When an eating disorder provides a way to cope with grief

When Dad died, an eating disorder helped me to get through each day. This imaginary podcast describes the impact on my grief:

Transcript from the Good Grief Conversations podcast, Episode 126, October 25, 2021:

INTERVIEWER: Good morning. I’m your host, Susannah Johns. Today we talk about grief with Tanya Motiani, who lost her father in December 2018. Let me first ask Tanya to read a poem she has penned and dedicated to her father.

The Infinity of Grief

My grief is circular
But it still has corners –
Corners where it ferments and agitates.
Grief doesn’t just dissipate,
It lingers
Like the aroma of a snuffed candle.
Subtle.
Delicate.
Yet ever present.

My grief is circular –
Its edges are soft.
Yet it demands much from me.
Like a persistent child,
Eager to learn,
Eager to be heard.
“I’m coming!”
Impatient.
Tetchy.

My grief is circular –
It comes back and bites.
But nowadays
I handle
The extremities of pain
As middle and boundaries merge.
I live with it.
I am it.
Welcome.

INTERVIEWER: Thanks Tanya. Poignant words. So, welcome to the podcast. Perhaps start by describing your particular grief – why you are grieving? And when did it start?

In December 2018, my life changed. I was getting ready to leave home for an appointment when my father rang to say he was feeling unwell and that he was going back to bed for the day. This in itself was  unusual for Dad – to actually call and tell me, and I immediately felt uneasy. But I kept my appointment, only to discover upon its conclusion that Dad had rung my husband and asked him to call an ambulance. Anyway, what followed was three harrowing days by Dad’s bedside in hospital before he passed away on December 6. He had suffered a massive heart attack. Totally out of the blue and totally shocking at the time.

So, your grief began nearly three years ago?

Well, no, that’s the thing, Susannah. I didn’t grieve straightaway, not until about 18 months after Dad’s death. I need to clarify here. I have suffered from an eating disorder for most of my life and, when Dad died, I lapsed into very serious ill health. I can see now that I used my eating disorder as a coping tool, to numb the pain of Dad’s passing. The eating disorder got completely out of hand after only one week and what followed was a year-and-a-half of medical treatment, hospital admissions, therapy and the slow process of getting myself back to how I was before Dad died – physically, I mean. The eating disorder was still there – and still is there – but after those 18 months, with the help of my treatment team, I was able to begin the grieving process. Grief doesn’t exactly have a start and a finish line. At least, not for me.

Okay. So that gives listeners some context. Can you describe your grief, Tanya?

Sure. As I said, my grief was numbed immediately after Dad’s death, but I’d say it was there, lurking beneath the surface. It’s like it was a pot of hot water on simmer. And it had to be – my eating disorder was dominating at this time. Then, when my eating disorder was a bit more under control, there was room for the grief to creep out of the shadows – allowing the pot of hot water to be turned up to boil. I realised through therapy, especially through the work I began with a narrative mentor, that it wasn’t as though my grief was ending – it was in fact only just beginning.

For me, grief is infinite. I think I will always have this grief over losing Dad. We were so close, and I loved him incredibly. He told me, every day, how much he loved me. Of course, there is a deep sadness in me, there always will be. Like I express in my poem, grief is circular for me, knowing no beginning, knowing no end. And it hurts.

But now, after another 18 months of therapy, I can feel my grief slowly returning to simmer. The grief is always there, but it has settled down somewhat and I can turn to it, not with anger or despair, but with fondness – fondness for Dad, sure, but also fondness for the actual sensations I feel in my physical and my emotional being. This is a grief I don’t want to “get over” – I am content to live with this feeling, to hang on to it, just as I hang on to my beautiful memories of Dad.

Tanya, you’ve mentioned your eating disorder as a strategy – unintentional perhaps – with which to mange your grief. And you’ve mentioned the healthier alternatives of coping through therapy and writing. What other strategies have you been able to use?

The writing has been key, like I said. And I’ve had professional help to explore and confront my grief through this medium. I have also coped with regular medication, as prescribed by my psychiatrist. I think this has played a role. I’ve also seen a psychologist every fortnight since this all began, as well as a mental health occupational therapist, both of whom have given me coping tools along the way. I have photographs of Dad and trinkets of his to remind me every day – not of what I have lost, but to remind me of what I gained through having a close bond with him. I meditate and I walk daily which slows down my mind when things feel like they’re getting on top of me. And I can’t overstate the wonderful support from my family – my husband, son and daughter, and also my brother and sister.

Sounds like your treatment has been very thorough. How wonderful not only you have been able to access all these treatments, but that you have put time and effort into keeping appointments and listening to your treatment team, taking on board what they offer.

It’s been a long road. And it is not over yet. May quite possibly never be over. It’s like a pendulum – the eating disorder swings alongside the grief. When one is loud, the other is quiet. When the other is quiet, the other is loud! A seesaw in perpetual motion.

How have others responded to you as you have travelled the road of grief?  I think this is an area where either help or, sadly, harm can come in the recovery process.

Sure, Susannah. My family members have never voiced their expectations for me heal from this grief. Neither have they expressed anything but love and support for my ongoing eating disorder. By the way Susannah, I know I keep mentioning the eating disorder even though this is a podcast about grief! But for me, my eating disorder and my grief have been entwined ever since Dad passed away so I cannot refer to one without referring to the other.

Understood. Go on.

