I have sat in my counseling room so many times watching a person struggling with an eating disorder sob in a way that would break any heart.
They are frustrated.
They are tired.
They are alone.
At least it feels that way because there is no safe space to go to. You see, when you are struggling with an eating disorder the world can be a very scary place.
You can’t go out to meals with your friends because the conversation so quickly turns to diets and exercise. You can’t decide what you want to eat at a restaurant because all of the calories listed on the menu stare back at you like a blaring condemnation. You can’t go to the doctor because finding out you have gained or lost weight could send you spiraling back into all of your eating disorder behaviors (fun fact- you don’t HAVE to be weighed at your doctors office…you can refuse). Many of my clients feel like they can’t even turn to their families or closest friends because “they just don’t get it…they just don’t get that I would get better if I could.”
I have heard painful stories of yelling, crying, and screaming matches. Loved ones trying so desperately to make the sufferer well. And so often these reactions from loved ones result in the person who is suffering isolating even further into their eating disorder.
I understand the reaction from family members, so often it is coming from a space of fear. A space of not knowing what else to do. A space of having our own junk to work on.
This feeling of not belonging, is true across the eating disorder diagnosis spectrum, I often have people stop me and ask how they should “handle” their loved one who is “overeating.” My answer is usually, “ummm love them, listen to them, and be supportive of them.” Which is ironically, my same answer that I give for people supporting a loved one through recovery with “undereating.” I use quotes around both of these terms because they are often what I hear from concerned family and friends. It is a popular misconception that you can tell how a person eats or whether they are healthy by looking at their body. This thinking also leads to another common misconception, that you can diagnose a person with an eating disorder by looking at their body.
Your loved one needs support no matter what size body they are in and they need you to know that they are trying to recover.
As a therapist that specializes in eating disorders, I know that it is tough to support someone through the recovery process. It can be a long road to healing and sometimes the measure of progress seems so small. I have celebrated victories with clients that, to many, would look so minimal but to my client are momentous.
So know your loved one is trying. They want to get better. They would do anything to feel better and be able to live a life unencumbered by eating disorder thoughts. Your loved one is not their eating disorder. They did not choose this.
If you are walking alongside someone during this road to recovery, I strongly encourage you to do your own work with a counselor who is trained in working with eating disorders. I often encourage family members to get their own help and they are resistant. They are worried they might be blamed. Let me assure you this isn’t your fault either. Most of my clients have incredible spouses and families. Doing your own work is not intended to figure out what you did to cause this. Doing your own work allows you some safe space to be able to navigate this tough journey.
Remember, your loved one is trying. They would “just……” if they could. Listen to them. Hear them. You don’t have to fix this. Find a trained support team and remember your loved one can recover, it just might take a lot of work to get there but they are trying even when it looks like they are giving up. They are trying.