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Relapse – A Realistic Part of the Recovery Process

A lesson I wish the SAT covered: Intellectualizing your feelings and actually feeling them are NOT the same. This would likely have served me much better in life than the FOIL method for multiplying binomials. 

Maybe that’s just me??? 


Truth bomb: I’ve had an ED relapse countless times since I first acknowledged that I had a serious issue. There, I said it. It’s out there. Now I would like to go hide in my room, binge watch season 2 of Fleabag, and eventually order some chicken pad thai which I will eat in seclusion… salting the lime & peanutty goodness with my deluge of tears. 

Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar series of events for myself and many others (with possible differences in streaming entertainment and takeout preferences). Perhaps you can relate yourself. 

I would love to report that I haven’t fallen into this cycle after years of self-development and reflection, but it happened within the past year. I am human, and the messy, unpredictable, non-linear path of recovery applies to me despite my perfectionist tendencies. In fact, I will argue that those perfectionist tendencies contributed significantly to the most recent relapse.

The root of my most recent relapse was a self-destructive response to change, one that I was not fully aware of until it stared me directly in the flushed, tear-strewn, emotionally defeated face. 

Change can be scary and exhilarating at the same time. I am typically one to embrace change with open arms (see: moving to New York with 2 weeks notice), but I’ve come to the realization that I have historically embraced change on the surface while coping with my subsequent anxiety in the shadows. It took me many years to own my story, and sharing the truth is a massive step in recovery from people pleasing, perfectionism, and disordered eating. However, discussing thoughts and perceived feelings is not the same as actually FEELING these emotions. 

Intellectualizing my feelings over a cup of coffee with a close colleague or via a post on this blog is one step. Letting the lump in my throat over not being able to meet my best friend (likely for a berry and almond-crusted chicken salad at our favorite cafe in Houston) with an hour’s notice after a rough day on the new job develop into to an audible gut-wrenching sob is another step entirely. 

When that lump rises, my instinct has been to shift my thoughts, shake it off, and focus on all that I have to be grateful for. The latter is thanks to countless books and seminars I’ve digested in the past few years. Gratitude and a positive mindset are extremely important, but they aren’t an excuse to not feel your feelings. Emotions are meant to be FELT, not just talked about like a science experiment ad nauseum. Sure, reflecting upon them and opening up to those you can trust is all well and good, but attempting to circumvent the process of actually shedding tears or punching a pillow while pretending it’s the guy who cheated on you after declaring his eternal love is an exercise in futility. Those feelings aren’t just going away because you solved the psychological puzzle of his narcissistic, emotionally unavailable “qualities” or your tendency to want to rescue others rather than focus on your own stuff. You may understand where your emotions stem from, but that’s simply self-awareness.

Self-awareness is not a get out of jail free card. Knowing why you’re sad or angry or frustrated doesn’t make those emotions evaporate. 

What happens when you continue to bury these feelings because it feels uncomfortable? They build and build and build until you’re basically a water bottle on a plane to Denver.  That sh*t will explode upon landing if you don’t release the pressure. You’ll have to take my word for it if you’ve never visited the mile-high city. 

Letting emotions be expressed is scary but cathartic. You’re essentially telling the universe (or whatever term you are most comfortable with) that you have faith in yourself, know you are resilient AF, and continue to learn and grow from each experience. 

Not letting the emotions flow through you often leads to  that come in all colors and flavors. We turn to these behaviors as a means of avoidance. I have personally turned to food, spending, drinking, and sex to block out my discomfort. I would take great pride in not having a binge/purge episode for over a year while simultaneously drinking an entire bottle of wine alone more than once per week to “decompress.” I would then put the drinking on pause after realizing it was a bit excessive only to sleep with someone I just met for validation that I was attractive and desirable. For the record I am extremely sex positive, but I know the difference between embracing the freedom to enjoy myself and seeking a flimsy stamp of approval to patch a gaping hole in my self-worth. In this case, I was definitely taking part in the latter. 

So back to relapse as part of recovery…

My most recent relapse occurred because I didn’t allow myself to process and work through my emotions. I wrote about them, I philosophically pondered them, and then I tucked them away deep beneath the surface until my most trusted and most destructive coping mechanism creeped in to compensate for the uneasiness within. 

I am happy to share that I worked through the relapse with support from those closest to me. The experience unlocked other buried emotions and issues from the past that I had not yet fully worked through. That’s how this stuff works. It’s messy and unpredictable and amazing all at the same time. 

I am healing and I am learning so many lessons along the way. I am doing the work, and it’s sometimes just as scary, frustrating, and overwhelming as it is incredible and powerful. What I am learning is that setbacks, relapses, and stumbles in all areas are part of growth. 

I hesitated sharing this relapse because I worried if it may trigger behaviors in others and because it goes against declarations I have made to never harm my body again or do something that I know is destructive to my mental and emotional well-being. But the truth is that sharing this may inspire someone to face their own issue or at least feel less alone in their struggle. The declarations I made in regards to my body and mind aren’t any less valid today. The difference is that they are no longer existing in a perfectionist vacuum, not allowing for the reality of being a human being with complexities and shifting circumstances. 

Imperfect = I’m perfect. Just the way I am. Freckles and all. 

Healing is a journey. Recovery is a process. If you’ve stumbled on your path to healing, you are among friends and fellow recovery warriors. Hold your head high and keep moving. 

Much love, Paige 

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  1. This is incredible. Thank you thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Thank you for sharing about your relapse. It’s a reminder to all of us that the demons we battle can re-emerge, but sharing our stories – and listening to others tell theirs – is a big step toward maintaining our recovery.