So, my family have responded brilliantly – never pressuring me to recover, never questioning the length of time that I’m taking to deal with the grief. And especially my brother and my sister – they also lost their dad, and both are doing amazingly well in life, both are happy and have moved on with their lives. But never have they expressed dissatisfaction or impatience with me. They have been non-judgmental and totally accepting. I thank them for it. Nicholas and Katherine – if you’re listening – love and thank you!

Friends have given platitudes, such as “Time heals” and “This too shall pass”, and these have annoyed me a little, to be honest. Time doesn’t necessarily heal things for me – it may shift things a little, sure, but it doesn’t “fix” things or take away the pain. People mean well, of course, but my grief is not something I am trying to get over and clichés like these leave me feeling exasperated. The other things friends and colleagues have done is to leave me alone – which hasn’t helped. I have felt ignored at times and that hurts.

I also get fed up a bit of the classic seven stages of grief – or whatever it is. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into feeling the emotions of each of these so-called stages. Grief is not one size fits all and yet the seven stage analysis seems to point towards everybody going through the same process. I don’t want my grief to be like that of everyone else. That would be a disservice to Dad. I want my grief to be unique – to be mine, and mine alone.

You’ve given us a comprehensive overview of your grief and the journey through it thus far.  Where are you with your grief currently? What shape and form does it take now?

My grief has come back to a simmer. Sometimes it threatens to overwhelm me, but not as often as it did. I want to hang on to it if I’m being completely honest with you – afraid that if I let go it will mean my love for Dad has reduced. And my love for my father could never be less than it was, and that it is at this moment. If I let go of my grief, I would feel disloyal. Disloyal to Dad.

With much therapeutic focus on my grief and inner exploration, I have come to understand my grief and develop an ability to cope with it. Does that make sense, Susannah? I am also leaning more and more about my grief every day as I face it, live with it, and – most importantly – accept it.

It is no longer in the shadows. Nor is it so hot that it might burn me. It is softer now, gentler. Manageable. I trust it.

You articulate your particular grief well, Tanya. You seem to have such depth of insight. Finally – what do you envisage your grief will look like in the future?

I think my grief is like an appendage now and I’m happy to have it on board. It can stay and it can continue to shift, to change, to flow. As long as I work on it and as long as I never lose sight of my love for my dad and my bond with this love, it will be okay. It really will. Grief is no longer something my eating disorder has to mask for me. My grief has become a welcome visitor, like a friend, and I can hug it and keep it cosy.

Well said. Thank you, Tanya, for coming on the podcast today . I’m sure our listeners will have gained deeper insight into the many guises grief can make and some will identify with your interpretations.
Your response leads to one last question, Tanya. Now that you have removed the eating disorder mask from your grief for your dad, is your eating disorder redundant, or does it continue to mask other feelings/parts in your life? 

Even though I have separated my eating disorder mask from my grief for Dad, my eating disorder is still present. I think it has simply sunk back into what it was before Dad died. Before Dad died, my eating disorder helped me to cope with life in general – with work, with relationships, with life’s problems and setbacks as they arose. But most of all, my eating disorder has helped to define who I am – not only to me but also to the exterior world.

I know I use my eating disorder to deal with life in an unhealthy way. But I feel I am at the mercy of it. “It” is in charge here – but let me clarify. Right now, I am happy to leave it in charge. I know no other “me”. To be brutally honest, I am scared of who I would be without it. So scared that right now I am not willing to find out.

According to my doctor (GP), I am well and “stable.” This is enough for me. I don’t feel sick, physically, and mentally I only occasionally connect the dots between my physical eating disorder and a slightly crazed mind where I can see (in the odd moments of clarity) that I am harming myself by continuing with the eating disorder.

Right now, I feel I have no choice. The eating disorder is so entwined with my personality that we have become one and the same. I feel I am my eating disorder. However, I am participating in, and contributing to, several purposeful things that I enjoy in the community. So, I am happy to stay the way that I am. I will be interested to hear how listeners with an eating disorder cope with their grief when they lose someone dear. Does their eating disorder become stronger, or do they manage to get support to separate the eating disorder from their healthy self, so they can grieve in a more healthy way?

About Tanya Motiani

I live in Geelong, Australia, with my husband and my pet cat, Oxford. Having recently resigned from my part-time job as an assistant kindergarten teacher, I now work as a nanny. In my spare time, I like to meditate, write, read, watch old movies, walk in nature, cook and birdwatch. My favourite place to be is at home, often with a candle lit to induce feelings of peace and contentment. I am enjoying my nannying jobs as I feel there is now purpose and meaning to my life, helping out parents and making small humans happy! Through my pastimes, I seek to improve my wellbeing as I continue to suffer both from the grief of losing my father in 2018 as well as a deeply entrenched eating disorder. I use the craft of writing as a therapeutic tool through which I might understand, and ultimately resolve, these issues.

All articles by Tanya Motiani

One Response

  1. Karyn says:

    Dear Tanya, I could hear your podcast loudly and clearly. I could feel the grief because you spoke about it so honestly, and I felt for you, but am also proud of you because my grief becomes hidden as well when it needs to come out. I feel guilty when I am not grieving like everyone else, but I believe like you it is a very personal individual experience. I feel for you having had to live with your eating disorder but I know when it serves a purpose and I know for myself in an uncanny way has saved my life. You have a beautiful spirit and it comes through on your podcast and I think everything is for as long as it takes…and nobody can take that away. Your creative flow is so unique and your love for your dear Dad is yours and nobody can take that away. I’m glad you take him with you everywhere you go and I’m sure he knows. Beautiful…that’s all I can say…take care of you.

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