experiencing grief in eating disorder recovery

Many researchers have laid out a basic template for experiencing grief, but there’s so much more between the lines.

When hearing the word “grief,” we automatically think of the cliche five stages of emotions in a neat little line, all arising when a loved one dies.

Well, think again.

In my studies in grieving, which already remains abstract when we all interpret and experience grief differently, I’ve found myself resonating with the topic much more than I had anticipated.

I’m blessed to say that at this point, my first major loss was my childhood dog, an experience still very difficult to cope with. I have drifted apart from friends, but no immediate loved ones have lost their lives. Again, for that, I am so grateful.

But I believe grief can manifest itself in situations beyond mortal loss. In life, we’re constantly changing, constantly losing and gaining, so inevitably we react to these changes in both positive and negative ways. Just because we’ve felt a certain way toward a particular change doesn’t mean we’ll always experience the same reaction. Again, it’s quite a difficult topic to pin down.

Grief isn’t always about death.

At the end of class the day we discussed grief, we were asked to answer the question, “What is your most vivid experience with grief?” Although prior to this lecture I had never considered answering the way I did, I felt compelled to say my most immediate, emotional encounter with grief was the loss of myself. The loss of the identity that my eating disorder so desperately craves.

I can still remember so clearly the first time my family had an intervention with me. The first time I myself realized I had a problem that I was ignoring and outright denying. I was at a point where I especially could not see myself as I was, malnourishing myself. Constantly thinking about food and my body. Losing a noticeable amount of weight in a short time.

Shock and denial.

As I said, I was in denial that my mindset and intended lifestyle were not sustainable. That my “goal weight” and “ideal body” weren’t possible without slowly killing myself to achieve them.

When realization hit me like a ton of bricks, I cried harder than I had ever had in my life. I remember going downstairs to my bathroom and just sobbing, getting so furious with myself that I had done what I had. That I had spent the last few months completely consumed in a daze of self-harm.

Accepting my reality, the stage I was at, the consequences I’d face if I continued, was my only way to truly begin recovery. Inevitably, I have frequently ebbed and flowed through various points of recovery, but knowing my mental illness and how it looks to me is crucial in responding to its corresponding emotions.

Bargaining and anger.

I have often bargained with myself, thinking of denying my eating disorder’s tendencies to become healthier, an internal battle waged that for most people wouldn’t take a second glance at making a decision. Or bargaining that certain behaviors aren’t “that bad,” that my weight isn’t “too low.” Again, acceptance and tenacity to counter these thoughts are key.

So grief is just an aspect of my psyche. I grieve the loss of an identity that has a perfect body, that can do everything with ease, that thrives on being the small, petite one. I grieve for my mind that is genetically always prone to self-harm. I grieve for an unattainable fantasy that I can always be the same size forever, making me feel special and unique.

Acceptance.

Grief, in any capacity, is not easy. It’s a universal experience we will all face, and yet its ways of tugging at our emotions like a puppeteer’s strings are still mysterious.

My eating disorder will always be a part of me. It’s not something I can leave as a past obstacle I conquered. My mind is wired to think in self-destructive ways when left to its own devices. I know the battle against anorexia is a choice I will face every day of my life.

Acceptance comes in understanding my reality and learning how to balance my mind and body. Grief becomes woven into your life, a reminder of what once was and what cannot be. You view the world differently. I can become healthier and build a more stable identity, but the idealized concept anorexia tucks away in my mind will always be there.

I don’t hate this grief. It’s welcomed like an old friend. It has made me more mindful, more determined, more empathetic. It’s not some organized process you finish in due time, but a new perspective to value.

I have this grief, but I am not my grief. I have experienced the waves of emotions, but I am not them. That’s where I see my progress. Even when I falter and stumble in forward growth, I can recognize the mountains I’ve climbed and my journey so far.

Grief seems ugly, dark, an unwanted pest to exterminate. But it can also be brave, impactful, and in some ways, beautiful.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

1 thought on “experiencing grief in eating disorder recovery”

  1. Grief actually does not go in states like dying. It crops up whenever something triggers it. I ran a grief support group and that is one of the things we emphasized. Grief is more like waves…it rolls in…it rolls out.

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