I am very grateful that I did not lose a friend or loved one during the six years I was in eating disorder recovery. Grief is a difficult emotion for anyone to feel at any point in life, but it can be particularly painful to feel when you’re also struggling with an eating disorder. While my experience with loss is post-ED recovery, I’m here to talk about how I coped with the hope that it can help someone, wherever they are on their recovery journey.
Savannah Buik is the reason I started this blog. I first met her while I was in my second round of treatment at the Atlanta Center for Eating Disorders (ACE) in 2010. Savannah was phasing out of treatment as I was on my way in, but Savannah’s one of those people that touches you no matter how long she was in your life. Thanks to social media, we were able to stay in touch– whenever I shared something vulnerable or talked openly about my recovery, Savannah was there, and every comment and emoji heart felt like a hug from her. I felt her presence in my recovery often. She gave her time and kind words generously, and used social media as a tool to help support and encourage her climbing and recovery communities. Savannah’s example is blazing proof that you can fight ED with love and overcome.
Sadly, Savannah passed away in a climbing accident this past March. Climbing played a large part in her recovery and was one of her strongest passions. I remember the last time I saw her in person, back when she’d just begun climbing, she was already head over heels in love with the sport. That love only grew over time. Climbing both challenged her and empowered her, and it’s hard to believe that the sport that helped her recover also took her away. There are others who knew Savannah more intimately who have grappled with that same paradox and have said that despite the tragedy, she would not regret the role climbing played in her life. I believe that’s true.
I began Dialectical Behavioral Therapy not long after Savannah’s passing, and during one session my therapist asked:
“Have you ever experienced a feeling that is intense, but you can’t change the intensity? An emotion that is meant to be intense, and you just have to cope with it?”
Grief is one of those emotions, the kind that swells like an ocean around you. There was nothing I could do to abate the feelings that came from losing Savannah. I’ll never hear her amazing laugh again; I’ll never be able to reach out to her again; I will never be able to visit her in Chicago and celebrate our recoveries over doughnuts. There’s no way to soften these thoughts, these blows. But, I learned that I did not have to drown in the grief either.
Rather, I let go. I didn’t try to swim or struggle out of my pain. I took a deep breath and floated on the surface, feeling the sensation but looking at the sky, the clouds, the stars, at everything Savannah became and still is. I can still feel her love, and I still see her in the world around me. It helped me to reflect on how grateful I am that I met Savannah. I love and appreciate her, and always will.
Eventually, I realized the overwhelming grief had abated and I could feel the ground under my feet. I felt much the way you feel after floating for a long time: wobbly, like the waves were still underneath me. That eventually faded too.
Now, my grief feels more like an eternal candle– bright, flickering, always there– emitting a comforting warmth from the right distance. My grief is a reminder that Savannah existed, that I miss her, and that she mattered to me and many others.
When you lose someone, if you’re drawn towards ED coping mechanisms, it’s okay. Eating disorders feed on difficult emotions like grief and pain. Use every tool in your recovery toolbox to help yourself cope in a healthy way.
Tell ED: This grief is not about you or for you. This grief is mine. You may not use it against me.
Do your best to be kind, forgiving, and understanding towards yourself. Remind yourself that you have a very real reason to be in pain, that it’s not your body, or your recovery situation, or a mistake you made; the pain is strong because you lost someone you cared about, and it’s natural to be overwhelmed by that.
Engaging ED only increases the intensity of all emotions involved– however, if you do engage, forgiveness is even more important! It’s hard to not engage in eating disorder behaviors on a normal day when you’re in recovery. So, it’s normal and okay if you have a harder time in recovery while you’re healing. If most of your energy is taken up by coping with loss, then it makes sense you’ll have less emotional energy to fight ED. If you can, reach out to your therapist(s) and recovery community to let them know what you’re going through and ask for extra support.
Just like with all intense emotions, there are skills that can help: practice self-soothing techniques, distract yourself with an enjoyable activity, reach out to friends and loved ones, and/or express your grief in a way you’re comfortable with. Check in with yourself often and give yourself all the time and space you need to heal.
And you will heal. Healing does not mean forgetting, by any means; healing means letting your grief become that candle, and continuing to live and love with that person flickering gently in your heart.