Last week, a dear friend of mine was hospitalized with critical injuries after being hit by a car. This week, I took a whirlwind 2.5 day trip to the city where he lives to visit him in the hospital and to give his parents a much-needed break from bedside duty.
When I was packing for the trip, my mother voiced her concerns about whether or not I was going to be able to find food that I was comfortable eating while on such a trip. Thinking that it was just not important relative to what my friend’s family was going through, I told her that I would simply “make it work”. I packed snacks and, upon arrival in the city, did enough groceries for two breakfasts and two lunches.
I did not underestimate the emotional impact that seeing my friend would have on me, but I did underestimate how it would affect my eating.
It’s easy to lose one’s appetite in a hospital, especially in the trauma unit. Not only is your attention focused 100% on someone else all day, but the things you see and hear there make hunger seem insignificant. I found that bringing myself a lunch and snacks encouraged me to eat regularly throughout the day, but dinner was a challenge I did not forsee.
By 5 pm, I wasn’t hungry. I had spent too many hours at my friend’s bedside, helping him do (or keeping him from doing) the most basic cognitive and motor tasks, to care about eating again. When his parents suggested we go out for dinner in the surrounding neighbourhood, I offered to stay behind with him… an option I preferred to forcing myself to eat one more time. Of course, I was coerced and was soon on my way to an Italian restaurant with limited options.
I was already anxious and stressed out and tired. Seeing someone you love be confined to a hospital bed is emotional and exhausting, and I was drained by the time we got to the restaurant.
There was nothing on the menu that I felt comfortable eating, so I asked the waiter to make a few substitutions to a chicken dish they offered. I was told, sharply, that the restaurant “didn’t do that”, and so I gave up and asked for the dish as-is, sauce on the side. My anxiety was pumped up at least five notches. Ten minutes later, the head chef of the restaurant came out of the kitchen to yell at me, and ask what I wanted. After some arguing, I repeated that I just wanted the chicken dish that was on the menu, and he stormed off to the kitchen.
That was the final straw. I excused myself and went and sobbed in the restaurant bathroom for a few minutes. When my dinner came (chicken drowned in sauce and all), I picked at it, allowing myself to only eat what I felt comfortable eating, knowing that I shouldn’t push myself any harder than I already had that day. I cried again at the hospital that night, and once more when I finally went to bed. I was spent.
This is a cautionary tale. When dealing with a tragedy, don’t put yourself and your needs last. As unappetizing and petty as food might seem during difficult times, it is crucial – for the sake of your recovery and for your sanity – that you eat regularly and do not push the boundaries of what you are comfortable eating too far, lest you add more anxiety to your already full emotional plate. Don’t underestimate the effect that difficult times may have on your appetite and ability to make good food choices. Don’t assume you’ll be able to just “make it work”.
Now, the title of this piece is “Dealing with Loss and Food.” Luckily, I have not lost my dear friend. He has severe injuries that will take months to heal, but he is still with us, and his doctors are optimistic. However, there are many people who are not so lucky, and I am sure many of you Recovery Warriors have had to deal with personal loss whilst in recovery. The struggle is real, and it has the potential to provoke relapse. How does one balance caring for oneself while caring for others? How does one keep from comparing one’s ED recovery to another’s severe trauma (and keep from shifting focus away from one’s own recovery)?
Here are a few ideas and things to keep in mind:
1. While taking care of others, don’t forget to take care of yourself.
Your health and welfare are just as important as the welfare of the people you want to support. You can’t provide care for the sick or the grieving if you aren’t providing care to yourself.
2. Remember that your recently departed (or ill) loved one would want you to eat.
In the midst of tragedy, loss of appetite or relapse can be sudden and seemingly uncontrollable. Keep in mind that your loved ones want you to eat, no matter what else is going on in your life or theirs. Try to image what they would say to you if they saw you restricting or skipping meals in reaction to their illness or death.
3. Channel your sadness or anxiety into an activity or caring gesture.
Make a “get well soon” or “sorry for your loss” card, bake cookies for the family, put together a photo album of old pictures with your friend, put together a care package, etc.
4. Vent to a friend who is outside of the situation. It’s okay to be sad, confused, and overwhelmed. Don’t bottle it up.
You have just as much right to feel sad in the midst of tragedy as anyone else. Just because you’re not immediate family doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to mourn, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to reach out to your own friends and ask for support. Your emotions are valid, and so is your need to be heard.