I was 12 years old when I started starving myself.
By the time I was 13, I had a full eating disorder.
My eating disorder has lasted longer than most friendships and is still present in my life almost a decade later, aged 21. At times, it’s felt like a stronger bond than any connection I’ve had.
And that’s why letting it go has felt like mourning the loss of a loved one.
In my previous blog on this platform, I wrote about managing an eating disorder through times of crisis. Now I want to talk about grieving the loss of an eating disorder in recovery.
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I chose to pursue recovery in spring 2019 after my illness tarnished every memory of my teenage years and, despite knowing it was the right thing to do, I was convinced my eating disorder always had my best interests at heart, and I guess that’s what’s made recovery so painful.
My eating disorder made me feel loved and accepted when I felt completely alone.
It made me feel successful when I felt like a failure in other aspects of life.
It gave me things to aspire to when I was confused about what paths to follow.
It provided me with a safety net when I felt insecure.
It comforted me in times of distress.
It built me up when I lacked confidence.
And it gave me purpose when I felt lost and inadequate.
So undergoing treatment and being told by medical professionals that this thing I have cherished for seven years wasn’t actually what I made it out to be? That stung.
It was like finding out a partner had been cheating on you your entire relationship.
It felt like discovering your best friend has been bitching about you behind your back.
It was like reaching the top of Mount Everest after a long, torturous climb only for somebody to kick you with their dirty boot straight off the top, leaving you to free first into nothingness.
Coming to terms with my eating disorder being a monstrous sickness has been a brutal process and one that has felt like burying a close relative then attempting to build a life beyond them.
Grief is not solely reserved for the deaths of family members and friends — grieving can happen any time we let go of something we treasure, and because my eating disorder was aggressively omnipresent in my life for almost a decade, forcing myself out of its grasp has felt like losing parts of myself.
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Eating disorders take up so much of our time, energy and thoughts, so it’s natural to feel lost and scared as parts of it begin to weaken and dissipate. It’s understandable that we feel alone and anxious at the thought of no longer having an eating disorder there 24/7, because it crawled into every corner of our lives and brainwashed us to believe we are nothing without it. Whilst the rose-tinted glasses have been removed and I now realise that isn’t true, unlearning those thoughts has been — and continues to be — difficult and messy, as I had come to believe my entire identity was wrapped up in an eating disorder.
And now, as I construct an identity outside my illness, I realise every day that I don’t really have a clue who I am without it. For so long, not eating was all I did and having an eating disorder became who I was. I was the girl who starved herself and the skinny friend. I was the butt of all jokes about not eating and became known for hating my body.
In all honesty, I miss my eating disorder. I miss it in the same ways I miss anything. And I hate to type that. I hate to admit how much I yearn for an illness, an illness that has tarnished all my precious memories and stolen so much time I won’t get back… but I do, or rather, I miss what we had and how it made me feel.
I miss our closeness and the secrecy we shared.
I miss having something that was just mine no one else could touch.
I miss feeling special and having its undivided attention.
I miss feeling secure in everything I do and feeling talented whilst doing it.
I miss having goals and being handed promises on a plate.
So now I grieve daily for the companion I thought I had as I attempt to construct a future out of the rubble it has left of me.
I now have to establish goals that don’t include weight loss or starvation.
I have to unlearn toxic coping strategies and learn new ones.
I have to rebuild broken relationships after my eating disorder made me someone I am not.
I have to overcome my fears to find true freedom.
I have to rekindle my love for myself and find appreciation for my body.
And whilst doing that, I will mourn losing something I once thought would be by my side forever.
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The grieving of my eating disorder is comparable with how my once best friend in primary school gave me a Winnie The Pooh mug for Christmas. As we progressed into high school, she started to bully me and we quickly separated… yet I still have that mug, because, well, it’s a really cool mug, but it also reminds me of happier times gone by. In some way, I guess it is me partly clutching on to more precious times.
Grief is a personal, unique process for everyone. It also is not linear, but there are some commonalities in the stages and the order feelings are experienced when we grieve, known as the stages of grief, a theory developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist in 1969.
First is denial. Pretending something isn’t happening. Thinking life with an eating disorder can still continue despite knowing better.
Second is anger, which I have directed at myself for not being “strong enough” to maintain my eating disorder.
Third comes bargaining and looking for ways to regain control when control has been lost. It’s those moments of, “If only I had been better, my ED — this huge part of who I am — might have stayed.”
Next is depression, as I stop running from my emotions and feel like life has no value if I am not sick.
And finally… acceptance.
This stage is not necessarily happy or uplifting, and it isn’t necessarily a time of relief or moving past the grief. For me, acceptance is coming to terms with what I have lost, but also what I can now gain, and understanding how my life is going to be different.
Healing from an eating disorder is never not a positive thing, because eating disorders are cruel, twisted and wicked. They will stop at nothing to keep you trapped in their web of lies for eternity. However, it’s okay to need to mourn their loss. It isn’t weird or pathetic. It’s normal to miss something that was once a great force in your life, and you can do that whilst knowing you are better off without it as your brain gets stronger and logic starts to replace those harmful ED thoughts. You can miss your eating disorder AND still want recovery. Those feelings CAN coexist.
It’s alright if you need to grieve and if the grieving process is a bit all over the place. You can grieve for things that you once found comfort in. You can grieve for things that have been influential parts of your life. And then you can move on as a wiser, healthier, more authentic version of yourself.
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I will most likely miss my ED for a long time as I reclaim my life, continue rediscovering who I am beyond it and have to find ways of doing things for me, not it. A hurdle comes up every day, and I am continuously reminded that there are many things I actually have no idea how to do as a person without an eating disorder.
It’s understandable why we mourn the loss of EDs, but what’s important is that we don’t view the life our EDs offer as more meaningful and fruitful as the one recovery offers, the one that allows us to pursue passions and pour energy into what truly makes us feel alive. For me, that’s everything my eating disorder prohibited me from enjoying growing up, from going on family holidays, writing, going for walks in nature, playing board games, learning new skills, and connecting with others to advise and inspire them.
What matters now is that we are able to channel any grief and sadness we feel into shaping a future — a future that fulfils us more than a life under the thumb of an eating disorder, that would only feel truly satisfied once we are dead, ever could.