Recovery from Anorexia certainly becomes easier to maintain with time, however, large and stressful life events can make even the most solidly recovered individual feel dodgy all of a sudden. When the shit hits the fan, even the most dormant Anorexia behaviors will make a bid for pole position again. Anorexia recovery as an adult isn’t the same as recovery as a teenager. You have a different level of responsibility for self and others. When things go wrong you often have to sort them out yourself.
A year ago I a very special dog died and it devastated me. I was fine one moment and bawling uncontrollably the next, which was hellishly inconvenient as the waterworks would burst without warning. I was choked up and I didn’t want to eat. Food tasted like pebbles. Even normal people eat less in a time of bereavement, I told myself. Thankfully, even in my prolonged snotty, teary mess, I was fast to slam that door shut. Even if it is “normal” to lose ones appetite when bereaved, I don’t get to do that because I have a mental illness and associated behaviors that might resurface if I were to indulge in my lack of appetite.
Getting fired. Divorce. Death. Breakups. Job stress. Children. Stress is inevitable. Relapse need not be.
Shit hitting the fan rule #1: Go back to basics
What I mean by “back to basics,” is get back to the basic recovery protocol. Eat well. Sleep well. Get lots of rest, I’m going to focus on the first.
You don’t get to stop eating
It doesn’t matter how shitty you feel. It doesn’t matter how guilty you feel. It doesn’t matter how nauseous you feel. It doesn’t matter how depressed you feel. You have to keep eating.
Sure, it is pretty normal to lose your appetite in times of immense stress, but tough. If you have an eating disorder you don’t get to play by the same rules that “normal” people do. You are special in that regards. If you stop eating, whatever it is that is causing you pain will be catastrophized even more if you relapse. You are no help to anyone else if you get sick. You are no help to yourself if you get sick.
You can force yourself to eat
“But I feel sick at the thought of food.” Tough. The good news is that you can make yourself eat even when you don’t want to.
Anorexia recovery is not always about wanting to eat, and sustaining Anorexia recovery isn’t always about wanting to eat either.
One thing that I am very thankful for, is that in order to recover in the first place, I had to learn how to make myself eat when I didn’t want to. I believe that this is the biggest and best skill that anyone with a restrictive eating disorder can learn. For most of us, in order to even get to recovery, we have to force ourselves to eat at some point. Some of us have to do it every mealtime, every day for a long time. Good. The more practice at this lifesaving skill the better.
There will be times in life when you really, really don’t want to eat. When Popcorn died I did not want to eat. When one of my closet friends was diagnosed with terminal cancer I did not want to eat. There have been many times of stress post recovery when I have not wanted to eat. When even the thought of food has made me feel nauseous. Tough. I have the ability to force feed myself. Force feeding me is my superpower.
You can eat crying. You can eat stressed. You can eat angry. You can eat sad. You can eat depressed. You don’t get to stop eating for any reason. Ever.
Shit hitting the fan rule #2: Let other people in
Use your words and other people’s ears
Most of us hate to talk about Anorexia. It seems to be especially hard for some people to admit that they are going through a precarious time with recovery once they have been considered fully recovered. I guess it feels like failure. Something along the lines of “well, I’m recovered so I should not be having these thoughts.” There is probably a feeling of shame in there. Get over it. Talk to someone. At worst, doing so will make it real to you and kick your arse into gear. Much of the time, the process of talking about problematic thoughts or behaviors is enough to make you prioritize ignoring or stopping them.
Talk to someone. Yes, I know how squirmy this feels! URGH and it can be so hard to execute. It feels so vulnerable and icky to open up. And … 99% of the time it helps! Get over yourself and pick up the phone rather than resorting to exercise, restriction, or anything else.
Recovery canary birds
You should always have a couple of people in your life who are on top of your recovery with you. These can be professionals, sure, but the best option here is family and friends — people who see you a lot and will notice a slide in behaviors before you do. People who are canary birds. People who care about you and want you to be well.
When these people tell you things like “you need to eat more” or “I think you need to slow down,” or, “can we check that you didn’t lose any weight?” they are not saying them to be annoying. They are saying them because they care. Also, if your primary reaction to any of those statements is one of resistance or anger, that is your biggest red flag. When we are well, we don’t mind other people offering us more food, and we don’t mind people caring. It’s usually when we are sick that we get prickly about this sort of thing.
Right now, if my husband says to me, “you need a burger” my response would be “hell yeah, let me grab my coat!”
When I was sick, if my husband said to me, “you need a burger” my response would have been one of anger or defense. THAT is the difference. Usually it is when we most need to eat more that we are resistant to the suggestion of doing so.
Shit hitting the fan rule #3: Watch out for the compensatory behaviors
Yes exercise. Yes purging. Yes those old OCD rituals. You might be forcing yourself to eat, but are you checking other compensatory actions. Be vigilant because you cannot afford to be complacent.
In times of stress you cannot exercise more or participate in any of the compensatory behaviors that you know are a risk factor to your health. We have to find ways to decrease stress and anxiety, yes, so sometimes we have to get creative and try new things rather than resort to the old behaviors that we know never work out well for us in the end.
The key skill here is personal awareness. Noticing stuff you do. Noticing if you are walking more than usual. Noticing if you are getting more ritualistic. Noticing if little OCD behaviors are creeping back in. This is hard. Personal awareness is hard. Another good reason to a canary bird person who will notice these things for you if you don’t.
Shit hitting the fan rule #4: Have compassion for yourself!
Don’t get all down on yourself because you falter. You are a human being and you are living with the deadliest of all psychiatric illnesses. What does that mean? It means that you are a frigging rockstar for even being alive enough to read this post, that’s what!
It doesn’t mean that there is any excuse for not eating. In the kindest possible way, there never is. If you haven’t eaten as much as you know you need to, then don’t waste any energy berating yourself. Instead, use some energy to move your hand to your mouth and eat some food. It is never too late to make up for missed meals.