An eating disorder relapse in mid-life is an opportunity for self-growth

In my mid-50s, I am still working on an important task, figuring out who I am without my eating disorder…I am excited, and ready!

I have learned directly that recovery from an eating disorder is not all sunshine and rainbows. Ideally, in recovery one learns to use healthy coping skills to deal with life’s stresses and not go back to eating disorder behaviors. When life is stressful it is important to reach into that proverbial toolbox and do everything in your power to resist the temptation to go back to that evil ED. ED’s voice is screaming at you – come back, I will keep you feeling in control and make sure you numb any and all difficult emotions. But recovery is not about going back to ED, even in the toughest of circumstances. It is about digging deep, finding strength to resist ED, reaching out for support, making connections, acknowledging vulnerability, and being extra kind and loving to yourself.

Recovery is not linear. As much as we don’t want to believe it, relapse is common and unfortunately can happen no matter how hard and how successfully you have fought ED. At the first sign of relapse, reach out for support. Let yourself be vulnerable. Be honest with yourself that you are struggling and get the help you deserve. Relapse is normal, not something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. But you’ve worked too hard to not turn things around and get back on track. Chances are you will come out stronger than before. Start with baby steps and keep moving forward towards the strong recovery you know you can achieve. The only potential roadblock is yourself. Keep fighting, keep believing, and keep loving yourself through it all. ED lies. He does not know what is best for you. Tell yourself, “Don’t look back, I’m not going that way.”  Listen to your inner voice and let your support team guide you back to a good place. And, as my dietician said, “Do the next right thing.”  

And now my authentic, vulnerable self needs to share with you my setback story. First, a little background. My recovery was strong – years of hard work with an outpatient team resulting in a healthier mind, body and spirit, authenticity, vulnerability, and connection. My ED became full-blown in mid-life though the seeds were planted long before. When my recovery was strong, I wrote my life story focusing on both what contributed to developing my ED as well as my recovery journey. My purpose was to heal on a deeper level and to give hope and inspiration to others. 

The first time I shared my story at a “Hope and Inspiration” event presented by the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA), four special people in the audience supported me. One said later it was as if I were giving the valedictorian’s speech at a graduation. I was on top of the world. There was barely a dry eye in the room. Over the next year, I was fortunate to share my story at treatment centers around Boston. At all levels of care, I loved answering questions about my journey as well as meeting and connecting with many clinicians. I was honored to be one of the speakers at the 2018 MEDA Breakfast, sharing a short version of my story in front of 200 people. Each time I shared my story, I felt empowered, authentic, happy, and strong. I felt like I was making a difference in people’s lives. The short version of my story, emphasizing that recovery is possible in mid-life, was shared by author and advocate Jenni Schaefer as well as Project Heal, ANAD, and the Emily Program. My most recent speaking opportunity was at the Kingstown, Rhode Island NEDA Walk in April of 2019. Now, the hard part . . .

A little over a year ago, I started to slip. I didn’t realize what was happening. The husband of someone important to me died suddenly and unexpectedly. He was a wonderful human being and I was shattered for his widow and her family. I held this couple on such a pedestal. They lived life to the fullest and had a healthy work/life balance. This woman was one of the most important people in my life and an integral part of my recovery. I learned much from her, not only about recovery, but also about life. We had a special connection and she was probably the first person with whom I could be vulnerable and authentic. I learned about myself and began to understand why I developed an ED in the first place. I learned from her what was necessary for recovery and I had her unconditional support every step of the way. She always believed in me even when I at times had difficulty believing in myself. When her husband died, I was devastated and sad for her. 

As someone who has been a bereavement group facilitator for many years, I reached out with texts, emails, cards, and a special book on grief. I checked in frequently, maybe too much in retrospect. Then, two months to the day after her husband’s death, I received a text from her asking me to stop all communication “until our paths cross at some future point.”  I was shattered beyond words. The pain was deep, I felt I needed to hurt myself to make the pain go away. Those were scary thoughts and in no way would I have acted on them. People close to me, understanding on some level how upset I was, said to let her go, forget about her, be angry. I had given her power over me. Instead of anger, I felt sadness. I didn’t realize it, but this loss of someone important to me, who gave unconditional care and support, triggered deep inside me the wounds my parents had unintentionally inflicted on me as a result of their own issues. I thought writing my story would have helped to heal those deepest wounds, but this new loss touched upon my core. How could one person affect me this deeply?

