Grieving the Loss of Your Eating Disorder
It may seem like an odd feeling to experience in recovery: “Grieving the loss of my eating disorder? Aren’t we supposed to grieve when we lose something or someone good? It seems backward to grieve the end of my eating disorder.”
The truth is, we can grieve the loss of anything or anyone, especially if it played a significant role in our lives. We often conceptualize our eating disorders as separate beings, perhaps by giving the eating disorder a name, such as “Ed,” or referring to it as “the eating disorder” instead of “my eating disorder.”
If we allow ourselves to feel grief in recovery, we might find the answer to an important question: Why is recovery so hard? Why is it so difficult to say goodbye to my eating disorder? I know it’s bad for me, so why do I keep coming back to it, or at least wanting to come back to it?
Grieving the “Good”
Jenni Schaefer, in her book “Life Without Ed,” describes the grieving process very well. She compares grieving an eating disorder to the process of breaking up with a partner. She refers to her eating disorder as “Ed” and states: “When I first tried to leave Ed, I mistakenly thought that I could just get rid of the negative things about him. ... I definitely wanted to get rid of all the bad things, but I was not ready to let go of the good things” .
It is completely okay to examine what “good” things your eating disorder did for you, the things that kept you holding onto it. Schaefer lists some of her disorder’s good things, such as:
- A way to instantly numb out
- A means to separate from reality and escape stress
- A sense of having a magic solution for controlling body size
- A feeling of being special because of the eating disorder
Once we allow ourselves to acknowledge the ways that an eating disorder served us or met our needs, we can begin the grieving process. Ask yourself what benefits your eating disorder brought you. Here are some other examples that people in recovery have considered.
- Getting more attention (even negative attention)
- Having a quick fix to alleviate distress
- Having a perceived sense of control
- Feeling a sense of accomplishment or of being able to achieve goals
Kindness toward yourself in the grief process
It may help to look at your list of benefits from your eating disorder and consider what needs were met by the disorder. Ask yourself, what purpose did it serve me? Ultimately, we do not stumble into an eating disorder at random. There is a process within our brains that reinforces eating disorder thoughts and behaviors, and keeps us stuck in the disorder. What did the eating disorder do for you?
This is an opportunity to speak to your past self. Did your disorder develop during a time in your life when you needed and craved attention from others in your life, but you didn’t know how to get it? Did your eating disorder become worse during a phase when other aspects of your life truly were outside of your control, leaving you with feelings of chaos and distress?
Acknowledge that your past self did have needs, and that your past self did find a way to meet those needs. Compassionately recognize that you later learned that your eating disorder was meeting your needs in an unhealthy way, and now that you have gained more wisdom and insight, you are in a place where you can find better ways to get your needs met and work through problems.
Consider this: In your recovery, what are other ways to get the good things that your eating disorder gave to you? If there is no way to get some of those good things in recovery, are you willing to let go of them and allow yourself to grieve?
How we learn to grieve
You probably didn’t think that Marie Kondo would enter this conversation on grief and eating disorders, but here it is. In her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” , she talks about discarding our belongings that are no longer needed. However, she encourages people, as they go through item by item and handle each object before deciding to discard it, to thank that item for its service.
“Thank you for teaching me what doesn’t suit me.”
We can speak to an eating disorder in the same way, to acknowledge how it may have served us previously, so we can emotionally prepare to say goodbye to it forever.
“Thank you for helping to meet a need in my life. I have found a different way now. Goodbye.”
“Thank you for showing me how I do not want to live. I have learned a lot about myself. Goodbye.”
Once we have given these acknowledgments and said our goodbyes, it is natural that we may still miss some aspects of an eating disorder.
The many facets of grief
Think about the five stages of grief. Granted, these were originally developed to help terminally ill individuals work through their own feelings. But why not extend the principle and use the five stages for other things, such as grieving the end of an eating disorder?
Stage 1: Denial. Perhaps this is where we started at the beginning of our recovery process. We did not want to say goodbye. We denied that the eating disorder was a problem. This feeling may linger for a long time, and that is okay.
Stage 2: Anger. Have you noticed anger at the eating disorder for coming into your life in the first place? Or for causing damage in your life? Do you feel anger toward yourself in the recovery process? Allow yourself to get this anger out of your system, perhaps through journaling, talking to a therapist, or any number of other useful coping skills.
Stage 3: Bargaining. Are you trying to negotiate with your eating disorder? “I will keep certain parts of you, but the other parts will have to go.” Or perhaps you find yourself bargaining with your treatment team, or with a higher power. Take time to reflect on what you are truly wanting when you try to bargain.
Stage 4: Depression. We may feel a strong sense of sadness and loneliness when we decide to say goodbye to an eating disorder. After all, an eating disorder often feels like a companion. It helps you feel better when you’re down, it is constantly available when you call upon it, and it has served some sort of purpose in your life. Utilize the skills in your toolbox to feel these emotions in a healthy way and cope with them effectively.
Stage 5: Acceptance. Remember that acceptance does not equal liking something, or being happy or excited about it. Acceptance is simply acknowledging the reality in front of us and deciding not to struggle against it anymore. Once we drop the struggle and accept this loss in our lives, we create so much more room, mentally and emotionally, to engage in a values-based life that lies beyond the departure of the eating disorder.
- Schaefer, J. (2003). Life Without Ed: How one woman declared independence from her eating disorder and how you can too. McGraw-Hill
- Kondo, M. (2014). The life-changing magic of tidying up: The Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Ten Speed Press