Header image by Matt Hill from Matt Hill Art. Check out his site here.
Anybody who knows me well is aware of the fact that I dislike school. Seeing as I’m packing up and leaving for my senior year of college in two days, my anxiety level has been unusually high. Enter the relapse lure.
This morning I was on the train to work in Boston, as usual, when I found that I couldn’t stop daydreaming about relapse. Of course, my magical version of relapse is devoid of bingeing and purging, notably lacking any struggle at all, in fact. All I envision is my body, bony and thin, and a happier, calmer, more balanced version of myself. In my head I made plans, which is arguably my favorite pastime. How much weight would I lose? 15, 20 pounds? I could exercise for two hours daily and eat 1,000 calories and I’d lose this much in the first week, and this much in the second…
This isn’t the first time I’ve daydreamed about slipping back into the depths of anorexia. Far from it. Every time I encounter significant stress, especially when it involves being away at school, I envision myself when I was twenty pounds lighter. In my mind, I look through rosy glasses– I don’t see the tears, the hunger, the cold fingers and late-night binges. It lures me.
It takes a conscious, sustained effort to resist the seduction of anorexia. This morning after unboarding the train, I looked around for people who looked at least normal weight or heavier. I looked at women who weren’t bone-thin, who had thicker legs and soft stomaches, rounder faces and big feet. If you’re thinking that people-watching for body types is troublesome and a bit exploitative, you’d be correct. But observing others’ bodies and recognizing them as “normal” bodies***, going to work and moving about their daily lives, helped me remember that I don’t have to be underweight or very thin to be happy or functional (that’s not to say, obviously, that underweight or thin bodies can’t be. See disclaimer below).
With the anorexic voice jabbering in the back of my mind, for example, I watched a woman (maybe around 30) on her way to work ahead of me on the sidewalk. She had a body that anorexia would detest, but that a non-disordered mind would find very appealing. She wasn’t an emaciated skeleton, and she was doing fine. I don’t have to be an emaciated skeleton, and I can still be doing fine. That’s what I repeated to the anorexic voice during my walk to work while watching the bodies of others.
Relapse is absolutely seductive, but it doesn’t take too much effort to remind myself why I began recovery in the first place. When I was underweight, when I was bingeing every day or when I was spending hours in the gym, I was miserable. I was obsessed. I woke up and went to bed counting calories and hating my body so intensely that I shook. Real relapse is ugly.
If you’re like me and find yourself observing the lure of relapse, I implore you to take of your rose-colored lenses and remember what having an eating disorder or succumbing to disordered eating is really like. You may even remember from previous relapses that wishful thinking never works.
***I don’t believe in the concept of normal bodies. There are very skinny bodies that are normal, very fat bodies that are normal, and everything in between. Here when I say normal bodies I’m really speaking with the voice of the low-weight eating disorder, trying to reshape it’s desire to have a “skinny and acceptable body” towards accepting a bigger, and for me healthier, body. I don’t disparage anyone for their thin body, their thick body, etc. For the purposes of steering off relapse, however, it’s helpful to redirect cognitively towards people with higher BMIs at the exclusion of others. Recovery is selective, difficult, and rude.