I was 14 when my mother died. On the morning of January 10th 2001, I said goodbye to her as she lay in bed with what seemed to be a bad cold, and left for school like any other day. That was the last time I would see her alive.
I recall the evening/night through a dream-like filter. The colours and textures of what I ate for dinner, but not what it was. My uncle —the person who would soon become my legal guardian— being at home with us because my mother had been rushed to the hospital as her lungs began to fail earlier that day (a detail I would only discover later).
There is nothing that can prepare you for an earth shattering event like this, or the shock and trauma that follows the sudden loss of the most important being in your world. Especially as a child. In the hours and days following my mother’s death, I was told by a relative of my mother’s boyfriend to take ten deep breaths, and that I would feel better after the funeral. I was encouraged to drink cups of milky black tea with plenty of sugar; offered my next door neighbors set of F.R.I.E.N.D.S tapes and bought ‘really good’ cookies by someone else..
I remember thinking how incredibly inadequate all of this was. My mother was dead. The person I had loved and needed the most in the world was gone and ten deep breaths and some cookies were not going to help me. Why did no one have anything of real help to offer?
I had no tools with which to navigate this monumental loss. No language with which to express the gut clenching devastation I felt. I was just entering into adolescence—a child, but not. No one knew what to do. No one could have prepared for this. A vale of shock settled over my life and my family, and continued to thicken and rout over the next several years.
In hindsight and having educated myself on trauma, I understand that we were all in a state of shock. As Joan Didion describes in ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’, your mind can convince itself of the most fantastic scenarios when in shock. For years I secretly fantasised that my mother had concocted a brilliant plan to run away and was actually alive in some foreign place. I would try to find her in the crowd when on holiday. Maybe she was there..
I was too young to have read or know anything about the experience of loss back then. There was no ‘Super SoulSunday’ were I could grab sound bites from trauma specialists, like we can today. I didn’t have the language, or the knowledge to process what was happening in or around me. I went into survival mode and lived in that state for the next 14 years.
It was only after beginning to tackle the insidious coping mechanisms I had developed in order to try and manage my vast, untreated grief, that I was able to start to bring it into the light. In the years that followed the death of Sarah, I used starvation, work, boys, alcohol, drugs, food, relationships, and more starvation to try and seek relief from the trauma of my mother dying—of losing my connection to the earth. I spent the best part of my teens and 20’s stuck in an endless loop or addictive highs and lows.
At the tail end of yet another devastating relationship break down, encouraged in part by a deep fear of intimacy and inability to trust anyone or anything, I was finally willing to do the thing that therapists had been trying trying to coax me into for years: talk about my mother and her sudden death. Gradually I became open to the tools that were available, and willing to let go of those I had depended on for so long.
Around this time someone the same age as me came into my life who had very recently lost her mother. Observing her open relationship towards her loss, her willingness to talk about it, to acknowledge the devastation, stirred something deep within me. I began to come to terms with the reality of my own grief. That which I had not allowed myself to really feel; and the very thing that was preventing me to move forward with my life. To open up to love and closeness with others. I found the mirror I had needed, to reveal all the pain I had trapped in my body and psyche.
I offer this not as a morbid tale, but as a prefix for what i have learnt: Untreated grief and trauma are like cancer, if you don’t do something about it, it spreads and destroys everything in its path. We become suspended in time and dependent on quick fixes to survive. There is a relatively new acknowledgment that all addiction stems from trauma of some sort, often in childhood.
I wish the 14 year old and her sisters had had resources to better cope. That my family had had them. We didn’t. Today we do. Beyond this, no matter the nature of our relationships with them, for women our connection to our mother is at the core of our being. It is the person we turn to, or crave advice and solace from. She is how we know what it is to be a woman. For a girl to lose her mother at a young age has a specific effect.
We are poorly equipped for dealing with and honoring death in the West. Furthermore, there is shame attached to grieving that seems to be systemic. We assume we have a certain window in which to mourn and must then move on, but this is not how grief works. It is not a linear process. Some of the most joyful events in my life have come with a deep grief also, knowing I would not be able to share them with my mother.
As with any systemic shortcoming, change begins with sharing openly and speaking up. Perhaps in doing so here I can encourage someone to acknowledge something they have not yet processed, as I was encouraged to do by witnessing a friends vulnerability. There is freedom beyond grief. And yet, it is often through loss of a loved one that we truly discover the intelligence of the body to remember and endure. Approached with awareness this can be a wonderful gift.
2019 marks a lot of 10 year anniversaries for me. One anniversary is especially important to me as it changed my life significantly. 2009 was the first year since 1995 that I spend without my eating disorders dictating my life.
I spend 13 years of my life up until 2009 struggling with eating disorders. Starting out with anorexia nervosa at a very young age it quite quickly developed into a wild combination of bulimia nervosa with long stretches of starving myself and intense periods of depression interrupted by manic phases. This illness was more or less the center of my life, everything else was blurry and circled around it. After finishing high-school, my ability to lead a so called „normal“ life was very limited, and apart from some relationships that I was able to keep up with & some studying (but not really) I wasn’t doing much. I started a lot of half convinced attempts with therapy, had more than one visit to the ER and spend a lot of time at a clinic.
It wasn’t up until I started my first analysis that I, while getting to know myself a bit better - with a lot of resistance towards being honest to myself & my therapist - I started to realize just how f***** up I was. I was severely harming myself and basically a threat to my own life. It took years of therapy until I finally, sometime in 2008 stopped throwing up. Something inside me changed and it felt very sudden. The whole first year of having the capacities of breaking out of this destructive circle was a very challenging one and didn’t at all feel like I was imagining it all the years before.
It was a year of set backs and relapses, a year where I ended a lot of relationships and a year where I felt the urge to start over again. And I had to and I did start over again. It wasn’t all sunshine and fun after that, but it was A LOT better and I was able to go on this journey to really get to know myself and work towards who I am. I am currently in the middle of my second analysis, I am still too often struggling with body issues and feel like this might stick with me for a while, but I learned to appreciate myself, I learned to respect myself, my body, my strengths and my weaknesses. I also learned to accept myself and admire myself for the ability to learn and change.
I was thinking a long time about if and how I should eventually share this part of my story without it sounding pathetic or what not. It feels strange and a bit much, but I also feel like I might be able to give something back, to others that are maybe struggling with similar things, or maybe know someone who does. I would like to help, have conversations, listen, be there. I am not a doctor nor a therapist, but I think there is still a lot of knowledge that I gained over the years and that could potentially be helpful to others and that’s why I wanted to open up about this, to basically open up a door with a sign on it that says I am here.
I had quite a late start into this so called „grown-up“ life and some might find this very confusing, I myself was and am struggling a lot with this fact, but in the end it really doesn’t matter a lot, in good moments I really couldn’t care less. If someone wants to judge, they will judge.