At the start of 2020, my parents travelled around New Zealand. It was a simple international traipse that had importance; it was their last before corona, and the first with me at home alone. I am twenty-five years old.
Whilst this may seem strange to some, I have spent the last fourteen years battling anorexia. Which means, by extension, my family has too. Through my illness, I lost any ability to keep myself fed and safe. My parents were terrified that, if left alone, I would disappear completely.
Finally, they trusted me enough to leave. I also trusted me, until I realised after a week that I was not as recovered as I thought. This was a necessary insight, but finishing that day sobbing on the kitchen floor whilst my senile spoodle licked the oven door was not part of my liberated plan. I spent the next week restricting, a familiar move that didn’t elicit the usual exhilaration. I cried more in that one week than I had for months, howling over the all the hospital stays to come. Because that was how it always went; restrict, over-exercise, chew through time whilst life pulsed past. By the following Friday, I had resigned myself to the cycle. I got weighed, nodded my head at valid nutritional advice I didn’t plan on taking – I was disordered Emma, a role I knew well. But this time, it didn’t fit as comfortably. I crawled into bed that night and felt suffocated by the thought of another desolate week. It was then that I realised that it wasn’t inevitable. I had the power to change the narrative, and I started by documenting this epiphany into my notes section and falling asleep.
There is no point. I have done this time and time again, and my ED will only be satisfied when I have truly done it to death. When I won’t even be around to bask in the warmth that is hell in a furnace. I don’t know what has shifted in this moment, but I’m done. This week has been excruciating. I have looked myself in the eye, sobbing at the thought of doing this all over again. I can’t, I have too much to lose. Too much weight to render my ED happy, too much excitement. I’ve never realised before that I despise myself in a disordered mindset, because of my disordered mindset. Why would I perpetuate such a force, when I can grasp onto the fabric of gold?
This lapse could very well have tumbled into a relapse, but it didn’t. And I think this wasn’t in spite of every other relapse, but because of them. They showed me the fault in following disorder, and the futility of trying to magic some sort of change out of the same sad routine. I propelled myself forward through a backward step, and that process is one that we can sometimes forget when looking at recovery. We want linearity, crave a compact manual that will lead us to a firm handshake and certificate of completion. But that is not recovery, nor is it life. Both are messy, and both have been made messier by 2020. This year feels as if it has stretched past a decade, and we haven’t even reached December. Eating disorders love a bit of uncertainty and chaos, so if you find yourself returning to past behaviours during this time, please be gentle. To anyone supporting another in recovery, I hope you are looking after yourself too. Right now, and always, relapse is not a failure. It is a reverberation of the fight, an illness biting back with a set of circumstances behind it strengthening its resolve. Just as the onset of illness comes out of a perfect storm of factors, relapse is rarely a one man show. It may be slow, a progressive chill that starts at the feet and rises. It is okay to find yourself in a relapse, icy and out of breath. But as we know, you don’t treat hypothermia by staying in the cold. Once you recognise the signs, you need to warm yourself back up.
To those without much experience with eating disorders, working through a relapse seems straightforward enough. You get back on a meal plan, break the binge-purge cycle. You undo whichever behaviour got you stuck, and in doing so, you become unstuck. A few tears are shed, a few more appointments scheduled. But then, you can move on. It would be so nice, if mental illness had a defined period of respite that came with a guarantee of stability forevermore. But it doesn’t and that is not your fault. So please, if you are struggling, try to detach from the misconception that you should be able to get back on track easily. You may know each stone on the track, have a photographic memory of every twist, and yet, you still have an eating disorder.
At some point in every hospital admission, I would forget my ‘why’. An eating disorder is abusive, promising the world when you are starved of every worldly pleasure. As I stopped starving and started feeling, a sort of selective amnesia would set in. With all that glitters falling on the side of disorder, recovery simply wasn’t as attractive. Eventually, I realised that the ‘why’ had to be more than just fulfilling an obligation or pleasing others. In order to recover properly, I had to do it for me.
Eating disorders come with many things unknown, or perhaps unsaid. Relapses happen, but they don’t erase all progress. I want you to know that a backward step helps every forward movement; regardless of where you fall, full recovery is possible.
Contributed by Emma for Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2020