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4 Things I Want Parents of Someone Struggling With an Eating Disorder to Know

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Dear Parent,

You might be concerned, scared or desperate after witnessing certain behaviors exhibited by your loved one. It could be something like avoiding dinner, hiding food, eating large amounts of food in secret or frequenting the bathroom after meals. At first, this may have seemed innocuous, but now it has become a bigger problem and you might not know how to help. I am not a parent, but I have heard from my mom and dad about their experience with my 11 year battle with anorexia and bulimia. And I want to share my experience with eating disorders and the things my parents wished they had known during the darkest years of my life.

1. You are not to blame for you loved one’s disorder.

My mom dreaded any family therapy session because she was worried she would be blamed for all my issues. She felt like my eating disorder meant she had failed as a parent. My mom and dad are not only amazing parents, but are also incredible people. They were far from perfect, but they did their best raising me and helping me the best way they knew how at the time. Sometimes, they did things that were not helpful and more hurtful. They had their own struggles because we are human and every one of us has the capacity for failure.

In those family therapy sessions, we were able to dive into unhealthy patterns that surrounded our family dynamic. When you are living each day a certain way and pick up certain habits, it becomes difficult to distinguish if that behavior is harmful. The family becomes accustomed to handling situations in this way as a unit. With my eating disorders, we all discovered ways each of us were contributing to unhealthy patterns, and with the help of a therapist, we learned how to better communicate our feelings and needs in a way that helped us grow in a positive direction. 

While my parents did certain things that were hurtful and contributed to an environment that enabled my eating disorders to flourish, they were not to blame for my eating disorders. For me, it was a culmination of various factors that created the perfect storm for my eating disorders to emerge and take a vicious hold on my life.

During this time, it is important to speak with love, listen with an open heart, and have a willingness to accept responsibility for actions that may not have been so helpful. You are human, and you are doing the best you can. Blaming yourself is not going to be helpful or healing for you, your family or your loved one.

2. Recovery is a marathon filled with ups, downs, constantly conflicting emotions and difficult decisions.

My parents fought for me when I refused to fight for myself. When I was 11, I was severely struggling with anorexia. I was entirely consumed with the exhaustion of fighting two sides: the side of me that was terrified, scared, and knew what was happening needed to stop, and the side of my eating disorder that promised happiness and healing from all the intense pain I was experiencing in my life. I was caught in the crosshairs of confusion, and I felt trapped in the very box that I knew would become my grave if I did not find a way out. I was losing air and my eating disorder was suffocating me. My parents opened the box and ran with everything they had to pull me out of the battle I was trapped in. My parents saved my life by making one of the most difficult decisions a parent can make for their child; they would not let me stay alone in my eating disorder, and they placed me in a hospital to bring me back to some sort of stability.

I would be lying if I said I did not hate my parents during that time. I was in a strange state of relief, confusion, and the intense desire to hang on to the very thing that was killing me. I felt like my parents had given up on me, when in reality, they did the only thing they knew they could do to help me. Deep inside, I knew my eating disorders were not only hurting myself, but they were hurting my family as well. Eventually, my anger subsided and turned into the most immense gratitude because I would not be alive today if my parents did not make the choices they did to try to help me. My parents did for me what I could not do for myself at the time. They were strong for me when I had no strength left inside. My parents gave me every opportunity to choose a happy, fulfilled life, with the hope that one day, I would be free from the disorders that threatened to take everything from me. My parents are my heroes.

When I was in therapy for bulimia, I had gone a long period of time without binging or purging, until one night, I was caught off guard and I engaged in the same behaviors that once helped me cope. I talked about it with my therapist and she asked if it felt different that time. I replied  “yes.” My therapist explained how I had a taste of what recovery was like, and that my eating disorders would not be the same “release” as they once were. Anytime I engaged in previous behaviors, it no longer helped me in the same way my new healthier coping strategies do.

If your loved one is showing you nothing but anger and contempt, please know with each day of recovery, that it will not last forever. I say this as someone who had absolutely no desire for recovery, someone who planned how I would execute going back to anorexia after I served my time in the hospital program. That desire faded as time passed and I worked through the pain I needed to address. 

It may take a long time, for me it was years, but the healing gradually came. Remember that your loved one is not their eating disorder.  I found clarity once I went through the process of separating my voice from my eating disorder’s voice. My anger then shifted from my parents to my eating disorder.

3.    Remember that an eating disorder is an external symptom of deeper underlying pain.

It can be incredibly easy to focus on what you see in front of you. My parents focused so much on my external behaviors that they did not stop to ask me what was going on internally. My parents wish they had known this during my recovery and relapses. When I came home from the hospital, my mom monitored all of my actions, without ever checking in with my emotions.   

She thought the best way to help me was to take over every action for me. If I wanted to go grocery shopping, she went without me. This made it more difficult for me to adjust in a world that does not adjust to those who have eating disorders. She believed shielding me from any temptation was the best way to help, and she did this without stopping to ask what I thought would be the most helpful for me. I needed someone to ask me what I was feeling inside. I needed there to be a greater focus on what was happening internally rather than externally.

If you see your loved one sliding back or engaging in behaviors again, look at it as a sign that something is happening for them emotionally. Take the focus and pressure off of the external and show them you care about more than their actions. There were many times I did not want to tell my parents what was going on inside, but it meant the world to me and showed me that they cared about me when they did ask.  This is not to say that you can’t confront your loved one if their behaviors are concerning, but make sure the focus is about how they are doing emotionally.

4.  Remember to practice self-care.

During my eating disorders, my struggles became the focal point of our family. My family bent over backwards trying to do everything to help me. This felt suffocating, even though I knew it was out of desperation to make sure they did not lose me.

As children, we learn how to cope with difficult situations from our parents. I never knew what self-care was until my therapist gave me homework to make a self-care box to use whenever my emotions were overwhelming. My family spent so much energy caring for me that they stopped taking care of themselves. This only added stress to an already stressful dynamic. 

What I wish my parents knew, was that it might have been healthier for me to see them taking care of themselves. They would have been a model to show me how to care for myself in a healthy way, and espouse the importance of making ourselves and our needs a priority. Since I have been able to have honest discussions with my parents about why I need to see them taking care of themselves, our relationship has become so much healthier and stronger. Self-care is not selfish. It is a necessity. Your needs are just as important during this time. Take the time that you need for you.

Recovery is a difficult choice to choose in the midst of battling an eating disorder. Many days, my eating disorder won. But it was empowering when my family celebrated the small battles I won. I can’t guarantee a full recovery for your loved one. Eating disorders are tricky and can emerge in the most unsuspecting ways. It is one of the most horrible truths about these illnesses. The best thing you can do is be supportive and loving during the battles those of us who struggle with eating disorders are facing. Celebrate health and love.

I know now, more than ever, that life is short, it is precious, and being present for the joys in life will carry us farther than we can imagine through difficult times.

I hope this is helpful and can open up a discussion between you and your loved one.

I’m rooting for you.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via Janie Airey. 

Originally published: July 27, 2017
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