I was 12 years old the first time I went on a cleanse with my mother, right after Christmas. For 10 foodless days we subsisted on gallons of water mixed with lemon juice, maple syrup and cayenne pepper.
“The first 72 hours are the worst,” my mother said, as we languished on our yellow couch, pale, dizzy and nauseous. “But I always feel so much lighter in the end.”
My mother didn’t tell me to go on the cleanse, but I craved lightness, too. For as long as I could remember, people told me I would look and feel better if I lost weight. By the time I was ten, I ritually put myself on weird diets. One summer, I only ate fruit.
After the cleanse, the intensity of the praise I received could have lit up a whole city. Adults complimented my protruding cheekbones and collarbones. At school, kids who never paid attention to me invited me to sit with them at lunch. Even my teachers were nicer.
I immediately became addicted to the social privilege that came with shrinking. I bought myself a black glass scale with digital red numbers and felt electric jolts of joy as the numbers decreased. By the time I was 14, my diets and cleanses had devolved into anorexia and a purging disorder, which raged untreated until I turned 27 and began the process of recovery.
This is not an essay about how I recovered from an illness that kills one person every fifty-two minutes, an illness almost 30 million Americans experience in their lifetime (a number that does not account for those who are undiagnosed/unrecognized). This is an essay about how I relapsed during this past holiday season.
The word “relapse” stems from Latin “relapsus,” which means to slip, slide or sink back. I slipped around Thanksgiving. I had just moved to a new city to start grad school, I was struggling to stay sober from my addiction to alcohol, and it was my first time in a rigorous academic environment without tequila as a crutch. Right as the most intense part of the semester approached, right as people began to decorate their homes with mistletoe and holiday lights, I returned to my original addiction: the pursuit of “lightness.”
During study breaks, I watched video after video of Harper’s Bazaar’s “Food Diaries,” in which celebrities meticulously describe everything they eat in a day. I consumed clips of beautiful people talking about delicious-looking food while I tried to ignore the pangs of hunger that lanced my stomach. Soon, I started to purge the little I ate.
Because I was familiar with the process of recovery, I knew I needed to tell someone I had relapsed. Like an addiction, eating disorders thrive in secrecy and swell in silence: The moment I disclosed its resurgence, the disorder would lose some of its grip on me. The problem was that the disorder had become my primary source of calm, comfort and control. If I told anyone about my relapse, I would lose space to engage with it uninterrupted. So I kept it to myself.
A few weeks after Thanksgiving, Liam, my partner of seven years, and I drove around our neighborhood to look at the holiday decorations. Inflatable gingerbread men swayed in the wind, sinewy strands of lights coiled around the palm trees that lined the streets.
“Do you want to grab some hot chocolate?” Liam asked.
I cringed. Chocolate was a substance I deemed “bad” and “unsafe,” even though I loved it.
“I don’t want any but you should have some,” I said.
“Why don’t you want any?” Liam asked.
“I’m not in the mood.”
“I am going to share something I’ve been noticing,” Liam said, as his hands tightened around the steering wheel. “You are barely eating, and when you do eat, you go to the bathroom for a long time and come out with puffy eyes. And whenever I ask if you want to get ice cream, or frozen yogurt, or anything sweet, you say no. You’ve either relapsed or I’m imagining things.”
I crossed my legs and folded my arms over my chest. I felt exposed, as if a stranger had walked in on me while I was changing. A hard ball of anger settled in my throat.
“You’re imagining things,” I said.
Liam stopped at a red light and looked at me, the corners of his blue eyes crinkled with concern.
“Do you promise?” he asked.
I turned away, looked out the window, and curled into myself, overcome with cold. Liam was the first person I had confided in when I entered recovery three years ago. I’d given him a list of signs of relapse to watch out for, which included everything he had just mentioned. I had also warned him that the nature of my eating disorder would compel me to lie if he ever confronted me about it.
