Remembering Loss and Celebrating Progress in Recovery

By Heather Carbone, Guest Contributor

Between 2012 and 2014, I kept a YouTube vlog where I answered questions about treatment and having an eating disorder. After I admitted myself into treatment in October 2014, I took the vlog down because it made me sad to witness how sick I was both mentally and physically.

Today, I watched a video I made in April 2013. I have not watched anything I filmed since I removed all traces of them from the internet. The reason I put this video on is because it is about the 4-year anniversary of my cousin Officer Sean Collier’s shooting. On April 18, 2013, around 10:25 PM, Sean was sitting in his cruiser on duty when he was shot by the Tsarnaev brothers—also known as the Boston Marathon Bombers. Sean was an amazing person, actively working to make the world a better place. He was taken from us far too early.

I filmed this particular vlog upon returning home from a weekend in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for both my grandmother’s funeral and Sean's tragic death. Revisiting this time in my life was incredibly sad.

It’s crazy to admit, but I don’t remember making that video. I was extremely underweight and stuck in a cycle of starving, bingeing, and purging. I did, however, have the wherewithal to record this as a video memo to myself before being admitted into another treatment center. Somehow, I knew it would be motivating to be able to watch this video when the going got rough in the hospital. I wanted this vlog to be my reminder of why I needed to stick it out.

As I watched this video 4 years later—healthy in body and mind (most of the way, because it takes the brain a long time to fully regain cognitive abilities after starvation)—my first thought was, I still can’t believe it was Sean and not me. How am I still here four years later after treating myself so poorly? I spent a long time beating myself up and questioning why the world worked in such twisted ways. But over time, I have been able to take that self-doubt and loathing and turn it on its head. Now I believe deep down that I am still here to help people—the way that Sean would.

I also realize now how unable I was to be there for my family or myself throughout the grieving process. I was not psychically capable of it, even though I wanted desperately to be there. My brain just did not have the fuel needed to adequately function and process what was going on around me. I look at that video and I know I was 110% convinced that I was operating fine at the time. I could recognize that everyone else was being harmed by my self-abuse, but I did not really believe my functioning was subpar. Now, listening to the vlog with a fully alert and nourished brain, I can hear that I was somewhat rambling and that I tripped up on my words a lot. And even if I had been present, how authentic would my connections with others have been when I was preoccupied with my illness and my family were scared for my life? I am so sad I missed celebrating Sean’s life and memory on account of anorexia. I can never get that back.

As I mentioned, I watched this video because it was just the 4-year anniversary of Sean’s shooting, but for me it felt more like the 2-year anniversary. Between 2013 and 2015 I was in out of treatment, and I honestly do not think I had the space in my head or the faculties to process the loss. After Sean’s death, I took a nosedive in an attempt to “deal” with my grief. But there is really no way the brain can actually comprehend and assimilate such a loss when it is starving and ruminating over body image and calories. Although I was better able to be there for my family as I became physically stronger, I still was not able to work through the loss for myself because there was too much going in my head. 2016 was the first year I was really able to feel Sean’s loss. For everyone else it was the 3rd anniversary, but for me, it felt like the first.

If you have a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder or in the process of recovery, please know their feelings may be on hold for a while. Although someone struggling can seem to be emotionally capable in many ways, those emotions are probably scattered and displaced. They are about food and inner torment, which are very real, but stand-ins for what that person really needs to be feeling. Please be patient and trust that they will find their way back to you.

On a positive note, this year, 2017, I attended family gatherings in Sean’s honor. And I was truly present. While I still struggle around my routine changing and eating with others, I eat an appropriate amount of food each day. I look healthy. I am not constantly adding calories while trying to hold conversations with my loved ones. I can actually listen to their experiences and share my own. People don’t cringe when I walk in the room anymore. Hugs are all encompassing and firm rather than the delicate.

At 10:25 PM on April 18th, my family always take a shot of Jameson to honor Sean--that was his favorite. In the past I would have agonized over the calories in that shot - I would have done it - but I would have made up for it by restricting and exercising. Basically, making the entire point of honoring Sean null and void. This year, I raised my glass with my loved ones and with only a lingering passing thought about the caloric content. Rather, I was focused on the memory of my dear cousin and commiserating with my loved ones. It was sad, but beautiful. 

Heather Carbone is a proud resident of the state of New Hampshire. She left her home state to complete her undergraduate degree in sociology in Florida and lived in Chicago for eight years. The time away from home made her realize just how much she loves New England. She shares her life with two elderly mini dachshunds named Dunkin and Dylan in Manchester, New Hampshire. Heather was recommended for hospice care in October of 2014 due to severe and enduring anorexia nervosa and is very happy she found alternate treatment options. After a full year in the hospital leveraging unconventional treatment approaches she is now healthy, working a full-time job, and completing her Masters of Science in Public Health at Southern New Hampshire University. She is also completing her 200-hour yoga teacher training at YogaLife Institute of New Hampshire. She will finish her coursework in the spring of 2018 and become a registered yoga teacher this summer. Heather’s ultimate goal is to complete her PhD and advocate and research alternative healing paths for those with treatment-resistant eating disorders.