Celebrating 365 days without relapse

365 days (part one) - white text on star-studded sky

(part one)

It’s April 7th, 2020. The world is amidst a pandemic of unseen proportions — but this won’t be about COVID. This will be about recovery and hope, about struggle and support, about internalized fatphobia and learning to love one’s self.

This will be long. This will go deep. This will come to you in multiple parts, simply because it is a complex, multi-layered narrative, and both you and I have limited attention spans.

This is me, marking day 365 of relapse-free recovery from my eating disorder.

Before I dive in, a caveat: Recovery is not an exponential function. Successes don’t compound. Every day can be different from the one before. 365 is not really any different from 247 or 358.

You got to admit, though – a full year of relapse-free recovery sounds catchy, at least.

First things first: a bit of backstory

My name is Jay, I’m a nonbinary 29-year-old who grew up in a small village in rural Bavaria, Germany. In my teens, I found that achieving things brought me positive attention – from family, friends, strangers — so I proceeded to run with it.

I truly enjoyed being busy, being active. I helped stage plays, publish the school newspaper, and had a great time. I didn’t think staying up until 2am to cram in the homework and the studies I had failed to complete during the day was in any way problematic.

Part of my mental list of achievements included losing a lot of weight. My family tends to have larger bodies, and I am no exception. Family told me I am beautiful, yet contradicted their words with actions that seem so acceptable and ‘normal’ in our society. I never felt truly comfortable in my body, and I figured it has to do with the “extra” weight on my bones. (Years later, I recognized it as gender disphoria. But that’s a topic for later.)

Anyway. I tired dieting. I tried pills. I tried so much… until eventually my shame outweighed my lack of motivation. I fully bought into the rhetoric that places the one’s weight on the shoulders of the individual. I embraced being responsible for a healthy life, and healthy means being thin, right?

What worked for me was a combination of severe restriction and exercise. I lost 25kg (50 pounds) within nine months. And yes, I felt great — the external validation that I received made sure of that.

Yet my fear of failure had permeated every fiber of my existence by then. If your sense of self-worth is tied to your achievements, failure is the worst case scenario.

So I kept restricting. I kept monitoring my weight. I was constantly at the gym and even decided to get my certificate as an aerobics instructor. I was the healthiest I had ever been, I thought.

In reality, I was disordered already. Most of my time any given day was spent thinking about what foods I had eaten, would eat, mustn’t eat. I calculated calories-in/calories-out as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. To this day, I can recite the caloric values of a lot of foods from memory.

Fat had turned into an enemy first. Then, carbs did, refined sugar especially. I persisted on a diet of fruits, veg, limited whole grain products… and a drive to prove myself worthy of — well, what?

Back then, I couldn’t name it. After my first year of therapy, I figured out that it’s love. To be deserving of love, from others and myself, to deserve positive attention or happiness, I needed to fulfill my personal standards of perfection.

I managed to, for quite a time.

I used to say that I could never become a bulimic, since I didn’t have a gag reflex. While this was very helpful in some areas of teen and tween adventures, it kept me clinging to restriction since I knew I wouldn’t be able to throw up should I lose control. I knew what bulimia was, after all. I knew it’s a disorder, and not healthy.

The day everything changed was during summer of 2011, if I remember correctly. My family celebrates with food, and my pickiness was frowned upon, but indulged. I used to compare myself to others and utilized that to feel better about myself. “See, I have self-control. I don’t need fat. I don’t need carbs. Look at my healthy diet.”

That summer day, I failed. I ate way more than my artificial limit of 1,000 calories a day (less of course was better) would allow for. In my panic of what the scale would say the next morning, I decided to test my lack of gag reflex. If I wanted it hard enough, surely my body would do what I wanted, right? After all, I had lost so much weight, and trained it at the gym…

So I made myself vomit. I “purged” all the food I had consumed from my stomach and felt infinitely better. The next morning, the needle of my scale hadn’t veered to the right.

I had found an emergency break to pull. Like I said, I knew bulimia is a problem, but hey, I have so much willpower, I’d never spiral into an eating disorder, right?

Present-me can laugh about this now.

Of course I spiraled. Purging as an emergency measure for when I had overindulged became the “perfect solution”. If I wanted to eat more than my allotted calories, I would resolve to vomit later to avoid gaining weight.

Thing is, though, the behavior becomes addicting. Too soon, I began eating more in order to have to purge. The act of ridding myself of the “bad food” made me feel good. It gave me a rush of endorphins.

I realized I had to end it. Things had escalated, I was out of control. I think it was spring 2012 that I bought all my favorite sweets and pastries to binge, then purge, as one final hooray.

I had many such “final” binge/purge moments over the years.

Bribing myself with DVDs or books to make myself stop didn’t work. Nothing ever worked for long. In October 2012, I moved to Berlin and managed eight days without a relapse.

I sought psychotherapy in 2014 after almost two years of lonely struggle and managed a few relapse-free days here and there.

