A thirty-three year old man told me he had been a binge eater most of his life and now was fully recovered. Food has been a non issue for two years.
Relapse after Recovery
His statement inspired me to think about what the term recovery means to many people.
While it is possible that people can have two years or more of being in a state where food is a "non-issue" that doesn't necessarily mean they are "fully recovered."
By the same token, if they have not binged or purged for some time and then begin again they may be responding to a signal to grow and develop more rather than entering relapse (although, of course relapse is possible too.)
Effective Ongoing Recovery WorkA person develops an eating disorder to cope with what they cannot bear. When they are committed to getting well they work to feel what they couldn't feel and know what they couldn't know. This is a start and stop and go back process since it involves learning how to tolerate powerful discomfort. Periodically resorting to eating disorder behaviors can be seen as a relapse, but it's an understandable part of the process.
Methods to proceed in recovery involve:
work in psychotherapy;
participation in 12 step programs and/or support groups;
improving and expanding education and skills to function well in this world.
These are challenges that can expose vulnerabilities a person is not ready to tolerate. The person, as part of moving toward strength, will feel their weaknesses. Periodic relapse is natural as the person uses a familiar protection against pain.
The life long recovery process involves:
recognizing and bonding with trustworthy people;
developing behaviors and habits that honor mind, body and spirit;
developimg a sense of self worth and self respect.
As the person develops she learns how to address inner and outer life situations without the eating disorder.
Relapse or Symptom Return Can Signal Your Need to GrowAs we age, develop, mature, take on new challenges, we are confronted with life's strong pleasant and unpleasant surprises. Some of those surprises may trigger a return of eating disorder behaviors.
If it's not a relapse, (meaning collapse and surrender) the eating disorder behaviors can be a signal that a new strength needs to be developed for new situations. It can also mean a person is overstretching their capabilities and needs to pace themselves.
Eating disorder symptoms, developed to defend you from what you could not bear, return to some people not as an enemy but as a guide. Calling this a relapse can be disheartening.
The so called relapse shows that the person is feeling too much or not enough. This teaching occurs in the language of the eating disorder which may have been a life long companion.
"Recovered Person"In my opinion the "recovered" person, is consciously aware of his or her liaison with the eating disorder. It's as if the eating disorder were some kind of sleeping general or police force who, when you take on more than you can bear, rises up to alert, protect and defend you. The return of the old eating disorder methods gets your attention.
The "recovered" person recognizes the return of the eating disorder urges or actual behavior as a signal to pay attention to something that is out of conscious awareness.
Past recovery work allows you to reevaluate what's going on in your life knowing now that something is being denied. You can then do more inner work to be present for your current experience without needing the numbing protection of the eating disorder.
When Symptoms Return
There can be gaps of five, ten even twenty years of no acting out. Then your old faithful protector emerges if you are involved in more than you can bear. The symptoms or relapse let you know you need to pay attention to your life and make some healthy adjustments in you way of living or dealing with a situation.
Symptoms can last one or a few days and be of tremendous value.
I would not like people who have occasional psychological informative incidents of their eating disorder symptoms to believe that they have lost their recovery or have failed. Nor would I like people who have no symptoms for two years to believe that their disorder is over and gone.
Need for Continued Growth and Learning
None of us knows what challenges life will present in the future. I doubt that any of us are fully equipped right now to deal with what the future will reveal. We all need to keep learning and growing to survive and thrive in this life. We all have signals that let us know we need to learn and grow beyond our current limitations.
A return of eating disorder urges is one kind of signal that lets you know more growth and learning is required.The more recovery work you've done the more capable you are of continuing the recovery work when those inevitable life challenges emerge. Those urges can help you open a blind eye or a dulled psyche to a new challenging reality and help you continue to live a full life.
1. Have you been surprised by a return of symptoms?
2. What was going on in your life at the time?
3. Could you see then or can you see now how your symptom return signaled an alarm?
Joanna Poppink, MFT, is a psychotherapist in private practice. She is licensed in CA, AZ, OR, FL, UT.
She is the author of Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder.
All appointments are virtual. For a free telephone consultation e-mail her at