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My Eating Disorder Story: How Did I Relapse? (Part 8)

If you missed part 7 of my story you can read it here.

After spending an entire year living in a 12-step recovery home, I thought my recovery was strong. And it was, for a couple of years. But navigating through several turbulent relationships, the emotional stress began to add up.

This part of my story picks up where my then-boyfriend had moved in with me. As time went on, my food and exercise behaviors began to change. After a few years, I began to restrict my food intake and increase my exercise.

Anorexia found its way back into my life with a vengeance, but I was in deep denial about being in relapse.

Moving in together

Problems from the start

Soon after my boyfriend moved into my apartment, we knew it was too small for us to live comfortably. It was my “dream apartment”, and I had been so excited when I moved in. I just loved it! It was the perfect size for one person, but there just wasn’t enough room for all of our combined belongings.

From the moment he moved in, he complained about how old the building was. He also didn’t like the neighborhood. For me, though, the fact that it was a vintage property located near downtown was the thing I loved most about it.

Almost from the beginning, we had major issues. It seemed like every day there was some huge, earth-shattering problem between us. Most conversations quickly escalated into disputes. We never really settled anything, and the same issues cropped up again and again.

Of course, it’s easy now to look back and see clearly. But at the time I was very young and confused, and I just didn’t understand that it wasn’t the right relationship for me. I thought we just had a few little issues to work out, and everything would eventually be fine.

We found a new apartment

Apartment with packed carton boxes and sofa with cloth cover and plant in background before moving
I thought moving to a new place would solve the problems between us

After a few months, my boyfriend convinced me that the answer to our problems was to find somewhere else to live. Since he hated my apartment so much, I told myself he would be much happier living in a newer, more modern building.

I thought if he was happier, he wouldn’t be so antagonistic.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but at the time I seriously thought our relationship would be better if he was happier with where we lived! I thought our living space was the problem, rather than the fact that we just weren’t a good match.

We found a bigger apartment in a more upscale part of town, and things seemed to improve between us for a little while. A big plus for me was that my gym had just opened a new facility right down the street. Everything was brand new, with all the amenities.

I didn’t have to drive because it was only a 10-minute walk away. It was so convenient, and I loved that I could warm up during my walk and begin exercising right away when I got there.

Because there was no commute to and from the gym, it became really easy to fit in daily workouts.

I became fixated on exercise again

Working out together

The first couple of months after the move, we seemed to be getting along better. He even got a membership at my gym and started going with me to work out. We did our weightlifting together, and then when it was time for cardio he would hop on one of the machines, and I would go take a class.

I was excited that he was getting more interested in working out. Fitness had always been such a passion of mine, and I was happy that we had an activity and a shared interest we could do together.

Around this time we also started going on hikes together, which I really enjoyed. There was a nature preserve right near our neighborhood, where we went on long hikes on the weekends. We started exploring other trails in town, and also venturing out on day hikes in our local mountains.

Our relationship takes a turn

I can remember feeling like we had worked through a difficult period in our relationship, and things were looking up. Even though we were spending so much time together, I didn’t feel claustrophobic like I had before. It seemed like we really knew and understood each other, and I felt like he was my best friend.

Things were great for a while… but as the months went on, our disagreements increased.

At first, it was only maybe once a week. But we eventually ended up right back where we were before, arguing almost daily. He got mad about very trivial things, and everything I said and did bothered him. I began to look for ways to spend time away from him.

At first, it had been fun working out together. But then he started picking arguments with me at the gym, right in the middle of our workouts. This is when it stopped being fun.

It didn’t seem to matter to him that people could hear and see what was going on. I would plead with him in a whisper to please wait until we got home. I could feel people looking at us, and I wanted to disappear!

He didn’t have any impulse control. If he was upset, he needed to discuss it right then and there, no matter how personal it was, and regardless of anyone around us.

I started going to the gym alone

Woman in Black and White Tank Top on Brown Floor in Pushup Position With Hands on  Black Dumbbells

It got to the point that I couldn’t tolerate his behavior at the gym anymore, so I told him I would be working out by myself from then on. We had a big fight about it, but he knew I was serious and I wasn’t going to back down.

The gym became my safe place again, my quiet sanctuary where I could forget everything. After spending all day with him at home, in the car, and at work, I could escape for a few hours to the gym for some time to myself.

