I recently got together with some colleagues to discuss a research article (it’s more fun than it seems) on families supporting loved one’s struggling with an eating disorder. As always, having had personal experience and now working in the field, I cannot help but reflect back to what it was like for me and my family/friends/support networks, as well asthe people in the lives of my clients.
Time and time again, family members often feel as though they are unsupported and/or unheard as they support their loved one. Many times, they feel blind sided by the eating disorder, helpless in knowing what to say or do, leaving them scared and, at times, cut off from their usual supports due to the nature of this beast.
At the time of my struggle, the last thing I wanted was for my family to be involved in my illness or recovery. I think there were many reasons for this, although, in hindsight, I wish I was a little more permissive around letting them use and/or access their supportive resources. In order to have done this, I needed to acknowledge the following:
#1 Eating Disorders Don’t Just Affect You - Like it or not, eating disorders and recovery don’t just involve the one who is struggling. It is not a one person fight. Everyone will get bruised from time to time. I didn’t get that all those years ago and its been a humbling experience learning another perspective other than my own of what it was like to be affected by an eating disorder. It was unrealistic to think, no matter how much I wished they didn’t care or notice what was going on, that my struggle was only going to affect me. If my meal times were stressful, their meal times were stressful. If I was experiencing a cold draft in a restaurant, you bet our whole table would have to move somewhere more suitable. If I didn’t want to talk in therapy, the efforts of my therapist would not be rewarded. If you’ve read Part 1 of wiTHIN, you’ve seen various my eating disorder had an impact on my employer, my dog, my brother, my friends, strangers and so on. And here I was thinking I was doing such a great job managing it on my own…
#2 Feelings Will Be Had - It may be uncomfortable to admit, but regardless of how your family shows emotion, they will be had. How could they not? You’re not an island… you matter. And when people care, emotions aren’t far behind. Often, those around you are feeling scared, guilty, helpless, angry, sad, and so much more. It is not your fault they have these responses (which are pretty normal emotions to feel when a loved one is ill), nor is it your responsibility to take care of their emotions. The majority of my clients disagree on that last one, and I would totally be willing to have a more in depth conversation with you around that one. They eventually come around :)
Maybe some of your family/friends express their feelings aggressively, while others are taken over by them. Having a conversation with atherapist could be a safe place to discuss what it is like for you and for them, when feelings are had. With help, everyone can be heard, validated and coached when communicating. Tolerating your parents talking to a trusted friend, support group or therapist on their own can also provide them with another outlet instead of bottling them up or solely expressing at home.
#3 We Heal in Community - You know the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? I think this saying is equally true when it comes to recovering from an eating disorder and/or supporting someone with an eating disorder. No one person can do it all. There are many roles that need to be filled… whether it’s a therapist or a dietician, a friend or a support group member, a parent or a sibling, and so on. Each are invaluable. There’s another saying common in the eating disorders community, “eating disorders survive in secrecy”. I would argue they not only survive, but thrive! I know it’s hard… however the more you expose the eating disorder (whether its thoughts, actions, emotions, etc) the more aware you will be of where change needs to occur, as well as where you need support. Finding trusted people to open up to with this is important… both for you and those supporting you.
So, I urge you… allow your family to access supports. If you can’t allow them to access supports for your sake, allow them to access supports for theirs. Check out your local eating disorders resources in your area, or (in Canada) NEDIC for more listings in your area. If you live in the Waterloo-Wellington area, check out the Family and Friends support group offered through CMHA specifically for eating disorders. You don’t, and aren’t, meant to go through this alone!