How to Help a Loved One with an Eating Disorder
Sometimes my husband and I talk about his side of my nine-year struggle with bulimia. With nearly eight years of sobriety I'm in a place now where I don't feel embarrassed by the details of my past-yes, it still makes me cringe but it has shaped who I am today. The struggle has built strength and for that I can appreciate the journey, though I would not wish it on anyone.
My husband has been by my side from the very beginning. We started dating when I was 19, just as I was recovering from anorexia only to plunge deep into a battle with bulimia. I struggled for nine years and he witnessed the deepest, darkest moments of my struggle and loved me through it. Hopefully our conversation can provide insight and hope.
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What was the most difficult part of watching me struggle with anorexia and then bulimia?
I think the hardest part was the hopelessness of it all; that coupled with my utter powerlessness to do anything to get you to stop throwing up. Listening didn't work. Holding you accountable or feigning anger when you would confess to me that you had thrown up didn't work either. Prayer, both privately and publicly, altar calls, listening to preaching, singing all the right songs did nothing. Seeing you do all the right things: personal devotion time with prayer and Bible reading, scripture memorization and intense detailed journaling faithfully, day after day after day and not seeing any change became so frustrating.
[I’ve grown and matured in many ways since then, one being my faith. Ultimately I learned the lesson that we cannot “fix” ourselves or gain God’s approval through prayer, scripture memorization or personal devotion-these things have value, but they are not the solution. The more my perception of God changed from a heavy handed judge to a gracious and loving father, the better I understood the freedom He offers and ultimately learned to live in that freedom. ]
Ultimately, I had lost hope for you. I can remember after years of being in this with you from time to time you would confess your binges and purges to me. I can remember just sitting there feeling frozen, silent and discouraged completely empty of answers. I had no idea what to do to help you. That same sinking feeling would hit me at every party or family meal gathering when I realized that it had been long time since you left the table and I could see a crack of light under the bathroom door. Often, I wanted to shame you in that moment, to bang on the bathroom door and demand that you come out and everyone at the gathering would know what was going on. I wanted to do this not out of spite for you, but because perhaps there was a small chance it would help. But, I knew it wouldn't and I could never do anything like that to you.
In retrospect what do you wish you had or had not done?
I wish I didn't let my own discouragement both with you and myself get in the way of helping you. I realize now that the reason why I was so discouraged about your situation- and it should be pretty clear from my above explanation, was that I was pretty wrapped up in myself as well. There are all sorts of explanations about myself that I could go into here, but what I wish I had done was to be involved in professional counseling with you. I think a professional would have been able to identify my problems and coach me on ways I could get outside myself in order to better help you.
What were some of the things you did to help me?
Looking back, I'm not really sure what I did if anything that helped you. I just did the best I could to love you, be patient with you and never leave your side. Although, ironically when you finally were able break free of all this I wasn't completely by your side. I was starting to fall apart myself. You ultimately made the last few strides out of your darkness mostly on your own. This is one of my biggest regrets.
[I heaped so much shame on myself during this time of my life that to have someone simply love me, accept me and be willing to encourage me despite what I was doing to myself was a breath of fresh air. I needed Mark to be that. I needed to know that he still loved me even when I hated myself. His commitment to me in that time: to love me, be patient with me and never leave my side was exactly what I needed. Some people struggling with addiction respond to ultimatums and “tough love," but more often than not people who struggle with addiction (eating disorders included) feel deep shame. They are ashamed of themselves, of what they are doing and probably a multitude of other things of which they may not even be aware. The anecdote to shame is love and complete acceptance, from that place you can approach them with the gravity of their addiction, but it HAS to come from a place of love first.]
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Was there anything that I did that helped you better understand what I was going through?
You were always very open. I am under the impression that you always told me everything. There may have been long spaces [between confessions], but you were constantly confessing to me in detail what you had done, what you were thinking, as well as what were your triggers. You had a lot of maturity and courage in this area.
[I was never completely honest with my husband, although he feels I was. The severity and frequency of some of my bulimic behavior I kept to myself. I would tell him the watered down version occasionally, but it was usually weeks or months after the behavior had transpired. And I don’t think I ever really talked about the shame I felt. I talked about the discouragement and the frustration I had with myself. I talked about the way I felt about my body. But I never talked about the deep shame I felt.]
What advice would you offer others in your position, watching someone they love struggle with an eating disorder?
Besides the obvious, like loving the other person you need to be careful what you say about their appearance. You certainly NEVER make disparaging remarks about physical appearance and even positive comments should be constructed in a way that is not "bodycentric" such as "your arms look good in that shirt" or even, "you look like you have lost weight" Stick comments that are true and speak more towards her entirety.
[I completely agree with this. When I was recovering from anorexia and gaining weight I would constantly hear “Sarah, you look great.” People genuinely meant it. But I heard “Sarah, you look fat.” Even when my husband would tell my I looked gorgeous or beautiful, I didn’t believe him. I thought he was just saying that to try to encourage me. Sometimes those comments felt like pitty phrases, just tossed out there to help me “feel better” about myself. The truth is that no amount of external praise or positive comments can help someone who’s internal thinking is so distorted that they cannot see the truth about themselves. That distorted thinking has to be addressed before someone can hear the remark, “You are beautiful!” and believe it is true.]
Perhaps the most important is seeking professional help with that person. The person who is suffering from the eating disorder should be seeing a counselor independently, but It would be helpful for you to seek regular sessions together with that same counselor. Very few people have the maturity the skill set and courage that it takes to help a loved one break the powerful bonds of addiction.
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I struggled for nine years with anorexia and bulimia and have now been free since 2009. It was not an easy journey, for each step forward there were as many, if not more steps back. The two things that ultimately helped me were professional counseling and holding on to the hope that I could fully recover. There were many professionals, doctors, counselors and nutritionists who told me that I would always struggle. Today, I do not struggle…they were wrong. Changing the way I perceived my eating disorder was helpful too, when I began to approach it as an addiction and not as a disease or struggle things began to shift for me towards healing and freedom.
If someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder or you suspect disordered thinking in regards to body image and food, please love and support them and encourage them seek professional help.
You can find a list of resources HERE.
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