Perspective on Eating Disorder Recovery and Relapse

Perspective on Eating Disorder Recovery and Relapse

Meaning of "Fully Recovered" from an eating disorder

A thirty-three year old man wrote to me saying he had been a binge eater most of his life and now was fully recovered. Food has been a non issue for two years.

Of course, I am glad he is happy with the strides he has made in his life. But his post got me to thinking about what recovery means.

I have been working since 1980 with people who have and who have had eating disorders.  People have many different attitudes and definitions of being fully recovered.

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 Work

As I see it, you develop an eating disorder to cope with what you cannot bear. When you are committed to getting well you:

work in your personal psychotherapy;
participate in 12 step programs and/or support groups;
explore and develop your spirituality;
nurture your creativity;
gain education and skills to function as you choose in this world.

As part of this life long process you:

feel your emotions;
recognize and bond with trustworthy people;
develop behaviors and habits that honor your mind, body and spirit;

develop a sense of self worth and self respect.

As you develop you learn and discover how to address your inner and outer life situations without the eating disorder.

Symptom Signals Your Need to Grow

As you age, develop, mature, take on new challenges, you 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 you are overstretching your capabilities and need to pace yourself.

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.

Your symptoms can show you that you are feeling too much or not enough. This teaching occurs in a language you understand, perhaps better than any other. This is the language of the eating disorder which may have been your 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 reeturn 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 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. All appointments are virtual. For a free telephone consultation e-mail her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Author of This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Healing Your Hungry Heart: recovering from your eating disorder

*Spain, coast of Fuerteventura near Ajuy. photo by Hansueli Krap


0 # This is a "keeper"KymL 2012-09-19 06:53
Wow Joanna, I really like this one!  I think I need to print and keep a copy handy! 

A couple weeks ago when I dug up all that shame I noticed myself going back into Ed thinking with wishes to become small physically and emotionally.  Those thought usualy lead to isolating and dieting.  I got hard on myself, thinking my recovery was weak and wondering if I'll ever become strong; but then I thought it didn't matter if it was weak, I had to back off of working through the shame.  I didn't know (and still don't) if I was going down the wrong road, taking on too much or shouldn't do it on my own, but I knew I had to "box" up the feelings for my therapist. 

After reading this I realize those "get small" thoughts were my recovery's warning signs and there was nothing weak about it or me.  Hopefully next time I won't beat myself up before using those thoughts as a tool.

Thank you so much!!! 
0 # keeperpinkjoanna 2012-09-19 10:58
Dear Kym,

I'm glad to know you found this post so relevant.  It's a rewrite of something I wrote before I wrote Healing Your Hungry Heart.  The concept is in Healing Your Hungry Heart.  Maybe I said it more clearly in this post.  Or maybe you missed it in my book.

Your post is a reminder to me that we need to keep ourselves exposed to healing and expansive information so that we can access it when we are ready.

That's why I have so many books!  I'm now reading classics and finding relevant meaning for me that I missed in the past.  :-)

Your post encourages me to keep on going into the back rooms of my site, plulling out neglected posts, rewriting them as needed and bringing them into the light.

Thank you, Kym.

P.S. If you are going to print out the post, please lprint out this corrected version.  I found so many typos in the first!

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