go to meetings as I did when I was alone. I told myself that I was doing so well in my recovery that I didn’t really need so many meetings anymore.

Another concerning thing was when I realized that he was addicted to prescription pain pills and had no intention to stop using them. At first, it didn’t seem to impact our relationship too much. I made a lot of excuses for his behavior, but it bothered me enough to bring it up in my therapy sessions.

He wasn’t physically abusive to me, so it was easy to rationalize that his drug use wasn’t really a problem. But I began to tire of his lack of enthusiasm for life. He was content to come home from work and just sit in front of the TV every night. Weekends weren’t much different; it was a struggle to try and motivate him to go anywhere or do anything.

He was such an intelligent man, but the drugs put a damper on his personality and made him apathetic and listless.

Deciding to leave

I really loved him and we had talked about marriage, but I couldn’t see myself continuing the rest of my life living that way. I tried to talk to him about it, but he got very angry. He made it clear that he needed the drugs for his pain (headaches, and an old knee injury), and he would never stop using them, not even for me.

About 2 years into it, I made the painful decision to leave that relationship. Truthfully, though, I had already left on an emotional level several months before I physically left. I had become interested in someone at work, and we had been talking quite a bit and getting to know each other.

I can remember thinking that I should wait awhile before getting involved with someone new (and my therapist also advised this). But I was in so much emotional pain, and I wasn’t sure I’d have the strength to leave my relationship unless I had someone new waiting in the wings.

And so, without allowing myself any time to grieve over the end of my last relationship, or my career failure, I jumped immediately right into another relationship.

Will a new relationship solve my problems?

Woman Jumps into a Mans Arms in a Park
A new relationship to divert my attention away from the grief I was feeling

I get “rescued”

While in the process of moving out, it became unbearable to be at the apartment with my ex. I had been confiding in my new “friend” at work about my breakup, and how difficult it was for me.

I told him of my plan to get a hotel room to stay at until I could find an apartment, and move out. He suggested that I could save some money by staying with him for a couple of weeks until I could move. He had a spare room he wasn’t using, and I thought “Why not”?

Warning bells went off that this might not be a good idea! But at the same time, I knew that he was interested in me as more than a friend, and I was excited that this could be the start of a new relationship.

Looking back, I can see that I was emotionally devastated. It wasn’t an option for me to starve or binge, and I wasn’t an alcoholic or a drug addict (alcohol/drugs had never appealed to me). But I couldn’t handle the pain I was in, and since I couldn’t turn to a substance to take it away, I looked to someone to divert my attention from what I was feeling.

At the time, I didn’t understand that this is what was happening. I really thought I was falling in love again! It’s only in retrospect that I can so clearly see that a new relationship was a way of comforting myself in my sadness.

Of course, you’ve probably guessed that I never ended up sleeping in the spare room. On my first night staying with him, we talked and flirted as we ate our takeout dinner. We shared our life stories long into the night and got to know each other way too quickly.

I have to be brutally honest here and say that I wasn’t really attracted to him. I told myself that it didn’t matter because we had an intellectual and emotional connection. But looking back on this, I think I was lying to myself. I wanted this “love story” to be real, so I mistook desperately needing to be saved for a real connection.

A disastrous relationship

Woman Wearing a Tan Sweater Sitting with Hands Covering Her Face
My excitement about my new apartment was short-lived

I moved into my new apartment

After a few weeks of staying with him, I found a new place to live. I really liked that apartment alot! It was an adorable one-bedroom in an old converted Victorian mansion near downtown. It was unlike any other place I had ever lived, and it was just perfect for me.

My new boyfriend was now the one driving to my place and staying there pretty much every day, basically living there (just like what I had done in my previous relationship). In the back of my mind, I longed for some time to myself. I hadn’t even had a chance to do any decorating or arranging my things, because he was always there and always required all my attention.

I began to feel resentful, but I never had a conversation with him about needing some time to myself. I was resentful because I wasn’t taking care of myself by setting boundaries; I just went along with whatever he wanted. But another part of me was also afraid to be alone with my thoughts, so he provided the distraction I needed to not think about my sadness.

