Most recently, I’ve become aware that one of the most frustrating issues with eating disorders is how the families of a loved one with an eating disorder are affected. I witnessed this firsthand by watching my own family practically fall apart because of me and my 15 year battle with one. Though my family loved and supported me the entire journey, all the way through my recovery, they couldn’t seem to understand why something related to food had such a hold on me. After all, couldn’t I just eat? This mindset is one that is so hard for families of a loved one with an eating disorder to understand, and one I’d like to shed some light on through this article. The journey for both families and victims/survivors of an eating disorder is not an easy one, but it is one that we can all learn from with patience, acceptance and forgiveness of both ourselves and each other.
1. They Want to Stop
First off, if you have a loved one with an eating disorder, let me tell you that no matter what their actions are, deep down they truly do want to stop. An eating disorder is like an entangling grasp that you can’t get hold of or away from without serious steps of change. A person has to be 100% ready before they make changes, but most of the time, they really do want to stop. No matter how much they might act like they don’t, inside they hate the imprisonment they’re under.
2. It’s Not about Food
Let’s start with one of the most common misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, which is that it’s all about food. Trust me, it’s not! Eating disorders are not about food, nor is healing about simply eating more. Sure, a person can eat more to gain weight, or eat healthier to lose weight, but that’s not the real issue at hand. Food, or restriction of food, is merely used as a tool or symbol, if you will, of something that’s out of control in their life. A person may starve to feel a sense of control, or because they have internal fears they need to work through with issues in life. They use a lack of food to feel in control, or to lose weight so that they reach a certain size out of a pressure to be thin from an external source or event in their life. A person may also overeat, binge or purge because they have an area in their life that is out of control, or because they have suffered from something that has caused them to turn to food for solace. Eating food, even too much of it, is a way for them to numb themselves out. For people suffering orthorexia, the control of eating only health food is how they make themselves feel clean, worthy and in control. Food is never the issue at hand, so always understand this, even though I know it’s hard.
3. They Have to Be Ready
A person with an eating disorder cannot get better until they are ready. They truly must be willing to not only change their eating habits, but change their mindset too. Like I said, it’s never about food, and until a person is ready to deal with the real issue at hand, they won’t be ready to heal.
4. It’s Hard to Recover
Most people with an eating disorder have a very hard time recovering quickly. A small percentage are able to do it without slipping up. People recovering from anorexia may even start to binge as their body heals, and their sense of fullness is hard to understand as their body adapts and their hormones changing. A person recovering from bulimia or bingeing may dabble in anorexia by restricting themselves too much. Most all people recovering from an eating disorder will relapse, though not necessarily. Recovery is very hard because it involves emotions that are hard for a person to deal with.
5. It Makes You Selfish
An eating disorder DOES NOT mean you are a selfish person, so hear me out. Yet, it does make you selfish in the fact that your self-esteem is so low, you’ll use anything with your eating disorder to feel better about yourself. If that means hurting or excluding people you know, not eating with your family or doing something behind someone’s back, an eating disorder can make you very selfish. It’s as if something has control of you, versus you really being in control. That’s where the irony behind eating disorders exists. Though a person turns to it for control, you truly lack all control once under its spell.
6. It’s about Routine
If you’ll notice, a person with an eating disorder is all about routines. They must eat a certain way, at a certain time, a certain amount, or they might have special “food rules” they use with food. Again, it’s all about that control. The first step in helping someone recover is getting a new routine. This is one of the hardest things for someone recovering to do, and often the part that might make them relapse. For me, it was impossible for me to change my breakfast and dinner at first. It was completely out of my routine, and yet, I was made to do it. I cried several times, because I was literally afraid to eat something someone else had fixed. Though it seems silly now, trust me, a routine is sometimes one of the things that holds people with eating disorders under such a grasp.
7. It Can Be Deadly
Lastly, please don’t give up on whoever you know that has an eating disorder. I know you’ll get frustrated with them, but trust me, when they recover, you will be the person they want to enjoy their new life with. I couldn’t be more grateful for people that wanted to help me recover, not just stand back and tell me what I needed to do, and ask why I couldn’t do it. Eating disorders are deadly, and I almost died myself, until finally realizing my life depended on it. Most often, when victims feel like people have given up on them, that’s when they fall faster into the gulfs of their disorder.
I am so blessed to have recovered, though it took three full years to do so, from start to finish. I’m also eternally grateful to my family, who had a hard time understanding all of these things above, yet stood by me anyway. There were many fights and disputes along the way, but now, things are finally back to normal. I have a resources page on my personal blog, which you can find information about below, for resources for families as well. For professional help, I’ve also included a website for the National Association for Eating Disorders, also known as NEDA. If you have someone in your family with an eating disorder, what’s the hardest thing for you to understand? Or, if you’ve ever had an eating disorder, what things did your family have a hard time understanding?