It would have been easier to feel anger, let it go, and move on, focusing on my family and close friends who love me. I never intentionally went back to my eating disorder. I talked about how I felt with those closest to me and extensively with my therapist. My recovery stayed strong in that I was neither intentionally restricting nor over-exercising to numb the unbearable pain. I had learned in recovery that when life was stressful, I needed to reach out, to connect with support, and to feel the feelings. I thought I did this, but the reality was few people truly understood the importance of this relationship in my daily life and its role in my recovery. I internalized the devastating hurt and sadness. Of course, I thought about this friend often and yearned for answers, but on the surface, I lived my life as a mom, wife, tennis coach, tennis player, recovery speaker, and bereavement group leader – all roles I cherish in my daily life. Any mention by me of this person’s name would get a just forget she ever existed or the fact that you are even still thinking about her… Comments like those made me further internalize the pain and sadness.

I had no idea that ED was trying to make a return, lurking just below the surface, to somehow help me cope on even the most subtle level. I was not knowingly or intentionally welcoming ED back, never would I consciously do that after working so hard to eradicate him from my life. Yet, my weight was dropping and continued to drop. Still, I felt good physically, went about my life, ate what I wanted, exercised less, and experienced plenty of good days with the continuing sadness just below the surface. 

There has always been a sad inner child from years of emotional abuse and no outlet for expressing feelings. The self-awareness that came from my recovery journey and the impact of this crushing emotional upheaval was both overwhelming and consuming. On some level, it would have almost been easier to return to ED and numb those difficult emotions. While my recovery was too strong to consciously go back, how else could I explain the weight loss?  

The loss of this person in my life took away what I had grown to depend on – feeling that someone was always there for me, someone who understood me, someone with whom I had learned to be vulnerable, open and honest. And, she did not die, she chose to disconnect from my life. Everything positive that I learned in recovery was connected to this person in some way. I had never learned how to feel or to express anger, but I was an expert on internalizing sadness. This was a deep sadness and at times felt like depression. Still, I went on living my good life. One of the hardest things in respecting her “stop all communication” request was being unable to have my questions answered and to understand why. There was no closure.

After a while I felt like even my closest friends didn’t want to hear about it anymore. I talked to my therapist extensively and she understood the relationship and loss. She also noticed the weight loss and convinced me to see a dietician again. My previous one had retired. The suggestion of seeing a new dietician immediately felt like a failure to me. Didn’t I already know by now how to fuel my body properly?  Ultimately, I agreed to go. 

I was shocked to learn that my weight had dropped significantly. I didn’t understand how this could have happened. I kept my guard up with the new dietician and she treated me as someone who was in a good place recovery-wise, knowing about my speaking and leading support groups. She respected that I knew what to do, rather than making me feel like I was starting over with a meal plan and food logs, etc. Yet, my weight loss was significant and could not be ignored. After a year of meetings and weigh-ins, unfortunately the scale budged very little. My therapist and dietician felt it was time for more focused intervention. My “I’ll try to eat more” was clearly not working. 

With recovery came the freedom to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, and without accountability, and it felt great!  But my former dietician had always said that if I only ate for my appetite, I would lose weight. One of the most difficult things for me had always been eating when I was not hungry. Well, clearly, what I felt was freedom was insufficient fuel for my body. And, as an athlete, I needed even more fuel to support my competitive tennis. Here, I was not depriving myself, not ignoring hunger, eating meals and snacks, taking more days off from exercise, but not eating unless I was hungry. My old dietician proved to be right on. Yet, any recommended interventions felt like punishment. I tried to figure out what else could be going on. 

I carried the pain of the significant loss with me every day and, on top of it, all the unanswered questions. But, as with any pain, it did indeed lessen over time. As I know from my bereavement work, grieving the loss of someone close to you requires adapting to a new reality. 

A close friend said that sometimes significant people leave our lives with little explanation. Yes, the pain was real, but I had to go on. Was there a connection to my weight loss?  It would have been easy to blame the weight loss on the loss of my friendship and the return to ED as the easy way out – though of course there was no easy way out. Going back to ED would be like putting a band aid on a gunshot wound. 

