Let me paint you a picture for a second. Imagine a parent gives you their child to look after for a few minutes. Gathering from their age, you guage they are old enough to speak and can understand basic words and concepts. You start talking with them, and they look at you as though you have four eyes, caulking their head to the side in bewilderment. Then, they start talking to you and surprisingly, you have the same reaction. Upon hearing them speak, you realize you are speaking two very different languages and how you thought you knew how to communicate with them suddenly changes.
I recently had a similar experience, although I knew beforehand that english was not the child's native language. Still, it hit me how much I rely on english to be able to connect, communicate and build relationship with people and how it was important for me to do this with this particular child. Over the course of time, I did pick up a few words from their language that I could add to my repertoire, as did they. Although, the biggest break through occurred when I hooked a dog leash to my shirt and gave them the handle. They immediate understood that I was a dog, and they were the master. I barked, they lead me around. They gave me a frisbee, I put it in my mouth and shook my head wildly. We found our common language and played longer than the observing adults thought we would. We bonded.
This got me rethinking how the world of eating disorders and recovery can have its own language that may leave some family and friends wondering, "it sounds like we're using the same words... but we are definitely not speaking the same language". Likely, both parties end up frustrated and disconnected from one another. What to do?
1. Listen - A good first step is being able to recognize what you don't know, which can be done by listening to the 'words' or 'phrases' your loved one uses. They may range from how they talk about food, their body, therapeutic skills or even the eating disorder itself. For example, some people refer to their eating disorder as 'ED'.
Reading up about your loved one's illness will help give understanding, on some level, to what they are going through as well. Through books, blogs and websites, you can learn lingo that may help you understand what your loved one is saying. There are lots of resources out there, such as FEAST and NEDIC, to name just a few.
2. Ask Your Loved One - When in doubt, ask your loved one what they mean. Let them know you are willing/wanting to learn if/when they are ready to share. Be prepared that you may be met with resistance and some may try to block you out of their recovery completely. Don't take it personally. Try not to push either. There are still other ways of learning their language if they aren't in a place, or if the foundation isn't there, to go to them directly.
3. Ask a Therapist - It is completely okay to seek professional help. Eating disorders are a big deal and you, nor your loved one, can do it alone. Find a therapist trained in the treatment of eating disorders and ask them to help you to understand what is going on and what to do in your specific situation.
4. Focus on the Emotion Behind What Is Being Said - Words are extremely helpful when communicating, however, it is but one of many mediums used. Try picking up on the emotion behind what is being said. This disorder has rational parts to it, but it has many irrational parts to it too. When we get caught up in words, we might miss the actual message. For example, if your loved one if freaking out about the piece of brownie on their plate, we all know that the flour, eggs, cocoa and butter didn't do anything in and of itself to make your loved one mad. Acknowledge their distress by saying something like, "Jordan, I can see you're upset right now. Do you need anything from me? Anything I can do to support you?" It's not about the brownie. It's more about what they have attached to the brownie that gives it its power.
5. Find A Common Interest - In my example, playing was the common interest. There is still a lot more to your loved one than their eating disorder. Everyone needs a break from talking about recovery or/and their illness. Maybe your common language is sitting in silence together while you watch Downtown Abbey or The Big Bang Theory. Maybe its playing Settler of Catan or some other game. Maybe its going to get a manicure. Whatever it is, its important to find so that you still have a way of connecting with one another. Maybe this is an agreed upon activity, or maybe its an interest of theirs that you've picked up on.