Why are relapses so common, and how do you get to a place where you no longer fall into those dark holes? A relapse takes planning or at least some specific steps leading up to it. It doesn't usually occur out of the blue. Forgetting or refusing to use the tools of recovery is what will land you in a relapse. Once you have recovered, you always have tools at your disposal; it's up to you whether or not you use them.
If you look at any addiction, relapses are the norm. Statistically speaking, you are more likely to relapse at some point than fully recover. Considering that a relapse with anorexia could mean death, I know how lucky I am to have escaped the clutches of that hellish illness. What was it that allowed me to beat the odds?
The way I look at it, choosing to recover in a moment isn't as difficult as making a commitment to recovery. Both take courage, but one takes courage and continual hard work. It's a little bit like the resolutions people make at the beginning of the new year versus making lasting lifestyle changes. Most people say they want to exercise more or change a bad habit, and they might start the year off smoking less or exercising more. It's rare that people continue these changes throughout the year, though. That's because the commitment has to be reaffirmed every time the temptation to go back to old ways rears its head, and, in recovery from addiction or eating disorders, the temptation crops up a lot, especially in the beginning stages.
One of the reasons why relapsing is so common is because you have to stay one step or many steps ahead of the illness or addiction. You also have to let go of something that can feel like a security blanket, and that is scary. Ultimately, you have to find and trust yourself, and then form a new identity apart from the illness.
Many people claim that they want to get well, but they are not willing to give up certain aspects of the illness. I can think of one woman in particular who often says she wants to recover, but she wants to do it within her own unrealistic guidelines. For example, she wants recovery, but she is unwilling to give up restricting and counting calories. She wants to get well, but she is unwilling to gain weight. She wants to be healthy, but she refuses to stop focusing on exact food exchanges and the exact amount of exercise she engages in each day, every day. These are conflicting goals. There's no room for real choice, no real options in her life other than which low-calorie snack she chooses or how she will skip or replace this meal if that meal is XX calories more than she determines it "should" be. What a nightmare. You can't have it both ways. Yes, change is hard, but you can't expect to get well while hanging onto the very behaviors that are keeping you sick.
Please note that I'm not talking about using a meal plan as a guideline here. That is fine, especially in the beginning stages of recovery, but if you can't or won't allow for some looser rules here and there, some variety now and then, you probably won't get very far.
Some people give up their unhealthy patterns for a while, but then, when it starts to feel too uncomfortable, too painful, too hard or too unfamiliar, they revert back to old habits. It takes tremendous courage and strength to keep moving forward when you are scared and hurting.
One of the best concepts I have heard regarding recovery from bulimia is that the best way to stop binging and purging is to stop dieting. When you learn to give your body what it needs, you are far less likely to end up in those big swings of starving and then binging and then purging and then restricting and suffering through all of it. The same can be said of any addiction. The more you take care of yourself every single day, the more you will uncover the ability to stay on a healthy path. The more you are aware of why you rely on the unhealthy patterns, the more you can find new, healthier ways to cope.
A good exercise is to describe in detail what you want your life in recovery to look like. If you find that you are too afraid to give up certain behaviors or are unwilling to try new, healthier behaviors, ask yourself if you are truly ready to change. If not, explore the reasons why you don't want to make the necessary changes. It helps if you have some guidance from a professional or a close friend.
When I first made a committed attempt to get well, I was fortunate to have some guidance from someone who had been through a similar series of events. Focusing on one change at a time was helpful, but the main thing for me was to eat at least three meals every single day, no matter what. That was my first commitment, and I stuck to it religiously. I still do. I was reminded that people all over the world eat three to five meals a day without getting fat, and that gave me hope. It reassured me that I didn't have to starve myself. I could be active, healthy and not balloon to an absurd weight. But the first year, maybe even longer, was not easy. I was challenged in all areas, and it was more of a struggle than not. In the end, it was all worth it, but I can understand why people get cold feet when trying to heal.
But that's the only way to get to the other side. You have to go outside of your comfort zone in order to change. When you're ready, it's not as much of a struggle. With support, it makes the transition easier. In the beginning stages, though, you have to wake up every day and ask yourself how you are going to stick to your recovery. What specific actions are you going to take to stay well? For some, it's more of a moment-to-moment thing. You just have to trust that it will get better, but you have to keep committing to your health.