By Grace Manger, Intern 2014
Monday, May 12, 2014. 7:37am.
I was miraculously awake, sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of coffee and an unfinished essay due in a couple hours. The coolest 10-year-old I know, my little sister in all ways except genetics, called me to tell me that her little sister, our sweet Maia, died from an unexpected infection the night before. Her voice would echo in my head for the next two weeks, throughout the visitation, funeral, and sleepless nights on tear-stained pillows.
Even as I write this blog post almost two months after Maia’s passing, I am still struggling to have a firm grip on my loss. As a baby, Maia suffered from a brain aneurism that left her with many physical and cognitive disabilities. During her eight years on earth, Maia managed to affect nearly every aspect of my life, all from the comfort of her wheelchair, especially in how I relate to my body and my privilege of being able-bodied. She was at my side when I made the very conscious decision that continuing to wish parts of my body away was no longer an option for me, and that I had to give recovery from restrictive eating a chance. She taught me to appreciate the littlest accomplishments my body achieves every day that hers could not: walking, talking, and lifting my hand to my face to brush off a stray eyelash. She loved me regardless of what the scale said. She kept my secrets and shared my taste in music. Her absence is palpable. Her passing created a huge hole in the safety net I had woven and had come to depend on during stressful times.
The day Maia died, I sat in the hallway of the Arts Building on campus with my best friend, who patiently waited for the story between moments of sobbing. I did not say a whole lot during that conversation, but I did come to one conclusion: Maia would not want me to use this tragedy as an excuse to relapse.
I took to the internet, trying to find something to help those with a history of restrictive eating not to relapse when they experience the tragic loss of a child. Shockingly, the internet did not have a whole lot for my specific situation. Most of the information I found either pertained to relapsing on addiction in general (including drugs and alcohol) or grieving the eating disorder itself—missing the habitual and obsessive lifestyle that becomes normal for so many people. I wanted someone to tell me things I already knew in the back of my mind, but those URLs just didn’t exist in the way I wanted them to. Until now.
An open letter of (completely subjective and incomplete) ideas on how to avoid relapse during times of grief
So, you lost someone. Maybe through death, or maybe through some other life event. Either way, you are no longer with someone in the same capacity as you once were. Maybe this person was part of your safety net. Maybe you feel isolated and abandoned, unsure if anyone will fill that void or ever understand you in the same way again. Maybe the security your eating disorder promises you is not only attractive, but also feels logical. Maybe those behaviors are how you’ve always dealt with hardship, and maybe you feel like it’s inevitable – expected, even – to be self-destructive during this time. Maybe you feel like you don’t have any choice but to follow your destiny — no matter how sad and dark it will make you feel inside.
Believe me, I’ve experienced all of these, particularly the last one, about feeling predetermined to relapse whenever shit goes down.
However, we are not our pasts. There are no “supposed to”s. Every day, we can choose to be better to ourselves, especially when we need love the most.
When chaos enters our lives, we feel out of control. Nothing is stable, nothing predictable. We have no idea what tomorrow will look like, and that’s scary. We reach out into open space for something to grab onto, and we happen to reach into the refrigerator and decide that, yes, controlling food shall bring us peace. We give it a try, whatever those behaviors look like for each of us individually, and hope that it will soothe us, comfort us, distract us from the immense loss that we do not want to think about. We tell others we are fine, because that’s what we have been taught to do, but inside we are hurting, empty, and maybe even angry. We obsess over everything we should have done before that person left, or even to prevent that person from leaving at all, and soon we are so far buried in a hole of hatred that we have forgotten what even got us there in the first place.
You lost someone. You are sad, hurt, completely alone. But I promise you, the road as described above will never get you as far as loving yourself will.
Instead, pick one of these options and run with it, as far as you can, away from the destruction calling your name.
This is always the obvious suggestion, but it deserves to be said. Close your eyes and follow your breath. Imagine the air molecules going into your nostrils and exiting through your mouth. Imagine what these molecules look like. Assign them colors, movements, and names: anything to calm your mind. This also gives you a more constructive behavior as opposed to alternative and damaging ones.
Call a friend, family member, or counselor and be radically honest. Put it all out on the table – the grief, the despair, the issues with food, every tiny feeling – and make some room for the love and light you need. If all else fails, call a helpline.
Write down everything going well in your life (even the seemingly smallest ones, such as you are still here, which is no small feat, believe me). Make a pro/con list of how relapse will help you and how it will hurt you (I guarantee it will be pretty one-sided). Draft a letter to the person you lost with everything you wish you had said, and think about what they would wish for you if they were still here. Writing is a great way to get out of your head and onto something concrete, and can help you feel less overwhelmed.
Set a time limit
Tempted to participate in an unhealthy behavior? Go read a chapter from your favorite book first. Or call a friend. Or clean your house. Or take a bath. Or watch a TV show. Do something else first, and give yourself time to think through your actions and fully understand the ramifications to come.
This is my favorite, and honestly probably the thing that has saved me the past couple months. Maia may be gone, but I am still here, dammit, and I’m not going to spend my time disappointing the angel who helped me through the mess of recovery.
Whoever you may be and whatever you may be experiencing, remember that nobody deserves the hell of an eating disorder, not even you. Remember that there is life outside of eating disorders and outside of grief, and you deserve to find it. Remember all of the people rooting for you to find the light at the end of this tunnel. Even if you don’t have anyone in your offline world to talk to, remember the growing online community of recovery and support (Adios Barbie is a great place to start!). Remember that pain is not built to last.
All my love and light,