Breaking Free from the Shame of Relapse

shame of relapse - image of woman om a shadow, standing sideways, looking forward with serious expression on face, with colors projected on her and the wall behind her- blues, oranges, reds

Relapse is often a part of the journey when recovering from an eating disorder. Unfortunately, along with relapse often comes feelings of shame.

Four years ago I wrote this in my journal:

I am sitting on a plane waiting to fly to Fort Lauderdale. I’ll be checking into Renfrew tomorrow morning to work on recovery. I never expected to have to go to residential again….I am so ready to work on my emotional and mental health issues. To become the person I am meant to be. To be free from these thoughts that imprison me. To believe that I am more than my weight. That I can accomplish more than weight loss. To find BALANCE.

Denial

I was 29 and I had been sliding deeply back into anorexia, yet I was in denial about what was happening. I didn’t actually believe I would ever need to be in treatment again. I thought I had it all together and that I wasn’t that bad. That I wasn’t actually relapsing. 

Now in 2021 I have written a similar entry. Another relapse. I didn’t think relapse could happen to me. Surely not. 

Last month I completed an outpatient treatment program where they often told us “recovery isn’t linear.” As cliché as it sounds, it couldn’t be more true. In an ideal world, we would go to therapy or treatment once, repair our relationship with our bodies and food…. and after some struggle, we would emerge declaring our victory over ED with a profound love for ourselves and then never relapse.

All too often, though, for individuals suffering from eating disorders, relapse is a very real experience. A 2016 clinical study in the Netherlands showed relapse rates for anorexic patients to be between 35 to 41%. Personally, I have fully or partially relapsed three or four times over my 16 year battle with an eating disorder. 

The shame of relapse

There is a lot of shame associated with relapsing and winding up back in treatment again. You have to admit that you couldn’t do it on your own. Your family and friends might be disappointed in you. You might be discouraged that you aren’t farther along in life, or ashamed that you put your eating disorder before what you value. Those are all very real and true feelings.

But you are not a failure for relapsing. 

Each relapse has revealed room for growth.

It has unveiled areas where I still rely upon my eating disorder to cope. It has also shown me how far I have come from the last time in terms of my thinking, behaviors, and skills. This is not to condone going backwards, but to release us from the shame of relapse. Remember that while relapse might be a setback, we are not back to square one. It doesn’t mean that we have failed or are worthless. 

Rewiring the brain is incredibly hard. Expecting perfection in recovery often backfires. You, like me, might relapse. 

But remember that no matter how bad the relapse is, it never means that we are unworthy and incapable of recovery. 

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