I Struggled With Bulimia For 20 Years—And Now Quarantine is Making Recovery Challenging
Isolation is difficult enough without trying to ward off a relapse into unhealthy behaviors.
My typical quarantine routine isn’t all that exciting: I go to work (from home, of course), read books, and bug my boyfriend—all while seriously limiting how much news I pay attention to, to keep my anxiety in check. I’m also a stickler for getting in some healthy movement and making sure I eat three healthy meals a day. But that last part isn’t only to maintain a level of normalcy during quarantine—it’s so I don’t relapse into bulimia, the eating disorder I dealt with for most of my life and recovered from last year.
I was officially diagnosed with bulimia nervosa at 15 years old, but I started acting on my bulimic behaviors when I was 13—specifically through binging and purging fueled by anxiety. For me, it's a cycle: When I start feeling anxious, I want to binge eat; and when I binge eat, I have the urge to purge what I've eaten. Sometimes, I also restricted my eating with bulimia—I often skipped meals before I went through treatment.
It wasn’t until I turned 33—after two decades of struggling with bulimia and two rounds of treatment—when I finally settled into a normal routine. I finished my final treatment for bulimia in October 2019 at the Renfrew Center for Eating Disorders in Coconut Creek, Florida, but my battle didn’t end there. Even now, I have to stay vigilant: For me, staying healthy means remembering and practicing everything I learned about healthy eating habits during treatment. The two most important things for maintaining my recovery this far: sticking to a routine and relying on a support system.
Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and it turned my recovery upside down.
My routine—the schedule I’d grown used to and that helped me keep up with my recovery—went out the window as soon as the pandemic forced me to start working from home. I’m thankful, of course, to have a job that allows this; and working from home even seemed nice at first (I don’t necessarily need to be online right at 8 a.m.).
But my lack of a routine quickly became problematic. It all comes back to my meal plan and how those three structured meals a day are such an important part of my recovery. Something as simple as missing breakfast can throw my entire day off and trigger my anxiety. (If I miss breakfast, I may eat more than I usually would at lunch time, which can then trigger worries related to weight gain and tempt me to purge or start skipping meals altogether.)
Even in trying to maintain a daily meal plan, I've still struggled with overeating during quarantine—sometimes eating past the point of being full, but not necessarily binge eating. Dealing with my thoughts after that is difficult for me, since the fear of gaining weight can linger even long after recovery, but I've been working to reassure myself that it's OK when it happens.
Of course, it’s not just a lack of a schedule that’s fueling my anxiety—lately, the pandemic has triggered extra anxious thoughts surrounding my health and job security. That anxiety can also trigger urges to engage in my past bulimic behaviors. (Those “urges” I keep talking about make patients who have recently completed treatment very uncomfortable, worrying that we might relapse.)
My daily routine isn’t the only thing that’s lacking right now—the pandemic has also taken my support system from me. Though I finished treatment in October, I was still going to a group therapy session with other recovered patients once a week. These sessions were a chance for me to discuss any problems I’d been having, and it was nice to see that other people were going through the same challenges that I was. When those sessions were cancelled due to social distancing requirements, I felt disappointed and pretty alone.
It was a difficult five weeks, but eventually I found my new normal in isolation.
While I can’t meet physically with the other members of my therapy group, I’ve been having Zoom meetings with them, which made me realize that, next to physically seeing them in person, keeping up with them online is as good as it’s going to get for a while.
Additionally, I have a standing FaceTime date each Monday night with my best friend, and two of my friends and I started a book club. (Right now, we’re reading The Happiness Project). Staying in contact with people going through the same thing has been super helpful. As has forcing myself to get up at the same time every day, so that I stick to my meal plan. (Just because you can oversleep doesn’t necessarily mean you should!)
My advice to those of you going through the same thing right now—trying not to fall back into unhealthy habits during isolation—is this: take care of yourself so you can keep staying as healthy as possible. Of course, that means sticking to proven strategies that help ward off my bulimic urges, but it also means limiting the amount of news I consume and stopping to read a book when I need to calm my thoughts.
But it doesn’t stop with caring for yourself; it’s important to check in on the people you care about who also might be struggling. Those who are in recovery for an eating disorder have put in so much work to get where they are today, and a friendly or encouraging message can help them continue to make progress. If you’re worried about what to say, just keep it general or open-ended: A simple “I’m here for you” with an offer to listen can go a long way.
If you are currently struggling with disordered eating, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association via its toll-free Helpline (myneda.org/helpline-chat) or 24/7 text line (send NEDA to 741–741).