Recovery When Grieving by Carolyn Hersh, LCSW

Grief and Eating Disorder Recovery On May 8th, 2017 my mother died due to complications from cancer. It was an unexpected death. I still cannot believe she died. My mom was diagnosed in January and passed away in May. She had gone to the hospital for trouble breathing and never left.

I can clearly remember going back to my childhood home and seeing her sneakers in her room waiting for her to return to them. I cried so hard seeing everything she had touched just days before but left, never to feel her embrace again. I was one of those things she left.

It’s been more than a year now since I lost my mom. It was a year that tested me in so many ways: emotionally, physically, and spiritually. One thing I had to face was how my eating disorder and my longstanding recovery would play out through the worst thing that has ever happened to me.

I have my own history of emotional eating and bulimia nervosa. It started at a young age. Whenever I was sad as a child my mom’s solution to cheer me up was a trip to the bakery for a giant cookie. My emotional eating and my hatred of being the larger kid was just one of many factors that led me to a path of destructive behaviors of binging, purging, and restricting.

I’ve been through enough therapy and treatment that I am able to recognize moments when I find myself starting to eat mindlessly. I check in with what emotions or events are going on. I have, for the most part, overcome being an emotional eater. But, then I was hit with an intensity of emotions that I had never felt before. The seven stages of grief are very real and I definitely went through and felt each of them.

My anger, my sadness, my pleading to bring my mom back, to having brief moments of acceptance washed over me on a daily basis. My sadness felt like someone placed a brick on top of my heart. Trying to breathe became difficult at times. I was angry, intensely angry, at cancer, the doctors, the hospital, at God, at my mother, and at myself. We hear so often how eating disorders fester when we feel a loss of control. Losing my mother was the ultimate reminder “you have absolutely no control over this.”

In the early weeks and even months of living in a world where my mother no longer existed, I wanted comfort and distraction. I wanted food. I wanted alcohol. I wanted anything that would take this pain away. And in those moments of pure sadness, I consumed. I knew full well this wasn’t the way to handle my emotions. I decided I need to reach out to my dietitian because yes, even professionals need tune-ups. I remember sitting in my dietitian’s office crying because I gained weight and was feeling out of control with my body and my feelings. I quickly felt hypocritical as an advocate for all bodies are beautiful and guilty because a weight gain should not be something I should be crying about. I lost my mother. Worse things have occurred other than gaining a few pounds. My dietitian reminded me that I know how to eat and that my body will go back to where it should be when I honor my hunger and satiety cues. But, then she shocked me by saying, “Carolyn, maybe you needed to allow yourself to binge in those moments. So it happened. You binged. It’s done. Now, go back to your real coping skills.”

My dietitian gave me permission to accept my binges. She demonstrated compassion for me when I had no self-compassion. She was right. Sometimes we have to be okay with where we are at. My dietitian did not give me the green light to revert back to maladaptive behaviors. She pushed me back on a path of not beating myself up during a time where the last thing I needed was to hurt myself more.

So, how do you manage recovery in a time of grief?

  • Don’t go back to your eating disorder. Just don’t. You know it won’t help and when you are feeling low why make yourself feel lower? But, if you skip a meal or eat a few extra cookies just know that it is not a relapse. I do not consider my binging moments a relapse. They happened. I engaged and then I stepped away. Be gentle toward yourself and give yourself permission to say “It’s okay it happened. Now, what can I do to get back to my recovery?”
  • Go back to your coping skills. Maybe I could have engaged in binging and purging. Maybe I could have thrown my hands in the air and said: “what’s the point?” But I didn’t. In all honesty, I knew this wasn’t something I wanted. So, I made a list of things for me to do to help me through those really tough moments. I took time off from work and went figure skating with friends. The ice was always a very therapeutic place for me, and just being able to feel that cold air whip across my face me feel happy. I spent time journaling, cuddling with my dog, and reaching out to friends and family when I needed to talk. I began nightly walks with one of my girlfriends where we had heart to hearts. I made self-care a priority. You have to. The small lapses that I fell into never once trumped the real self-care that I was doing for myself. If I had beaten myself up for binges and weight gain then it could have sent me on that spiral back to a full relapse. Self-care may mean forgiving yourself for your lapses. Forgiving myself helped me continue to move forward.
  • Death really sucks. Losing someone you love is painful. It can be a torturous pain. There is no way around that. Losing my mother and thinking about her still to this very moment makes my stomach twist, my heart pound, and my eyes water. There will be bad days. I use a lot of radical acceptance in my grief where I acknowledge this is how it is and I have to figure out now how I continue to live in a world where my mom isn’t calling me. It’s hard to do. Believe me, there are days I do not want to accept this, but if I have to pull from my DBT workbook, acting the opposite is what gets me through the rough days. I don’t want to accept my mother is gone, but that is the reality. I do not, however, have to forget her and how she has impacted my life.
  • It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel whatever it is you are feeling and it is okay if those feelings come and go in minutes or if they last for days. There is no wrong way to grieve. During my grief I went to Nashville for a vacation, I would go out on weekends with friends and laugh, and I eventually moved to California. I managed to feel happy on some holidays and cried on others. I did not stop living, but I allowed for my grief to take space in my life.

In the end, going back to my eating disorder would just have caused more chaos in an already chaotic time in my life. I know it won’t give me control, it won’t make me happy, and it certainly will not bring my mother back. I have this blue butterfly pendant necklace my mom bought me before I went into an intensive outpatient program. It gave me strength then and I wear it now to continue to remind myself that my mother was every bit a part of my recovery and is every bit still a part of me. Now, why would I want to throw all that away?

Carolyn Hersh is available to see patients with eating disorders and has Saturday hours. Contact us for more information. 323-743-1122 or lmuhlheim@eatingdisordertherapyla.com