Body Image > Body Complex
Editor's note: While on the surface, this article doesn't appear to be a grief & healing piece, I feel that the miscarriage or stillbirth of a child brings us into direct contact with body issues, facing questions of how we could "fail" our children, asking why we were not able to keep them alive, etc. Add to this a history of previous eating disorder, and you have a good deal of healing work that needs to be done. This article surprised me when I wrote it, and it surprises me now as I look at the grief and healing process in my life. It is offered as a doorway to discussion and healing.
The relationships we have with our bodies come in all shapes and size-- much like the bodies themselves.
For me, the relationship with my own body has always been complex. This complicated relationship started to really get crazy when I hit puberty and began to fill out like any normal woman would. Contributing to this was the odd family relationship in place between me and my grandmother. She would cook and cook and cook and say, "Eat! I cooked all day!" And then you would eat and she would say, "My! Your hips and bottom are getting big, aren't they?!" Hence, bulimia kicked in quickly. You could eat so she wouldn't hound you, and then you could purge and not gain the weight from eating. It was sick from the beginning and it went on for 7 years with me bouncing back and forth between bulimia and anorexia. If any of this sounds remotely familiar to you-- about you or someone you love-- then you might want to check out Edap or Feather Weight Inc. for help and information.
After 7 years, things got out of hand between my body and deep depression. My roommate at the time urged me to get some help. At the time I was living in Pittsburgh going to college. The University of Pittsburgh had run an ad for a research program happening at UPMC about eating disorder. They offered free council and behavioral therapy for a year with a three year follow up. Being a poor student, this kind of program was impossible to turn down, so I did it. And it proved helpful. While they were focused on behavioral therapy, the doctors there were very clear with me that this kind eating disorder required emotional and spiritual therapy, too. It took me another 7 years, but I finally got steady and was able to stop the binge/purge/starve cycle. And I was coming to terms with my body "as is."
At that point in my life, I met my husband-to-be. Things happened quickly. I had finished undergrad, dabbled in grad school, fallen head over heels in love, moved "permanently" to Seattle, and gotten serious about my writing. My next body challenge came when I got pregnant on my honeymoon! Talk about big changes!!! Ugh. I was unprepared for what would happen in terms of my relationship with my body.
As my body filled out and my clothes grew smaller, all my bells and whistles began ringing and tooting and screaming. The old thought processes started. I knew I had to take care quickly and immediately to not let the behavior patterns start because I wanted this pregnancy to go well and I wanted a healthy baby. So I started with a therapist who offered hypnotherapy and hypnobirthing to take care of myself and prepare for birthing my child.
These changes in my body were overwhelming and so difficult to face head on with open eyes. I had to believe my husband when he told me he loved me no matter what I weighed, no matter what shape my body took. That was hard to believe because no one had ever before done that. I had to buy new clothes in larger sizes and finding bras was insane. But with the help and love of my husband and my mother, I came through it all. With the help of the hypnotherapy, I learned to calm down and try to love myself and accept all the abundance in my life. I found comfort in the meditation tape from Joyce Vissell called Mother Child Bonding During Pregnancy, and we prepared for the arrival of our child.
And then on March 11, 1999, at 4:47pm our whole world changed, and my relationship with my body was dealt a most difficult blow. My son, Dakota Jones, was born still with his cord wrapped around his neck and ankles. They tried to hand me a dead child, and I refused then to hold him because I refused to accept that death was my son. I did not want to hold death. I wanted to hold my child. The anger I felt about my body failing me and failing my son was stunning. The intrusion of the needle in my spine to prepare for the c-section wasn't painful punishment enough for how my body had failed. The incision of the knife into my abdomen to cut my dead child out was not painful punishment enough for how my body had failed. At that moment in time, the pain and anger were crushing me so insanely that all I could do was check out of my body. The pain killer percocet helped me to check out, too.
In the first days after my son's death, I just didn't stay in my body. My mind floated. I slept a lot. I ate, I didn't eat, I didn't care. My husband helped me tenderly to do things like get out of bed, go to the bathroom, play the computer game Riven, cry, find reasons not to jump out open windows! And I was very disconnected from my body, and that disconnection was helped along by the numbness from the pain meds.
At two or three weeks out, it came time to get sober off the percocet meds. This was a rude awakening because now I had to deal with my body. I wasn't drugged enough to sleep alot, and I began to actually feel physical pain. My arms ached to hold my child. This is a phenomenon called phantom ache. But then I didn't know it was a real thing. I thought I was losing my mind. And my hatred for my body really kicked in gear. It became impossible for me to think of losing the pregnancy shape of my body because that would mean that time had moved forward-- no way! Time had stopped dead like my child when they told me he was born still. People around me would say things like, "If you lost a little of the weight, you'd feel better." Or "The shape of your body has nothing to do with grief, so if you need to lose weight, then lose weight." Now I really thought I was losing my mind because I thought I was talking rationally. It made sense to me that my body was still connected to the moment in time when my child died. But no one around me seemed to get that. And the bottom line truth was that it didn't matter if they got it or not. Only I could come to terms with the failure I felt and the resulting guilt about failing and the hatred of my body.