As I stared at the palm trees’ stark blue silhouettes against the sky, I perceived two competing voices within me. The loudest voice belonged to my eating disorder: Its goal was to keep itself alive.
Tell him you have puffy eyes because you have allergies, it said.
Tell him you’re eating all the time but he just doesn’t see it.
Tell him you hang out in the bathroom in order to send voice memos to friends.
The softer voice belonged to the part of me that knew how badly I needed help.
Stop lying, it said.
The thought of actively deceiving Liam felt worse than offering the truth.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re not imagining anything.”
Liam squeezed my knee. I swallowed and swallowed until the hard ball in my throat dissolved.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, relapse “tends to be the rule, rather than the exception.” The holiday season can activate relapses of all kinds, specifically because so many events include intense interpersonal dynamics and are centered on food and alcohol.
As the invitations to holiday parties and family gatherings trickled in, my dread mounted. The idea of participating in festive social settings with people who didn’t know how much I was struggling made my chest hurt. The idea of expressing how much I was struggling made the pain sharper.
Disclosing my relapse to Liam had forced me to confront the fact that I was terrified to recover because recovery would require me to relinquish a perceived sense of control and relief. In this context, the idea of recovery felt like removing a bandage before my wound healed: It hurt.
Therapist and eating disorder counselor Jess Sprengle writes, “It’s completely normal to feel sad about, and nostalgic for, your eating disorder. Especially if it distracted you, kept you company, brought you comfort ― just like a beloved book character. It is also completely normal to re-read books and revisit characters sometimes. ... In time, as your recovery moves forward and expands, you will read new books. And, more than that ― you will want to.”
The more I read about relapse, the more I understood that I had slipped because I’d wanted to revisit a familiar character that soothed me, even if the relief was ultimately harmful. Instead of asking myself, why do I engage in behavior that hurts me? my question changed to, what does my eating disorder give me that I crave so badly? The short answer was a sense of safety.
Recovery would require me to find new characters that made me feel safe. One of these characters already dwelled within me, as the part that spoke in a soft voice. In order to recover, I would have to listen to what it had to say.
First, the soft voice asked me to decline every single holiday invitation that came my way. Usually, I would have forced myself to show up to everything I was invited to, regardless of how I felt. Instead, I stayed home, cleaned, watched reality TV with Liam, and hung out with my cat. The pain in my chest dissipated each time I said no to an invitation. Then, the soft voice asked me to spend some time by myself.
On the last day of 2022, I flew to Spain, where I was born. I hadn’t been to Madrid in seven years, and no one in my family lived there anymore ― this was the first time I would be alone in my hometown.
On the first day of 2023 I walked past the apartment where I went on my first cleanse, 18 years ago. I took pictures of the green ivy that crawled across the brick building, of the gilded mistletoe that hung from the iron gate. Afterward, I walked into a grocery store I remembered from my childhood. As I looked for a bottle of water, a familiar red and brown rectangle caught my eye: my favorite chocolate bar ― dark, thick, studded with roasted almonds and sprinkled with sea salt.
Don’t you dare, warned my eating disorder.
Dare, suggested the soft voice.
I reached for the bar.
I wish I could end this essay on a high note and say the chocolate was delicious, but as I write this, the bar has been sitting on my bedside table for the past week, intact. As I said in the beginning, this is a story about relapse, not recovery. However, sometimes relapse and recovery go hand in hand, like two characters that inch toward a shared destination. Right now, my recovery looks like acknowledging that two competing voices may always dwell within me, and that listening to the soft voice will be a lifelong endeavor I may not accomplish “perfectly.” Recovery looks like de-pedestalizing perfection and honoring my tiny steps, especially if they seem inconsequential (like buying and keeping the chocolate.) So, maybe, this is a story about recovery, too.
Billy Lezra is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, whose work has appeared in The Independent, HuffPost, and elsewhere. Billy is currently working on a book titled “Los Animales.” You can reach them here.
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237 for help.