This is a special blog in advance National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb 26th – March 3rd) and an upcoming free workshop, When Your Loved One has an Eating Disorder: Helping Them Heal on the Road to Recovery. You can find details about all of our upcoming NEDAWeek events at the end of the post.
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Guilt. Shame. Frustration. Sadness. Fear. Anger. These are just some of the emotions commonly experienced and expressed by support people when someone they love is struggling with an eating disorder (ED). While each family experiences an ED, and the recovery process, in a unique way, there can be some commonalities that are important to talk about. Attending support groups, information sessions, and community workshops facilitated by treatment professionals are all great ways for support people to gain understanding and insight into the difficult journey their loved one is on. It’s also a great way for family and friends to get feedback and support around their own feelings while they help their loved one navigate their way back to health. A few of the most common struggles faced by family members are discussed below.
Often times, parents and caregivers feel guilty and express concern that they may be to blame for their loved one’s eating disorder.
It can be terrifying for caregivers to find out that their loved one has an ED, especially as they begin to understand the level of suffering that comes with that. A common reaction among parents is self-blame or intense guilt over the possibility that they may have contributed to their daughter’s or son’s illness. This guilt can understandably create resistance or defensiveness and can be paralyzing for loved ones in the treatment process. As long as the focus remains on “It’s all my fault.” it can be difficult to move towards “How can we as a family work together to support our loved one’s recovery?”
While these illnesses have a complex combination of contributing factors, research has found them to be highly heritable, meaning 50-80% of one’s risk for developing an ED is dependent upon genetic factors. It’s important for families to receive reassurance that they are not to blame for their loved one’s illness while understanding that there are important ways they can help in the recovery process. In fact, evidence-based treatment of EDs suggests educating family members and involving them in the treatment process greatly improves outcomes. By identifying ways in which the ED has affected the family functioning and discussing dynamics that may be maintaining some of the person’s symptoms, families can work together towards improved communication, positive interactions and healing that extends far beyond the eating disorder.
Support people often feel anxious or frustrated about what to say vs. what not to say to a loved one with an eating disorder. This can lead to fear that they are making their loved one worse because they don’t know how to respond in difficult situations involving food or body image. Support people report that they often feel that they are “walking on eggshells” around their friend or family member with the eating disorder.
One of the most common examples of this dilemma occurs during the recovery process when support people may say something like “You look so much healthier,” but it is interpreted as “You look fat”. Anyone who has been through an ED will tell you that they often feel irritable, and so much of their energy and time is spent thinking about weight and food that most comments people make about their appearance will automatically be construed in a negative way, even when they come from a place of care and concern. Alternative comments that may be easier for your loved one to hear as they recover might be, “I’ve noticed you have a lot more energy lately” or “It is so nice to see you smiling today.” One of the most helpful things support people can do is to communicate with their loved one by asking for a specific list of things that they can say or do that would be helpful to them when they are struggling. Examples of things that are triggering or are not helpful to recovery could be useful as well. Keep in mind that these lists may change at various points in the recovery process; communicate and revise often.
Also important to note: supporting someone through recovery from an ED is uniquely difficult compared to some other illnesses because of the cultural environment we live in. Our society encourages and applauds hyper vigilance around weight, food and perfection yet recovery from an ED involves giving up some level of control over all three of those things. Learning to filter unhelpful information and help your loved one resist damaging cultural messages about weight/food can feel like an uphill battle. However, it does get easier with continued education about media literacy and guidance from therapists and registered dietitians who specialize in treating individuals with EDs.
Support people are often so worried about the individual with the eating disorder that they focus 100% their energy on their loved one’s safety and recovery. It becomes very easy to forget to seek their own support, neglect to keep up with their own self-care or let other personal priorities fall to the wayside. This can lead to mounting feelings of exhaustion, depression or hopelessness.
Helping a loved one through the process of recovery from an ED can feel all-encompassing, especially when it’s your child or a spouse. It often must become the family’s priority to get them back to a place of safety and stability, both physically and mentally. However, support people can only offer stable, strong support when they are caring for themselves and staying stable, strong and rested themselves. It’s important for caregivers to stay connected to their own friends, to seek out their own support and to set aside time to replenish themselves emotionally. It could be as simple as sending a quick email to a friend every night before bed or scheduling a day trip to a favorite place. Whatever it is, remember the advice you get when you fly…you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can effectively help those around you.
The truth is recovery can be a challenging process for all involved. Even as progress is made, there are often set-backs or plateaus that can be confusing and frustrating . Can you relate to the experiences discussed above? Did you encounter other difficulties and roadblocks while learning to support a loved one in recovery? Leave us a comment below or join in the discussion on our Facebook page.
At the Center for Eating Disorders, we recognize that there is a special need for education and support for the supporters themselves. When Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder: Helping Them Heal on the Road to Recovery is a FREE workshop designed to help family members and friends receive specialized education about EDs and their treatment, as well as insight into various care giving tools that can help facilitate the recovery process. Check out the details below, and don’t forget to RSVP by calling (410) 427-3886.
MARCH 1st, 2012 ~ When Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder: Helping Them Heal on the Road to Recovery [download the event flyer], 7:00 – 8:30 pm in Baltimore, MD
Visit our Events Page for a full listing of upcoming events, including our NEDAWeek kick-off event, Invisible Victory: An Athlete’s Story of Hope & Triumph in Eating Disorder Recovery.