I went to stay at a clinic for in-patient treatment in 2017 and forced myself not to purge for 36 days. I fought tooth and nail for exercise privileges, though, so my purging and restricting just shifted.

The day of my release, I managed seven hours before the bubble burst.

Rock bottom – multiple times

Don’t get me wrong: I wanted to be healed. I wanted to be happy. But something in me, nestled so deep that no amount of therapy was able to access it, still thought I didn’t deserve happiness.

I was a highly functioning addict, during the years of 2012 and 2019. Even in the darkest weeks of my depression, I managed to uphold the image that I was okay. I did good at uni, I produced two short films, I wrote fanfiction, I fulfilled any tasks set by an external party.

Yet on the inside, I was miserable. I veered between resignation to tentative hope. Every time I thought I had hit rock bottom, I would discover that there’s yet another layer underneath.

The turning point came over Christmas 2018. For the first time in years, I’d be spending it with my family again. I felt strong enough to face the place that is both home and the root of many of my issues.

I managed by going on long walks, taking time for myself, and reading. I was in the mood for stories about characters that struggle with eating disorders. Sometimes, they were helpful in that I saw that I’m not alone. (Other times, they trigger me, yet I had become better at navigating my susceptibility by then.)

During one walk, I re-read a fanfic I had discovered years prior, a modern AU (alternate universe) of the TV show “Merlin”, in which Merlin is anorexic and Arthur is his best friend who tries to help. Unfortunately, a person struggling with disordered eating, addiction and/or depression can’t be forced to get better recovery. You can’t drag them into recovery. In the story, Merlin deteriorates so much that he contemplates suicide… and for the first time in my life, I could understand.

See, I always said that I would never end my life. I’m too optimistic by nature. I respect that some people don’t wish to go on, for whatever reasons, but I was certain I’m not one of them.

Yet that winter day, on the outskirts of my village, reading through Merlin’s suicide attempt, I understood. And I began to wonder… would it be so bad, to stop this? Put an end to this seemingly endless suffering? Hit the reset button in the most extreme way possible?

The seriousness of my own thoughts scared me more than I can say.

I knew I had to do something different. I couldn’t continue as I had for years prior, since the strategies I had been using obviously weren’t helping. The only thing I had yet to try were antidepressant drugs. My therapist had suggested I think about them as an option before the holidays. She’s had great success with a combination of behavioral therapy and medication, she told me.

Explaining my reluctance to go on meds would need yet another 2,000 words, probably, so I won’t dive into it now. All I’ll say is that it took me genuinely contemplating suicide to give them a try.

They weren’t a miracle cure… but my new-found openness to untried approaches was.

The turning point

I took my first antidepressant at the end of January 2018. A week and a half later, way too soon for them to be having any effect, my somatic therapist told me to watch a documentary as homework.

Somatic therapy is a holistic approach that treats the body as an extension of the mind. Rather than focus on thoughts or behaviors, somatic therapy combines them in a very practical sense. I discovered this therapeutic branch during my clinic stay and “splurged” on sessions afterwards. Splurged, because they aren’t covered by insurance and my means were (and still are) limited.

Anyway, the homework.

The somewhat dated documentary is called “The Secret” and it’s about the law of attraction. Basically, you attract what you focus on. If you think “my life sucks”, it will suck. If you maintain a positive attitude, you will call positive things towards you.

Easy, right? I thought so, too. “I know this already,” I said to myself, but I’m also a perfectionist who has to complete assignments when they are set.

I watched “The Secret” on Saturday, February 2, 2019, and very soon concluded that I hadn’t fully understood the law of attraction. It’s not just about thoughts, you see. You have to act on them, too.

In retrospect, I can’t explain why this passed me by, or why it seemed like such a big revelation at that moment. Point is, I had a new understanding of it, suddenly. I had taken another step on my slow spiritual path.

Plunge into recovery

By that time, I was managing my bulimia by being as productive as possible throughout the day, then dedicating my evenings to long binge/purge cycles that were pre-planned along with dinner. Thus, I managed (mostly) to stick to ‘normal’ meals except for once a day.

The Monday after watching “The Secret” began like any other day in the past years. Yet on February 4, 2019, something brilliant happened: I got hungry around 5pm but hadn’t finished my current tasks. When I get hungry, my concentration wavers until I’m useless and the only way to help is balancing my blood sugar again.

Inspired by the lessons on the law of attraction, it suddenly occurred to me: I could have dinner… and then return to work… and then not binge and purge. I could have a day without relapse, just like that. No extenuating circumstances (like having a visitor in my studio apartment) required.

I went for it. I ate dinner, then finished my task.

But now what?

It was tempting to fill the time with another binge/purge cycle. After all, that’s what I do to decompress. It’s what I’ve done for years, now. It had become a habit, no — part of my identity, even. I watched Netflix while binging, or read as I consumed the foods I’d bought for that particular purpose. Relaxing without bulimic behaviors was a foreign concept to me, back then.