I needed to feel the pain, cry the tears, use the self-awareness I learned in recovery to figure out the healthy coping skills that would help me combat the pain and sadness. Returning to restricting and over-exercise as my outlet was not an option. My healthy self knew that connections and reaching out for support, with the few who understood the relationship I had lost, was essential. How would I balance being vulnerable and open to support without feeling it was too much for my closest friends?  They never made me feel that way. It was the old pre-recovery me who always thought being “strong” meant keeping it all inside. Yet, there had to be something else going on that contributed to the weight loss and after a year I figured it out. 

One of the fears that contributed to my eating disorder was an intense fear of gaining weight when I hit menopause. I went into surgically induced menopause following a hysterectomy in February 2017. My fear never became a reality even after recovery brought freedom from ED. Well a missing piece to my weight loss puzzle has been found. I also had learned that in menopause, cholesterol numbers can go up. When my blood counts revealed the highest number I had seen, shortly after my friend’s healthy and fit husband died, I was shocked and upset. Even though my doctor reassured me that my overall numbers put me at extremely low cardiac risk, the number became lodged in my brain as something to be concerned about, triggering more anxiety than ED behaviors. The cheese and eggs I ate freely became food items of concern. Somehow this led to an exaggerated focus on clean eating, not an obsession, but a heightened awareness of what I was eating, thinking that I was taking care of my healthy self, rather than turning to ED to deal with the anxiety around cholesterol. 

A year later, my cholesterol levels had improved but my weight was too low. I could not blame the loss of that special friendship or ED or any other fact for my significant weight loss. My focus had to be on being my healthiest self in mind, body, and spirit. It was up to me. 

I cannot blame my team for what feels like punishment, but rather I need to follow their recommendations which come from a place of professional knowledge and care. I need to continue to connect with those who understand me and not be afraid of vulnerability or feeling it is too much when I express my feelings. I will continue to be a work in progress, as we all are, as I strive to work my way out of the weight loss abyss, the unintended result of multiple factors. 

When I am fully weight-restored, I will resume speaking and sharing my story. I feel empowered when I can help, inspire, and give hope to others. Recovery is possible at any age. It is not at all linear. There will be detours along the way, the detours only make you stronger. Life’s challenges will continue to present, but that recovery toolbox will be full and readily accessible.

Food is my medicine once again, but I am in touch with my feelings and know that self-awareness, determination, and perseverance will propel me forward on this journey. 

Whether my situation was a true relapse in my recovery or a one-time detour, it was not failure, but rather a reminder of how difficult the recovery journey is and how important it is to use what I learn along the way to become stronger and healthier in mind, body, and spirit. Recovery brings opportunities to experience life in new ways and appreciate the people who know you, understand you and appreciate you just the way you are. 

The loss of my relationship with someone dear to me cast a darkness over my life in 2019. While deep sadness and pain followed me through the year, there was light which carried me through the darkness. The light included gratitude for the joys of my family life, each day of good health, extremely successful high school tennis seasons, the “gift of an ordinary day,” and the close friendships that gave me the gift of connection.

As 2020 gets underway, I reflect on the lessons learned through my “recovery detour” as I prefer to call it. My weight is slowly climbing, the pain and sadness is lessening and the excitement for new opportunities makes me smile and feel full of hope. My oldest child is happily married, my twins will graduate from high school and go off to college, my husband and I will enjoy more time together as we adjust to a new normal next fall. Hopefully, the deep sadness and pain will turn to deep fulfillment and joy. When darkness creeps in, I will recognize and acknowledge it and look for the light. Hopefully I will let go of what I cannot control. 

My recovery will continue to get stronger. I look forward to continuing my volunteer role at “be Collaborative”, an outpatient treatment center where I feel welcome and can offer peer assistance and co-lead support groups. I will continue to coach high school tennis, play competitive tennis, and support those who are grieving. My life is full, and I am grateful for family and friends. In my mid-50s, I am still working on an important task, figuring out who I am without my eating disorder. The journey continues and I am excited, and ready!

Where to go for help

United States

MEDA: Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association – medainc.org

NEDA: National Eating Disorders Association – nationaleatingdisorders.org

Project Heal: theprojectheal.org

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders:  anad.org

The Emily Program:  emilyprogram.com

Australia

The Butterfly Foundation: https://www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/

United Kingdom

BEAT:  https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/

Make your experience count – write your story

For guidance in writing your story, contact June Alexander at email: june@junealexander.com