What My Eating Disorder Taught Me About Supporting a Loved One With an Addiction
1. You did nothing to cause this, therefore, you cannot fix it.
There are so many factors that go into an addiction, many of which, have been years in the making. There are biological factors, environmental factors and situational factors. As the one on the other side of an addiction, you cannot take the responsibility and place it on your shoulders. It won’t help the one you love and it definitely won’t help you. There are structures and patterns of connections in my brain that have led me to be prone to my eating disorder. No one is to blame. You are not their savior. You cannot save them. You can only support them. Supporting is different than enabling which leads to the next point.
2. Supporting a loved one who is struggling shows them that you care and is the most important thing you can do.
Enabling them does neither of those. For a while, my family thought the best way to help me was to make sure that meal times were as easy and as “safe” for me as possible. As long as I was eating, I was getting better, right? However, over time, while I didn’t get worse, I didn’t get better either. I was still stuck in a world of fear where if I did not eat the same things every day, my anxiety sky rocketed. For over a year, I kid you not, I ate the exact same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything was planned and a lot of the time measured. But, I was eating. I couldn’t go out to a restaurant that did not post nutrition facts online for me to plan my meal ahead of time. But, I was going out. My day was planned around my workout times. But, at least, I did other things besides workout. It was the same hell, just with nicer wallpaper. I was not getting better. Not until those who loved me had to love me with tough love did I make real progress. They had to start living normally and pulling me along for the ride. I had to try new things and stop carrying around this mental rule book. I also had to stop exercising. And they have supported me through the days where I cry at dinner time or have to take a walk with someone so I do not run. They pick restaurants for me to try. They serve me my food so it is in “normal” portions that are not eaten from a measuring cup. They encourage me and love me for where I am, but love me enough not to leave me there.
3. Shame and guilt are the biggest enemies.
Many who struggle with an addiction (I cannot speak for everyone) have an immense amount of guilt and shame entangled in the way they see themselves, when they think about their lives or when they think about their addiction. Or if they are attempting to recover, they may think of how their addiction has and is affecting the ones they love most. I have heard it said, “Guilt says, ‘I have done something bad or wrong’ and shame says, ‘I am bad or there is inherently wrong with me.’” Guilt can lead to change. However, when it only leads to an avalanche of shame, it keeps the cycle going. And it is suffocating. Shame is why they try to hide it. Shame keeps it in the dark. Shame runs the show.
4. When they say things like, “It’s over. This is the last time it will ever happen. I’m done. I won’t do it again,” they’re not lying to you.
I have lost count of the number of times I have told my family, friends, and husband that I would stop, that I would take care of myself and make healthy choices. I have cried and cried and told them how sorry I was and that it would never happen again. I am tired of being tired. I won’t give into this anymore. This has stolen my life and I’m taking it back. I mean it this time. I am going to change. And then morning comes and I stumble. And I trip. And I fall…more like crash, actually. Bam, now I look like a liar. The feelings and the statements are genuine, but the follow through is a mountain to climb. Humans make mistakes. Don’t stop believing in someone because they fall. Trust them. Don’t trust the addiction. Separate the two and know that when they fall, they feel like a liar, a hypocrite and a failure. Accusations will only pile on the guilt and shame they bury themselves in.
5. They can’t just stop.
This addiction, this habit, took years to create. It started small, like a spark and has become a forest fire. What started as something that was “only a one-time thing,” has now enslaved them and is not letting go without a fight. It has become so engrained in their brain, it will take more than just deciding to stop for it to go away. Don’t let that deter you. It is more than a battle, it is a series of battles; it is a war. The war can be won, but it won’t happen overnight. Don’t give up and don’t let your loved one give up either. I was told that to find complete freedom from my eating disorder it would take a minimum of five years of consistent recovery. I have wanted to be free for four years now. Consistent recovery hasn’t happened until this year. So, in total, I am looking at a minimum of 10 years before I find total relief for myself and my family. Not a day goes by without at least a moment of thinking I just want to give up and go back to what I know best.
6. They do not continue in their addictive behaviors to spite you. However, their behavior, this addiction, can be their way of saying something.
The biggest factor in my recovery has been me finding and using my voice. For years, instead of taking what I was feeling and using it to figure out what I needed, I used my behaviors. I let my eating disorder do the talking. When I was hurt, angry, lonely or sad, I didn’t think about why. I just turned to my addiction. When I was anxious or upset, I didn’t talk to anyone about it, I just went out and ran forever. Instead of letting people know what it was that I needed, what I was going through, I clung to what had become my safe haven. Eating disorders are not about the food or the weight. Drug and alcohol addictions are not about the drugs and alcohol, etc. Listen to what the addiction is saying, to what the eating disorder is saying… there is something else going on.
7. Addictions have a point.
I have an anxiety disorder. I also have normal human needs, such as the need for connection, the need for belonging and the need for purpose. For me, the eating disorder, first of all, reduced my anxiety. Secondly, it either met some of my needs, gave me a feeling of belonging, purpose and control and served as a distraction. This didn’t just happen because I was bored, conceited or needed attention. There is a point to why it started. I have found when I work through what that is, the easier it is to not run back to the slave master that is my addiction. Addictions are unhealthy ways of meeting healthy and legitimate needs.
8. Be patient with yourself.
I asked my husband if there was something I have said, in trying to explain my struggle to him, that made it easier for him to understand. His response was that there was not anything that I have said that has helped as much as time has. Living with it day in and day out, learning through experience and seeing the struggle first hand has increased his understanding of what I go through. This takes time and patience. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help for yourself. I know it has been emotionally exhausting for my husband and without the support of our family and friends, we would not have made it this far. Take care of yourself too! Your needs are just as important. Which leads to my next point.
9. You are important. Your struggles are real, too.
Just because your loved one is struggling, does not mean they don’t care about what you are dealing with also. I continually remind my husband that I want to know what’s going on in his life, that hearing his burdens does not burden me. Yes, I am dealing with a lot, but that does not change the fact that I love my husband and would do anything for him (that’s legal). We all have something we wrestle or struggle with. We all have hard weeks. We all get stressed out. In fact, opening up and offering to them your own struggles, fears or worries may ease a loneliness that is so deep. It may lead to trust, for both involved, and create a connection. Connections are life lines.
10. Take it one day at a time and remind them to take it one day at a time also.
This one is kind of self-explanatory. Addictions and mental illnesses are difficult. However, one day at a time they can be managed and can be beaten, especially when you fight as a team.
And finally, I firmly believe that all of the above can be summed up in the following:
Love one another.
If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.
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