Dear Family Member,
I’m so sorry to hear that someone you care about is experiencing an eating disorder. That is tough for all involved, and my heart goes out to you.
I don't know how you have become aware of this. Perhaps the person involved has shared this with you? Or you have discovered some behaviours which have confirmed your suspicion? Maybe it has come out of the blue as a diagnosis from a professional, or you have been living with this as a family for a while and you are now at your wits end?
Wherever you are at with this as a family, I expect that you are a mix of scared, frustrated, concerned and most likely feeling helpless. Please know that the person you care about shares many of these feelings too - they just deal with them in different ways. Ways that probably don't make sense to you, that maybe even seem ridiculous, but they make sense to the person you care about - which is why they are doing what they are doing. I know that it is hard to watch. I know you want to scream, shout at, maybe even shake the person you love. I know how hard it is to hold all that in (even if sometimes you're not able to, and your emotions come out in all their messy glory). It IS hard. I also know that you are doing the best you can, just as I know the person you love is also doing the best that they can at this point in time.
Perhaps I can offer some guidance. I lived with eating disorders myself for many years. I completely recovered from them, and now I work with others, helping them find recovery. Certainly, I will do my best to offer some words which I hope in some way may help.
1. Stay hopeful
First and foremost, I would urge you to stay hopeful - even if at times it all seems hopeless. Full recovery from an eating disorder IS possible and hold onto that belief, no matter what you are told, or how impossible that seems. Everyone’s eating disorder is different, everyone’s recovery is different. Recovery is not linear. But full recovery IS possible. For every person who tells you otherwise, or tells you that the person you love will get to a better place but always have to live with it in some way, seek out evidence of full recovery. I lived with mine for over 15 years. I'm lucky to still be here, but I am here to tell the tale and with an attitude to food and my body now that is healthier than many many people who have never experienced an eating disorder. There are many others like me and it no longer hangs over us in any shape or form. Remember, full complete recovery is possible.
2. It's likely to be a rough trip
Like I said, recovery is not a linear process. And realistically things may get worse before they get better. There will be bumps in the road and most likely there will be relapses. You will reach times when you think its all over, and you will find out that your loved one is still actually dealing with it, or has relapsed. And you didn't know. BUT these ups and downs are all part of the recovery process. Each set back can be a real opportunity for the person to learn the triggers, and to strengthen their resilience to keep choosing recovery. You heart will sink and you'll despair, but it will be nothing compared to the despair and turmoil that your loved one will be feeling. YOU may need to be the person that reminds them that set backs do not mean failure. YOU may need to reassure them how far they have come. In order to do this you must learn not to compare where they currently are with where you feel they should be.
3. Remember your step B might be their step Z
What might seem simple, easy or obvious to you, might seem impossible for them at the moment. It doesn't mean they won't get there, but they're not there just now. So please keep away from any advice that starts with 'Why don't you just.....?', 'why can't you just.....?' or 'it's simply a case of......'. That thing they did which maybe seemed like nothing to you, might have been a MASSIVE triumph for them, so pushing them to do even more, or not acknowledging their progress may increase their stress further or cause them to feel that they have failed. This is their marathon (heck, their Everest), and it takes consistent work at a steady progress. Too much too soon may cause relapse, resistance towards recovery or stop them coming to you for support.
4. Getting help might initially be more stressful for them
Often when the person starts to receive treatment and / or support, family members feel relief that things will now get better. Your loved one may actually feel worse, and might also seem to become worse in their behaviours. They will have been living with their eating disorder experiences for far longer than you will have known about them. It has become a norm for them in so many ways (even if it also distresses them). Changing that is scary. In addition, eating disorders are usually secretive, so while there can be relief in opening up, there can also be some distress involved in no longer having their secret. It's also typical for people to feel judged, watched, shameful, pressurised in the aftermath of telling someone. All of that adds to the stress they are already feeling about food and their body. It will settle.
5. See the person inside
Please please please do your best to see the person you love and not just the eating disorder. They are living this 100% of the time - as I’m sure you are too - but they do also have some kind of life outside of the eating disorder and a personality outwith it. It’s really really important to keep in touch with life outwith the ED - and that includes you too! For your loved one it gives them moments of time to remember how, and who, they are without an ED. It gives them motivation to do more of that and to choose their healthy self, not their eating disorder self. When those little pockets of time away from it increase, the momentum of recovery happens. Remember that the behaviours that you see are just that, behaviours. They are not the person's identity or personality, but a coping strategy. As new, healthier, coping strategies are learnt the behaviours will change.
6. Watch your language
Never ever ever say to your loved one anything along the lines of ‘You look well / better / healthy’. Even if they do, please refrain from saying it. You will want to, but to someone with an eating disorder it is a loaded statement. The might interpret it as meaning they look fat, or no longer needing support, or it might be confirmation that they weren't acceptable as they were before. It's a complex statement, and difficult for someone to understand who has not been there. But it is potentially a relapse trigger. Keep any compliments related to specific things - for example, like ‘the colour of your shirt is lovely’, ‘I like how you’ve done your hair’.
7. People recover when they are ready to recover, but the majority do find recovery
This may be the hardest advice of all, but I feel it is so important to say. Someone with an eating disorder will seek recovery, and recover, only when they are actually ready to do it. As a family member it can be heartbreaking to watch, and to feel helpless. But accepting that the only person that can make them better is that person themselves, may actually help you become more able to support them. When someone is ready to recover they will seek out what they need and they WILL eventually find it. That might be self help books, therapy, positive role models, alternative therapies or even something way deep inside themselves that somehow tells them how to. I have seen this time and time again - when someone is ready to recover, they will. The prelude to this might be various attempts and various levels of success and set backs but eventually most people do find a level of recovery. Remember that: the vast majority of people do find a good level of recovery. You may not be able to help them as you want, you may not be the person at the centre of helping their recovery (often family members aren't), but you will be a support to them. An important support. Loving them, DESPITE the eating disorder can be one of the hardest thing you do, but the most loving thing you can do. Its doesn't mean that you give up on them recovering, or that you accept the eating disorder. Have conversations with them about it. Do your best to understand, ask them to help you understand. But you cannot make them recover. Only they can recover. And when you feel helpless again (which you will), you must remember that the majority of people do recover, and that full recovery is possible.
I hope that what I have said has been in some way helpful. I certainly don't have all the answers, but I do understand.
The charity BEAT are a great resource, if you need more guidance or want to talk to someone about the situation so I have set out their details below.
Caroline Toshack x
"BEAT is the UK’s eating disorder charity. They are a champion, guide and friend to anyone affected by eating disorders, giving individuals experiencing an eating disorder and their loved ones a place where they feel listened to, supported and empowered". You can find out more about them and details of the support they offer at https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
Hi, I'm Caroline. I personally lived many years with various eating and exercise disorders. I am now completely 100% well and fully enjoying life. Full, complete recovery from an eating disorder is possible.