My routine was to get home from work, have a quick snack, and immediately change into my workout clothes. Then I would briskly walk to the gym, lift weights for an hour, and then take a one-hour cardio class. Sometimes I would even take 2 classes.

It became normal to workout for 2 or 3 hours every day. Although at that time I hadn’t yet gotten back into restricting my food, I felt guilty if I missed a day of going to the gym.

By the time I got home after these long workouts, it was time for dinner and then bed. My hectic schedule limited our interactions, which was exactly my plan.

The relationship continues to spiral down

Even though we weren’t spending a lot of time together at home during the week, we still saw each other all day at work, and on the weekends.

Weekend mornings were spent at the gym and I usually didn’t come home until around noon. After working out, I felt strengthened in my resolve to not allow his moodiness to affect me. Sometimes I succeeded, often I didn’t.

We did have some good times, but the arguments were becoming more frequent, and there was always tension between us. I constantly felt like I was walking on eggshells, always waiting for his inevitable outburst of anger.

If he was upset with me about something, he felt compelled to bring it up anytime, anywhere, even at work. I couldn’t understand why he insisted on bringing our relationship issues even into the workplace.

I even got spoken to by my boss about spending too much time talking to my boyfriend, when I should have been working. This was so embarrassing to me, and I was angry that the relationship was starting to affect my job.

Isn’t there a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results?

Another move

Side view of sad woman sitting down wearing a light brown sweatshirt holding her head and looking down

Believe it or not, once again I thought moving to a “better” apartment would make our relationship work! Yes, I know this sounds crazy, and you’re probably thinking “Why would she think another new apartment would make things right, this relationship was obviously not working”?

Isn’t there a saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results?

When I look back on it, I think the same thing! But you have to understand everything in my life leading up to that moment. I never had any good role models for what a healthy relationship looked like, and I didn’t have a very strong sense of myself in those days.

I didn’t know that I was caught in a cycle of abuse. I thought that if I could somehow arrange our life in the “right” way, then he wouldn’t be so angry all the time.

And most importantly, I was falling back into my old eating disorder patterns. Because my thinking was becoming confused and delusional, I wasn’t able to see reality as it was.

Will another apartment be the answer?

Even though our apartment had more square footage and was in a nicer neighborhood than the previous one, it hadn’t improved our relationship.

Initially, the move to a new place had provided a distraction from our problems, but not for long.

After about 6 months, we decided to look for another apartment. This time, we thought a 2 bedroom/2 bath would give us the space we needed, and this would be the answer to the issues between us.

I wasn’t the only one who was delusional! He also believed this.

Thinking back to that time

Ugh! I cringe as I write these words because I remember so vividly the person I was then, and how much I really believed it. I wish I could go back to my younger self and give her the advice she needed to hear!

I would have told her that no amount of trying to fix my outer environment would fix the fatal problems in that relationship.

I would have begged her not to walk, but to turn around and run away as quickly as possible from the abuse! If only I knew then what I know now, I could have saved myself years of suffering.

But there are some things you only learn from experience.

A new and bigger apartment

We ended up finding an apartment that was further away from work, but the rent was reasonable for the amount of space. There was an extra bedroom we could make into an office, and we could each have our own bathroom.

I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven! I was so optimistic about our future together. I really thought this move was just what we needed to get our relationship on track.

I remember during the move, he angrily snapped at me when I asked him to be careful with a box of fragile items (which he had just dropped hard on the ground!).

Warning bells went off in my head, but I quickly dismissed it. I thought maybe I shouldn’t have “pressured him” when he was tired.

I always tried to come up with an explanation for his bad behavior, for what I could have done to “cause” him to be angry, instead of realizing he was just an angry person!

Big changes to my eating

Top view stylish arrangement of ornamental plates with blue napkins served on place mat on table near wineglasses
On the road to relapse

A couple of years later things were still the same between us. We had some good days but honestly, it was more bad than good. I was still using the gym as my escape and a way of coping with my relationship stress.

My workout schedule was pretty intense, and 2- or 3-hour workouts were a part of my normal daily routine. Up to that point, though, I was still eating pretty average foods, and I hadn’t been restricting my intake.

Eating out was an activity my boyfriend and I did together a few times a week. Friday nights were “date night”, which usually consisted of a movie, coffee, dinner, and hanging out at the bookstore for a few hours.

Eating and watching movies became our main way of bonding and spending time together on our nights out, as well as at home.

