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February 01, 2017

How to Grieve the Loss of an Eating Disorder – Laura Patterson

Grief was an integral part of my childhood. My father worked in grief counseling: he visited people on their death beds, conducted funerals and counseled individuals through complex losses.

He spoke to me about the importance of processing grief, of truly exploring the complexity of it, telling me,

“Laura, diving into the depths of grief allows you to move forward."

My father stressed the importance of experiencing grief, through thoughts, feelings and actions, instead of trying to push it away. Instead of trying to numb out the pain of loss, one can experience relief in exploring it.   

Grief and eating disorders

I have occasionally heard eating disorders likened to a relationship and recovery to a break up. I find this comparison apt. My eating disorder caused me tremendous grief, and breaking up with my eating disorder also caused me grief.

My eating disorder was my constant companion from a young age. When I decided to check myself into treatment, I was surprised by the sadness that I felt. I was terrified to lose my eating disorder and yet did not want to spend one more excruciating day with it. I was profoundly distraught by the amount of energy I had wasted in my life with my eating disorder and yet wondered if pursuing a new life would be worthwhile. 

Early in my recovery, I decided to take my Dad's advice and commit to diving into the complexity of my emotions towards my eating disorder, including the grief that I felt about the loss of it. This commitment to grieving my eating disorder has allowed to move forward in my recovery. 
 
Here are three things that I found helpful during this grieving process.

1. Verbalizing the loss of the eating disorder

Three weeks into my treatment at Eating Recovery Center, I wrote a break-up letter to my eating disorder at the encouragement of my therapist. Writing a letter to my eating disorder allowed me to begin to verbalize all of the complex emotions I felt about both about my eating disorder and my recovery. I wrote about all of the reasons I was leaving my disorder but I also wrote about the affection I had for my eating disorder. I wrote down all of the ways that I thought my eating disorder helped me. I was sad to lose my eating disorder because it was an integral part of my identity and my daily routines.
 
You see, a piece of my attachment for my eating disorder was rooted in the idea that it effectively helped me manage my emotions and my life. My eating disorder had been a part of my stress management from an early age. I felt such comfort with my eating disorder because it was all I knew. How would I manage intense emotions? What would my days look like with obsessing about food and numbers? I was terrified of what my life would look like without my eating disorder as a companion.
 
Thankfully, I no longer feel the same affection towards my eating disorder, but at the time this step was necessary for me to process the loss of it.

2. Reflecting on ways the eating disorder causes harm

In the immediate aftermath of my recovery I would sometimes fondly remember using behaviors or obsessing about my body. Time away from my disorder made me forget about how painful the eating disorder actually was. So, it became vital for me to routinely reflect on why I was pursuing recovery. It was important for me to remember that I had chosen to leave my eating disorder for important reasons.  

Here are some of the things that I personally found helpful in reflecting accurately on life with an eating disorder:
  • Reading through my break-up letter
  • Reading old journal entries; seeing pages full of abstract numbers, bizarre fears and overwhelming anxiety was helpful in accurately remembering my eating disorder
  • Asking friends and family members about their reflections on my eating disorder.
I found that reflecting on the pain that I felt in life before recovery was helpful in processing through both the loss of my eating disorder and the discomfort of starting a new chapter without it. While it was critical that I grieved the loss of my eating disorder, it was also important that I consistently reflected on why I was pursuing recovery.

3. Moving on from the loss

Spending time processing my pain allowed me to find joy again. At first I felt grief about the loss of my disorder. Later into my recovery I felt anger and sadness about the amount of time and energy I lost with my eating disorder. I would never get to go back and experience high school or college without an eating disorder.

While processing this sadness was important, I also wanted to take action. I decided that moving forward meant doing all of the things I previously did not allow myself to do:
  • I signed up for yoga classes
  • I tried new cooking recipes
  • I went on a date
  • I traveled to new places
For me, moving forward meant not wasting any more time with my eating disorder.

In engaging in new activities, I was surprised by how much fun life could be without an eating disorder. Of course, there were also days in which trying new activities was exhausting and terrifying. On those days I committed to being gentle with myself.  

The loss of my eating disorder has profoundly changed me. While this change has ultimately been a beautiful, authentic part of my new life, it has not been easy. Recovery has brought new discomforts and new joys.
 
There are still days when eating disordered thoughts creep into my head and I feel frustrated. In these moments, I remember my Dad's advice. I once again commit to exploring these emotions and moving forward with my new life.
 
I am a Recovery Ambassador for Eating Recovery Center. Writing and speaking about my eating disorder allows me to fully engage in my recovery and connect with others.
 
 
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