So for an entire year after the death of my child, I did nothing in terms of my body. I didn't watch what I ate. I didn't exercise on a schedule. I did a little bit more hypnotherapy, but not much. I didn't obsess. I didn't care. Instead, I threw myself into forming KotaPress, into making a legacy for my child, into processing my grief and healing in active ways so that I could properly honor my child's life and death. My desire to be an advocate for bereaved parents kicked in and I got involved with the MISS foundation and started their Seattle Chapter. We held fund raisers and teddy bear drives. We began publishing the poetry of other bereaved parents and of artists who were using expressive arts therapy to process their own losses. And I discovered the discipline of Poetry Therapy and began to pursue the use of this arts work in my own daily life and in conjunction with the bereavement work I do with other parents who are enduring the death of a child. John Fox's book Poetic Medicine was of great help and comfort to me in this endeavor.
The point is that a year went by so quickly. Before I knew it, I was back at the doctor's office for my annual check up. Now, I have never liked getting on the scale at the doctor's office, but this year I just didn't care. So I got on the scale looking at the numbers, and the nurse pushed the hickey-ma-doos to the right places and then an amazing thing happened. The nurse said, "Almost exactly the same as last year this time." And she noted the number in my chart and started to babble about peeing in a cup or some such thing. She had no idea what had just happened. She was just moving through the course of her day. She was new. I didn't know her. She probably hadn't dug back in my chart to see that years ago I was diagnosed with eating disorder and all that history. She just made an off the cuff comment, "Almost exactly the same as last year this time."
You, too, are probably thinking, "Okay, Kara, so what?" Exactly the same????!!! Did you hear that? I said "exactly the same!!!!" With all the eating disorder problems in my life time, I had never ever never weighed the same weight for more than a month in a row since I was like 10 years old! Maybe not even then!!! The same!!!!???? For an entire year, I had maintained the same weight almost exactly without doing anything! I just lived, grieved, healed, worked, cried, slept, ate-- ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted-- learned to scooter, walked-- not because I had to exercise and lose weight, but because I wanted to learn to scooter and because I liked to walk to the bank and post office each day!!!! The same! Do you hear me??? THE SAME!
It was stunning. The acceptance of my body came in the most weird, backward way and from the most painful, horrid struggle of my life. Life after the death of my son had made my struggles with my body pointless, meaningless, powerless. My priorities had so completely changed that my relationship with my body become just another part of life. Acceptance, permission to do and eat whatever, whenever I wanted. Some sort of balance had snuck up on me. I was floored.
I realized that I had learned to trust my body by not dictating it. This is not to say I'm not still scared to try another pregnancy. This is not to say that I claim to be the healthiest woman on Earth. But it is to say that I gained trust in my body's ability to know what's best for it by letting do whatever it wanted, by focusing on other priorities and trusting myself. It has taken me another additional year since the death of my son to completely accept that his death was not due to a failure of my body. And the trust I gained from that one comment of that one nurse has played a huge part in this process of acceptance, of permission rather than dictatorship.
Now, I don't recommend enduring the death of a child in order to deal with your body issues or eating disorder problems! I'm not saying that at all. But what I am saying is that our relationships with our bodies are complex. There are no text book answers for how to come to terms with our bodies after eating disorder. There is no one answer that will work for every one of us. And the healing of our relationships with our bodies might come at the most unexpected, unlikely time in our lives-- a time that drives us to action, to do something outside our bodies, to have priorities outside counting calories and ticking off the number of minutes of exercise we get each day.
You just never know what's going to happen in a day. You never know when you might lose a loved one or lose your own life. So while you still have life and your loved ones are still here with you, why not try living with your body instead of regulating it? Try to live rather than diet. Try permission rather than regulation. Try life rather than death.
About the Author
Kara has been using poetry and other expressive arts tools on the grief journey since the death of her son in 1999. Her poetic and non-fiction works have been included in publications such as New Works Review, PoetsWest, Real Henna, Shared Heart Foundation's "Meant To Be", LightHearts Publication's "Soul Trek", MISSing Angels Newsletter, American Tanka, Mother Tongue Ink's We'Moon, Honored Babies, Cup of Comfort series, and more. She is a Carnegie Mellon graduate who co-founded KotaPress with her husband Hawk Jones. Her books "Mrs. Duck and the Woman" as well as "Flash of Life" have both been released thru KotaPress. She is currently in an apprenticeship working toward Master level of Reiki. And she founded HennaHealing.com where she is exploring the ancient art of henna and its uses for ritual and healing.