By 6.30pm, I was crawling the walls. I was waiting for a reply from my sister about whether she had time to talk on the phone. I kept changing my mind: Yes, I’m going to binge. No, I can do this. Okay, let me walk to the fridge — no. Stop. Or wait, maybe just a bit…?

My phone rang, successfully cutting through my internal monologue.

It wasn’t my sister, but rather a friend who wants to start producing movies and whom I had been assisting with his passion project for a year and a half. I tend to shy away from spontaneous calls, but that evening, my need for distraction was greater than my social anxiety. So I picked up.

All the friend wanted was to give a progress report on the script he decided to write on his own, rather than co-write with me. Usually, such calls take a couple of minutes, max.

That night, though, he paused before bidding goodbye. “You said you’re struggling with depression, too, didn’t you?” he asked. “Well, I recently discovered a series of talks that helped me a lot.”

I don’t remember the name of the speaker – Lucy something, already deceased — but I do remember vividly how the friend described her core message.

“She tells to imagine the life you want. To focus on it. It’s the law of attraction.”

He talked about the law of attraction a mere two days after I had rediscovered it. He mentioned it on the very evening I was struggling with implementing it.

That moment, more than anything else in my entire life, felt like a sign from the universe. A shining beacon of “YES! You’re on the right path!”

That’s the spark that set me off on my true journey to recovery.

Trial and error

I didn’t binge and purge that Monday. I also didn’t on Tuesday. I relapsed on Wednesday but wasn’t surprised; just dusted myself off and tried again.

I had attempted this approach in the past but never truly “got” it, I think. Thanks to the big synchronicity of that evening, I finally had enough faith in this process that I persisted.

For the first time since 2012, with the exception of my in-patient treatment stay, I managed to go three, four, five, seven, nine days in a row without binging and purging.

I took walks, I meditated. I filled the time with different things. Every second was a struggle, most days, and I did stumble every now and again. But I kept going.

I made it past ten days, past fourteen. I knew that relapse was coming, but I fought and pushed it away another day. And another.

Day 19 fell on Thursday, April 25, the world premiere of “Avengers: Endgame”. As has become tradition, my biggest sister visited me in Berlin and we went to see the movie twice, once on Friday and once on Saturday.

I have written about that fateful weekend (you can read it here), so I’ll keep this brief: during that movie, I realized that there was no reason for my defeatist attitude. I kept expecting relapse to come, like it’s a foregone conclusion. But who says it is? I can keep fighting and getting up. I don’t need to go back to zero.

With a new surge of energy and motivation, I continued my count. 21 days became 22, 30, 45, 60, 90. It became fun, seeing how long I could push myself for. Sure, I was scared of failing the longer I went without, but I did my best to keep a compassionate attitude.

I also resolved that I wouldn’t go back to zero in case I relapse. I’d keep adding to my count once I’m back on track. Because it wouldn’t be going back to zero. I wouldn’t be losing all the progress I’d already made. I was eating regular meals and even crossing boundaries of my strict food rules, exploring a more intuitive relationship with food that is led by enjoyment, not fear. It was a slow process and I was very cautious, but still.

The day counter increased, without interruption. I genuinely think I wouldn’t have felt like a failure if I had relapsed at times throughout the past year… but by some stroke of luck, I didn’t.

365 days without relapse

It seems surreal, somehow. 365 days.

A full year without any compensatory behaviors to restrict food intake. A full year of trying to relearn the intuitive eating skills we are all born with.

At the same time, it feels surreal to think back on the weeks, months, years of active eating disorder. Struggling with food was my reality for over a decade… but I can’t imagine living like this again.

Thoughts of relapse aren’t gone, however. Just last Saturday, I found myself thinking, “Would it be so bad? Binging, then purging? No one except for me would know.”

By sheer luck, my other sister and her husband dropped by before I could act on my urges. I can’t say I would have resisted otherwise.

I made it, though. 365 days of relapse-free recovery from bulimia, after eight years of pretty much daily binge/purge cycles and over a decade of disordered eating.

The lockdown measures in Germany, losing two side jobs, as well as a looming recession have made the last stretch of my path to 365 days quite hard, and don’t think for a moment that I expect days 366 and beyond to be any easier.

I might relapse at some point in the future. I don’t expect it, but I also don’t expect to make it through unscathed. There are hard days, and easy ones. There are challenges, and maybe these will persist for the rest of my life.

Or maybe I’ll relearn to fully trust my body and nourish it without worrying about calories, weight, appearance.

I can’t force recovery — but I can do my very best to try.

There is a lot more to be said about my experiences during this past year, and I will. There are a lot of lessons I learned and experiences I made which I want to share since they might help others in their struggle with addiction and eating disorders.

For now, though, I have reached the end of this part. I gave an overview, some context, and maybe hope.

Because rest assured: No matter at which stage of your recovery you are, regardless of whether it’s for food, drugs, alcohol, or something else — you can make it through. Everyone’s path is different, but we’re all in the same community. You are not alone. And most importantly, you are not weak.

END OF PART ONE.

TBC.

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