Grief and recovery

Recovery sucks sometimes. Okay, a lot of times.

The suckiness is quite different than the hell of the disorder itself. Anorexia was draining and exhausting, but it was familiar. It seemed oddly natural to restrict and overexercise and yes, even purge. Recovery was also exhausting and draining, but it was distinctly unnatural. I found eating and gaining weight with every fiber of my being. I hated it. It sucked.

I missed the eating disorder. Occasionally, I still do. The numbness was nice. So were the ideas (delusions?) that if I kept on the path I was going, I would one day be Thin and Perfect. Working on recovery meant giving up those hopes and dreams. It meant living, in all of its glory. People are great, don't get me wrong, but they also let you down.

Recovery meant uncertainty. The certainty of anorexia was, of course, misery and death, but I could count on the weak-kneed, shitty feeling. I knew what I would be eating for dinner next month, because it would be the same darn thing I was eating for dinner today. I missed that comfort.

Recovery, then, meant grief. A lot of it.

Part of the grief was this loss of certainty. And not just about what I would eat. It was about responses I had down pat: "No thanks." "I already ate." "Do you have this in a smaller size?" "Sorry but I'm really busy." Then, as the disorder dragged on, it became almost a weird sense of identity. I was the Girl Who Didn't Eat. Carrie the Weight Loss Wonder Goddess. She With Gym Shoes. The one who always studied. Who had a perfectly neat apartment. Who was always at the damn doctor's office.

I ultimately forgot how to live in this world as a healthy person. I felt driftless- what was I going to do? I felt anxious and sad without starvation blunting those emotions.

Then there was the grief about all the time I had lost to the disorder- nearly a decade. My twenties are, for all intensive purposes, gone. They're a blur of hospitals and treadmills. It's looking back and wondering why you don't have any close friends until the answer hits you: you've been too busy with the eating disorder. Or you've just pushed them all away.

I stumbled across a press release that found long-term grief in women actually activated the pleasure areas of the brain. Which I thought was interesting. Certainly grief isn't pleasurable, but grieving the loss of a loved one means ultimately letting go of the possibility than you'll see them again in this lifetime. Perhaps when those with chronic grief saw a picture of the lost loved one, the pleasure was from seeing them again and hoping that it would be for real.

And perhaps the grief in recovering from an eating disorder is similar. You hang on to the hope that you will be able to make everything work- life and the eating disorder. That you can recover and stay thin, or keep just the behaviors you find "useful." Yet here you are, having to let go of the idea that one day, you will be Thin and Perfect. That you will be able to interact with the world only on your terms. That you will be able to eat the right things in the right order, combined with the right amount of exercise. That Everything Will Be Okay.

To be sure, recovery is also about hope. Hope that you would NEED these things any more, hope that you will be able to eat without fear, hope that you will once again have meaningful relationships. Hope that you will be able to live in this world as a whole person, undimmed by an eating disorder.

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Steph said...

This is written so well. Recovery IS all about hope. The fact that you don't know where you'll be in a month is scary, but you have to believe things will fall into place.

Great post. :)

Laura Collins said...

Thank you for this. One of the hardest things about my daughter's illness for me was accepting that she didn't - couldn't - and why would she - ally completely with wellness. Being ill DID have its allures. I think we get caught up in illness=bad, wellness=good or think that what we're arguing with is thinness. I think accepting that my daughter could have mixed feelings on this AND STILL RECOVER was a shocker to me. And once I stopped arguing with her about it and listened, I think it helped a bit.

Thank you for articulating it so well.

samegirl said...

Recovery means greif...I really thought this was such a well written post!!I understood what you meant when you talked about the grief from all !the time lost to the disorder,and wondering why you have no close friends later on in life..(you pay a lot of prices down the road)looking back with so MUCH regret but moving on (with hope)..

Anonymous said...

As someone also in recovery stage, I can empathize with much of what you write. So much has been lost during the anorexia it is only natural that we should grieve for these things and face the future with hope.
Love the blog, this illness always makes you feel like you are the only one, its great to know there are others in the same boat....keep sharing

Tempy said...

I would definitely agree with everything in this post.

This relapse I've entered into was not about control, it wasn't about using it to's been about reattaching myself to the disorder that has been my identity for so long. I don't know who I am without it and I became so fearful that I let it back into my life. The grief of loosing the predictability, it's attachment to my identity became to intense and I gave up.

Thank you for putting this out there.

ms.shoe said...

This couldn't have been written in a better way at a better time. Thank you for a very well thought out, honest piece.

slight grammar freak said...

it's "for all intents and purposes"

Anonymous said...

Being in the midst of a relapse, this is just what I needed to hear to get me through today. Thank you.

Lisa said...

Great job - this will go a long way to helping people understand why anorexics can't "just eat something."

Anonymous said...

I agree that pursuing recovery often (usually?) feels unnatural/uncomfortable/discomforting/maybe-even-"wrong." I also agree that grief is often most about giving up an identity or the idea that "at least I know this about myself."

However, aside from the identity piece and the behavioral hesitancy, the idea of "thin and perfect" as a prompt/trigger/cause or reason behind/tagged-to an eating disorder is over-rated and overstated (not to negate your personal experience).

I think everyone with an eating disorder has "delusions" or distortions and magical-thinking kinds of cogntive processes ... but anorexia, for me, has never been about somehow making my world "perfect" or that my stars would line up ever-so-much-better if I were thin. For me, it was more about not being/existing at all ... not just "thin" but gone.

And it was a seemingly innate response to nauseating trauma. I know not everybody has a trauma issue and that people complain that focus is overstated also. But I have never, ever put how I looked/what I wore/anything remotely social into my equation.

More than anything, I think people with EDs are self-punishing and responding to self-loathing and despair of one sort or another ... whether that is environmental, biological or both. "Thin and perfect" sounds like too-perfect of a superficial, stereotypical descriptor for life with an eating disorder.

Hope, however, is universal and something anyone suffering with this kind of illness can share. I appreciate that you share your journey and thoughts.

Carrie Arnold said...


For me, much of the eating disorder was about perfection. That I'm a walloping perfectionist should be no surprise. I thought that if I could just get myself to be Just Right, then I might not have to hate myself so much. My illness did, ultimately, have a lot to do with thin, but only as a way of keeping score. I wanted to eat the right things, in the right amounts, combined with the right amounts of exercise, along with doing everything else Just Right.

So recovery means not just acknowledging that not only isn't your eating going to be perfect, nothing else is, either. So it's learning that in between area. And giving up the possibility of perfection is the source of a lot of my grief.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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