Getting interested in veganism

I can’t remember exactly how I got started but at some point, I became interested in veganism. I was a strict vegetarian for a number of years when I was younger, but when I was in treatment for my eating disorder, it wasn’t an option. I had to eat whatever was being served at the recovery home.

After I finished treatment, I was comfortable with how I had learned to eat in recovery. It felt safer for me not to exclude certain food groups from my diet, so I continued to be an omnivore.

All those years that I was vegetarian, I always thought veganism was a bit too over the top for me. This was back in the 80s and 90s, and being vegan wasn’t really a “thing” then. Even vegetarianism was thought to be pretty extreme by most people. It was a very different time than today!

The more I read about veganism, though, the more I thought it was something I should try.

Going vegan

So I decided I would try eating vegan for a week, just to see how difficult it would be. I went into that week looking at it as practice for the “real thing”, and not entirely sure I could do it long-term.

This was in the 90s, and there wasn’t tofu this-and-that on every street corner back then, and almond milk wasn’t even available at the grocery store!

I printed out some vegan recipes and started experimenting. Since I had always loved to cook, that part was easy and actually very fun. It brought out a new side of my creativity in the kitchen.

It was pretty challenging, though, to find vegan food when we went out to eat.

In those days, there weren’t many specifically vegan dishes on most restaurant menus, so I had to learn how to ask for my order to be modified. After that first week, though, I got over my learning curve. I decided I really wanted to be vegan, and putting up with some minor inconveniences was worth it to me.

I committed myself to this new way of eating, and I delved into it wholeheartedly. I felt happy thinking that I was doing something good for myself, for animals, and for the environment.

Learning about celiac disease

Woman in Green Tank Top Sitting on a Bed Holding her Stomach in Pain

Symptoms

Something I haven’t mentioned yet is that for years I had some pretty serious issues in my gastrointestinal system. Even as a child, I used to get a lot of stomach aches, and I also had really bad eczema. I was still dealing with eczema and was constantly applying steroid cream to my skin on a regular basis.

Around this time, my gastro symptoms hit a crescendo. It was to the point that I was having severe abdominal pain almost every day, along with bloating, excess gas, nausea, and chronic diarrhea. Wherever I went, I had to know where the nearest bathroom was, because I knew I was going to need it at a moment’s notice.

I couldn’t ever really enjoy myself fully in whatever I was doing, because my stomach always hurt. And if it wasn’t hurting right then, I knew it was only a matter of time before the almost unbearable abdominal pain would start.

I tried all kinds of natural remedies, as well as some over-the-counter medicines to alleviate gas. Sometimes they helped, but most of the time nothing really relieved my pain. I was miserable, and I began to try to look for answers to what could be wrong.

How I found out

I had been going to doctors for years, trying to find out what was wrong with my gut. Most of them just said I probably had IBS, without doing any tests. One doctor did refer me to a gastroenterologist who did a colonoscopy, which came out normal.

Doctors were not a big help to me!

I couldn’t stand the pain and disruption to my life anymore, so I decided to research and find out for myself the cause of my distressing symptoms. In my reading, I happened to come across celiac disease. I had never heard of it before (again, this was the 90s!).

I was surprised to find that it described everything I had been dealing with for so many years. From the horrible abdominal pain to the eczema, and everything in between, it was a perfect match for my symptoms.

I thought, “Oh my gosh, could this really be what I’ve been suffering with for so long”?

Going gluten-free

After tons of reading about celiac disease and gluten, I decided I would try a gluten-free diet for a month. If it didn’t help, I could always go back to my regular way of eating. But if it did help, what a blessing it would be!

I had only been vegan for a few months by then, so I was still getting accustomed to that whole new way of cooking and eating. Throwing in another curve ball of cutting out gluten was very intimidating. But I was willing to give it a try to get relief from my symptoms.

I didn’t feel better immediately but within a few weeks, I was getting some relief from my symptoms. It took me some time and trial and error, but I learned what foods actually contained gluten, and how to avoid it.

For more in-depth information about celiac disease and gluten intolerance, see these articles from my blog:

The perfect storm

Storm Clouds and Waves Crashing Over a Boat on the Sea
It was all about to come crashing down

Reading my story so far, you’ll note that I had a few major stressors happening in my life at the same time:

First, I was in a long-term relationship with a man who was emotionally abusive. I felt like I was constantly on the edge of a mental breakdown. I was completely stressed out all the time. But I didn’t really understand why, and what was actually going on.

