Last year I should have been celebrating ten years of eating disorder recovery. In the years running up to it, I had already planned out the words I would write, reflecting on the freedom I had fought for and could now enjoy. I was excited to use the opportunity to celebrate and inspire others. I longed for the milestone to draw another line under the whole experience.
Instead, my would-be ten-year anniversary of recovery arrived as I was deep into a relapse of the same anorexia that had haunted my teenage existence.
Somewhere along the way I dropped my guard, stopped being vigilant to my triggers. As I changed my label from being “in recovery” to “recovered”, I allowed myself to become complacent. I quit viewing the eating disorder as the serious illness that nearly claimed my life and saw it as more of an old friend I’d lost touch with. No longer in the picture, no longer dangerous or deadly. Something I could even be nostalgic about.
All it took was the right cocktail of circumstances to trigger a relapse. Stress at work, worsening depression, chronic illness, and low self-confidence. I desperately needed to feel in control and after burning through all my positive coping strategies I started to believe once more the lies an eating disorder tells you. I let myself believe it could be the solution, allowing it to get a foothold for the first time in a decade. Throw a global pandemic into the mix where I was only allowed out of the house to exercise and I was quickly in over my head.
Eating disorders can seduce you with false promises. Sometimes you mistake the walls closing in around you for an embrace. Before long, eating or not eating becomes all you can see, all you can think about. You are both trapped but also comforted by the structure and stability it provides you, the powerful feeling of control it offers up. Anorexia is an addiction to restriction, that chemical high it brings you. Even after years of recovery, the allure can resurface.
But this time around, at 29, I did not fit the stereotype of what someone with anorexia should look like. I wasn’t a teenager anymore, too old to fit the mold and qualify for early intervention. And knowing the warning signs, I asked for help as soon as I knew I was out of my depth, but I found my weight to be a stumbling block. I was denied treatment from a specialist eating disorder service as my “BMI was still too high.” It took several more attempts to find support that wasn’t based solely on my physical form.
This denial of help allowed the shame and stigma I already felt to grow. I couldn’t shake the feeling that “I should have known better.” It felt like somehow my age should have offered me some protection, some automatic wisdom. I was embarrassed to be struggling again, after so many years. At the time, relapse felt like a personal failure, a disaster I should have seen coming and been prepared for. How could I not only let myself fall again but fall so hard?
I watched those ten years on my recovery clock decrease back down to zero. It felt as though every bit of hard work that I’d sewn into my recovery had been undone. I was right back at the start, older but not wiser, doomed to repeat history.
But as I shakily rose from the bottom I never thought I’d see again, I realized something: Relapse does not erase your recovery. Those nearly ten years of recovery had still happened. All of the battles I’d won and the achievements I’d made still stood. The time on my recovery clock may have restarted but I was not at the same starting point of my journey. Instead, I had discovered something new, something painful—the lesson that relapse is often part of recovery.
Recovery is a decision you have to make every day. At each meal, I get to choose if I let relapse or healing define me. Instead of looking ahead and longing for distant milestones, I can celebrate tiny victories every week. Acknowledging each time I nourish my body, listen to what I need rather than what my eating disorder wants, and choose to keep fighting.
So as bruising and as difficult as relapse is, it is not the erasure of my healing. It is a continuation of an ongoing story. It is turning the page and starting the next chapter.
To read more words from Sarah, you can visit her blog here.
You are more than a number on a scale or a measuring tape. You are human. Messy and whole, capable of so many good things, regardless of your body’s shape. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at [email protected].