Again, I had no awareness of my confusion at that time. But I can clearly see it now, looking back. Two completely opposite and conflicting needs were battling for dominance, and neither one was winning! I was setting myself up for a disaster, but completely oblivious to the danger ahead.

We move in together

After about a month, he got tired of driving back to his place to get clothes and other stuff, and he didn’t want to keep paying rent when he wasn’t really living there anymore.

We decided it made sense for him to just move in with me, so he gave notice at his place and moved all of his stuff into my apartment. Again, I had conflicting feelings about this, but I didn’t discuss it with him at all (not taking care of myself again).

I had been so excited about my new place, and it was just the perfect size for one person. After he moved all of his stuff in, there really wasn’t anywhere to put everything. My once cute little apartment was now a cluttered, crowded mess! But I told myself it was ok, because we loved each other, and I wanted us to live together (didn’t I?).

Problems from the start

As much as we thought we knew each other, we really didn’t. After he moved in, the “honeymoon phase” of the relationship wore off pretty quickly, as we discovered we weren’t on the same page about alot of things. The lightheartedness we had shared in the beginning turned into almost constant arguing.

I began to feel claustrophobic because he was always with me. Not only did we live together, but we also worked together. He claimed he wanted me to go out with my friends, but whenever I did he seemed to be in a bad mood when I got home. Little by little I stopped seeing my friends, or even talking to them on the phone (including my sponsor).

I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but by this time I had stopped going to my 12-Step meetings altogether. I cut way back on my meetings when I was in my previous relationship, but now I wasn’t going at all anymore. Not only that, I was no longer actively doing any 12- Step work (reading, writing, engaging with the recovery community). My focus was not on spirituality at all.

It would inevitably affect my food

Tied White Cloth Napkin on Blue and White Plate With Gold Fork and Spoon on Either Side
Thoughts and feelings eventually become behaviors

Up to this point, amidst all the turmoil in my life, and despite drifting away from my support system and 12-Step meetings, I had somehow been able to hold on to my abstinence.

(Abstinence is a term used in 12-Step ED recovery, which means “refraining from compulsive eating and compulsive food behaviors while working towards or maintaining a healthy body weight“).

I had still been eating moderately, not bingeing or starving, and sticking to my food plan. I hadn’t been obsessively weighing myself, or over-exercising.

But, just because I hadn’t been actively practicing eating disorder behaviors yet, my relapse was already well underway. I just didn’t realize it.

Key takeaway points

  • My relapse didn’t happen suddenly, with one dramatic eating disorder event. It was a very slow, almost imperceptible process (meaning “extremely slight, gradual, and subtle“).
  • Even though I had a clearly written out relapse prevention plan and a support team, I didn’t use them. I never looked at my plan after I left treatment, so I didn’t recognize the signs of relapse as they were happening. I didn’t share the emotional turmoil I was feeling with my support people.
  • I stopped going to meetings, working with a sponsor, and being honest with my recovery friends. I gradually broke off contact with my supportive recovery community.
  • Relationships with men became more important than my ED recovery. My time and energy went into trying to “fix” relationships that weren’t working. I neglected my own emotional needs, ending up in situations and agreeing to things I didn’t want, just to please others.
  • I completely lost my connection to God. Over time, instead of letting God be in charge of my life, I grabbed ahold of the steering wheel and went full speed ahead. I made decisions based on fear and people-pleasing, rather than what was in my own best interest.

There’s more to the story

As the relationship went on, things became more and more turbulent between us. It was about 2 years in that I started to change the way I ate and exercised. I wasn’t worried about it, though, and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything dangerous.

Little did I know…

Those changes in my behavior started out like an innocent snowball, and quickly gained momentum until I became trapped in the avalanche of my eating disorder all over again!

Thoughts and feelings eventually become behaviors.

In an upcoming post, I’ll go into detail about how and when food and exercise became a problem for me again. I’ll share what happened, what it led to, and how I found recovery again after 10 years in relapse.

Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions. Have you ever experienced a relapse in your ED recovery? What was it like, and how long was it before you were able to get back on track?

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