Second, I looked for ways to relieve my emotional and mental pain. Going to the gym gave me somewhere to get away from him, and to work out (literally!) my frustrations and anxiety.

Exercise enabled me to numb out; I could temporarily forget about the problems in my life.

I became hyper-focused on exercise. My workouts became much more frequent and intense. When I wasn’t exercising, I was thinking about it constantly. It was like a drug that I couldn’t get enough of.

Third, I made 2 very drastic changes to my diet at around the same time.

I had good reasons for changing my diet, but even good changes can be very stressful. It was basically an entirely new way of life! I had to learn how to cook much differently than I was used to, with new ingredients I was unfamiliar with.

Putting a meal together, or going to a restaurant or an event became much more difficult than before. Anything having to do with food had to be thought out and planned ahead.

The fourth very important component of this perfect storm was that I had turned my back on all of my recovery strategies and tools.

I had long since stopped going to 12-step meetings, and I was no longer in contact with my recovery friends. I wasn’t reading any recovery books, and I had stopped using journaling to help me understand my thoughts and feelings.

I had pushed God to the side and placed myself in the driver’s seat. I was trying to handle everything on my own strength, and what I thought was best.

It wasn’t working.

Obsessed with food

I can’t remember exactly when the food obsession started again, but it was soon after changing my diet to vegan and gluten-free.

I didn’t really know what to eat, so I joined some forums on the internet to learn. I spent hours reading through posts, taking notes, and finding new recipes. The people in the forums became my new friends, as we exchanged ideas and recipes.

I quickly filled up a 3-ring binder with all the recipes I printed out. It became quite a project to organize them all! I was very happy with my own little “cookbook” I had created for myself.

I thought about food constantly: where to buy it, what to cook, meal planning, which restaurants I could eat at, searching for recipes online, and hours spent at the bookstore and library reading cookbooks.

It gave me a special thrill to find a food item or a restaurant that fit my new dietary requirements.

I became an expert in cooking and baking the vegan and gluten-free way. When I first changed my diet I was afraid I wouldn’t have anything good to eat anymore. But I soon found I could make just about anything I wanted, and I learned how to make it taste really good!

A raw foods diet

Fresh fruits cut attractively in a brown bowl on top of a white marble surface

Somewhere along the way, I found some websites about the raw foods diet. At first, I thought it sounded totally crazy. But the more I looked into it, the more I wanted to try it out.

This became a new twist on my food obsession.

I started out just incorporating more fruit, salads, and raw veggies into my daily meals. But the more I read, the more convinced I became that I “should” try to eat at least 80% of my food raw. I gradually cut out most cooked foods from my diet, until I was around 80% raw.

I almost idolized the people who were able to get to 100% raw and maintain it for years. They claimed to have superior health, and it was a goal of mine to get to 100% raw. There were lots of days I was almost there, except for maybe a little cooked sweet potato, or a small serving of brown rice or beans.

Eating raw gave me a feeling of “purity”. It was a weird, almost spiritual high.

I really believed I was extremely healthy eating that way. For a person without an eating disorder, it might have been. But for me, it was just another step down the path of a return to food obsession and anorexia.

Losing weight

My eating disorder was in control again, except I was totally blind to it. Looking back on it now, many years later, I can clearly see that my food restriction behaviors started soon after I made all of these dietary changes. But at the time, anorexia had me convinced that what I was doing was good and healthy.

After I started eating mostly raw foods, the restriction really picked up. Because foods that aren’t cooked have a lot of bulk to them, I found that I got full quickly. The sensation of fullness gave me the false idea that I was eating enough, but I wasn’t.

My diet became mostly fruits and vegetables, with little to no fat or protein. I was eating a lot in quantity, but not enough calories to sustain my body. Since I was also working out very intensely for several hours a day, I lost over 20 pounds in just a few months. I was already thin to start with, so I became emaciated.

But I couldn’t see it.

Over the next few months, I lost even more weight. People at work were beginning to ask me if I was okay. I was confused at their concern and worried looks. After all, I was way more healthy than the average person (or so I thought).

My clothes were baggy and falling off of me, and my face was gaunt. I was freezing cold all the time.

Eating disorder mind games

Under normal circumstances, a person who suddenly lost a great deal of weight would be concerned about their health. But the ED was in control, and it told me that I was doing great!

I was completely obsessed with food and exercise. My thoughts were consumed by my workout schedule, and when/what I would be eating next. All outings and events were carefully planned, to make sure the “right” food would be available for me. And of course, my daily exercise was non-negotiable.

