Many people talk about how the journey of recovery from any difficult problem is characterized by a zig-zag pattern in which you take three steps forward, then two steps back, but remain on a rather linear course. I think most of us expect that in eating disorder recovery. Sometimes, however, there is something unexpected that happens over which we have no control,namely, an emotional detour. The detour occurs when something blocks your path. It is not about forward or backward motion; it is often curved, off track, or unpredictable.
Have you ever been driving in the car in a hurry to go somewhere only to find that your path is blocked by a huge sign that says "detour ahead"? I have and it can be very frustrating, especially if the detour path is complicated and not well marked. Sometimes the detour can add 10 to 20 minutes to the drive and if you get lost, much more than that!
Let's face it, most of us who develop eating disorders like control, or at least the illusion of control that monitoring food intake, weight, and exercise gives. The need is to control relationships and feelings, more than life circumstances. Emotional detours undermine the sense of well-being that comes from this illusory control by destabilizing relationships and/or feelings. For most of us, eating disorder recovery will have at least one emotional detour. Circumstances lay the groundwork; our responses to these circumstances can cause the detour.
Here is a list of life events that can lead to emotional detours:
- your parents get divorced
- your mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer
- you break your leg
- you become pregnant when you do not want to be pregnant
- your husband of twenty years asks for a divorce
- your therapist moves
- you are laid off from your job
- your father dies
- your house burns down
- you are excluded from a group of friends
- your teenage son or daughter pushes you out of his or her life
- you have a miscarriage
- you have an affair
- you gain or lose weight due to medication
- you are not accepted at the college you really wanted to attend
I remember one "detour" in my life. Ann's comment to "The Twilight Zone of Recovery" triggered my memory. My recovery had been moving steadily, albeit slowly, when I graduated from college and took a job on the other side of the country. Completely my decision, I chose to move to a place where I knew no one and had no family. Why? I was young, excited to try new things, and lacking wisdom. What did I use for stability? My eating disorder! After I moved, I mapped out this new territory by finding places where I could continue my eating patterns, maintain my exercise behaviors, and control my weight. This focus not only numbed my feelings of anxiety and loneliness, but gave me the illusion of security, companionship, and control. Did I mention that it also detoured my recovery? My way of coping with the changes led me to finding more creative ways to stay sick rather than new strategies for recovery. However, in the long run, the change helped my recovery, but I was "detoured" for about a year before getting back on the main road again.
Detours often lead to turning points and crossroads. When you realize you are an experiencing an emotional detour in your recovery, think about what you want to do next. Most detours result in moving forward in the same direction toward health, but sometimes, they can lead you back to a relapse. If you think this is a risk, ask for help, or at least write about it here. Fortunately, most emotional detours make us stronger and help us get better. If this has happened, for you, share it, so others can feel hope because of what happened in your life.
So, what can you do when confronted with an emotional detour? There is one thing more than any other that is necessary: FEEL and manage the intense emotions without using eating disorder behaviors or thoughts. Instead of DETOUR AHEAD, the sign for people in recovery should read, FEELINGS AHEAD!