There were times when a part of me (the healthy part), would see myself in the mirror at the gym, and I could see how horribly thin I was.

I worried that I was hurting myself by what I was doing. But I quickly brushed those thoughts aside; the ED couldn’t afford for me to think like that!

I can remember laying in bed at night and feeling my stomach painfully growling from hunger. It kind of scared me, but the ED voice told me it was a good thing. It meant I had “done well” that day; somehow, having an empty stomach gave me a feeling of control and victory.

My boyfriend and I broke up

We were together for nearly 7 years, and for about 5 of those years, I was actively practicing my eating disorder. We definitely had problems from the very beginning of our relationship, and anorexia certainly didn’t make things any better!

We went to counseling together for a short time, but I honestly didn’t put a lot into it. It was obvious to me that the counselor was on his “side”, and I felt ganged up on. I stopped going after about 4 sessions, but he stayed on with the counselor for individual therapy.

The final argument

A Man in a White Shirt Shouting at his Partner, Covering Her Ears and Looking Down

I still remember very clearly our last big, ugly argument. It started out over something very insignificant and stupid but once again, he had to escalate it.

We were at work that day, and he insisted on discussing it at my desk. It was so inappropriate! I was embarrassed that my co-workers had to hear it. I finally just ignored him, and he angrily walked away and went back to his own desk.

In my heart, at that moment, I knew that day was the end of our relationship.

It was a Friday night and we had plans for a movie and dinner. We already had tickets for an opening night show, but when we pulled into the parking lot, I said I wanted to go home. Of course, this infuriated him.

We didn’t speak on the drive home, but as soon as we got there he let loose. He had always had a temper, but that was the angriest I’d ever seen him. I had never been physically afraid of him, but at one point he looked like he was about to hit me! His hand was clenched into a fist, and his eyes were dark.

He brought his shaking fist upward, but he stopped himself.

I can’t remember who actually said the words first, but that night we broke up. I guess it was a mutual decision; after all those years, we were both fed up. We were past the point of no return.

He moves out

We put a 30-day notice in at the apartment, and he found somewhere else to live within a week. I came home from work one day, and he had a bunch of stuff boxed up. The next day he moved out, taking most of the furniture with him.

I later realized he had taken a bunch of things that we had bought together. He didn’t bother discussing with me how we were going to split everything up. He just took whatever he thought was “his”.

Because I still had my 16-year-old car, he felt entitled to take the new one we had purchased together.

I was extremely upset that he had stolen these items from me, but there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t in a state of mind to be able to get into a legal battle with him over it.

I was barely holding it together enough to continue going to work, not to mention trying to find another place to live.

One of my lowest points

I honestly don’t know how I ever survived that time, which was truly one of the worst of my life. Because of the anorexia, I wasn’t thinking straight at all and was operating in panic mode.

I only had a few weeks to find somewhere to live, and because I didn’t make a lot of money, I had very few options.

In the midst of everything else going on, what happened next completely blindsided me: I got laid off from my job of 7 years!

Of course, it’s never fun getting laid off unexpectedly, but this seemed like the cruelest possible timing. My job had been the only stable thing left in my life; now, even that had been taken away from me.

Needless to say, my income went along with it.

Starting my life over while in relapse

Standing Upset Woman Wearing Gray Short Sleeved Shirt Covering Her Face With Her Hands

I had reached a critical point in my ED relapse. I was in total food and exercise obsession, severely underweight, and not doing well emotionally or mentally. My long-term relationship was over, and I had just lost my job of 7 years.

What was I going to do?

I realized the most immediate thing was to find somewhere to live, so I concentrated on that first. Looking for a new job would have to wait.

I managed to find a living situation that was not ideal, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.

There I was at 40 years old, alone, with my life in shambles. I had no idea how to proceed. I was distraught that my relationship was over, but I knew it was for the best. It should have ended years before that, but my fear of being alone kept me hanging on for way too long.

My ED provided a distraction and a way to cope with my pain, but in the end, it only prolonged the inevitable. I wasted years in an abusive relationship, and now my health (and my life) was once again in jeopardy.

In an upcoming blog post, I’ll tell you how I found love again when I met my husband. I’ll talk about being married while in relapse, and how I got back into recovery.

As always, comments and questions are most welcome!

Have you ever experienced a relapse in your eating disorder? What did it take for you to embrace recovery again?

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