During my recovery from my eating disorder the support I received outside of healthcare services was of vital importance. However, knowing what to do can be challenging. The process and persistence of an eating disorder can be frustrating and difficult to understand. Additionally, initially approaching the subject can be an especially tricky minefield to navigate; the potential for this to go wrong and push the sufferer deeper into the secretive and hidden aspect of the disorder presents. It could however, if managed well or pursued gently over a duration of time, help be the first step in getting the person you care about much needed professional support and help. The sooner an eating disorder is treated the more chance there is for full recovery, but knowing when and how to confront an eating disorder can be difficult.
Throughout my eight years of enduring eating disorders I have been confronted many times by friends, teachers and nurses. There are however, a few occasions which were the most poignant:the first set of incidences being classic examples of how to not confront an eating disorder.
I was 15 and suffering with bulimia. My parents’ approach was to semi-confront me a few times in passing with jokes and remarks about being an anorexic “food dodger”. I’m sure you can see in which direction this is heading. After going largely unnoticed for some period of time my mum saw my diary and couldn’t resist a read within which was detailed my thoughts and feelings about the misery of life, food, and accompanying charts, lists and graphs orientated around my obsessions: and so commenced the first offence in ‘operation, shout out the eating disorder’.
I was in my room doing my homework. My Dad came in. Some recipes that I had torn out of lifestyle magazines and Sunday papers were casually scattered on the floor amongst the usual teenage mess. “well these aren’t much of a surprise are they? What do you want these for? It’s not so you can cook them is it?”
I was caught off guard and entirely clueless. “Uhhmmm…what do you mean?”
“Oh you know what I mean…” I didn’t but it soon became apparent.
I sat frozen at my core, scribbling in my book. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t look up; I was scared, intimidated. I was frozen for a long time whilst he was confronting me, but what was said I do not know because looking back, I froze and probably off mentally from the situation. This is likely the time when they proceeded to confiscate my diary and took me to the GP. What I do remember though is that this approach did nothing to make me want to talk about it. It did nothing to make me want to get better and furthered the shame of my ‘defectiveness’.
I suppose frustrations grew because the next confrontation was a joint effort of an attack on the offense. I was in my room, sat on the floor by the radiator. They both came bursting in by surprise followed by accusatory shouts silencing me to shame and fear. When I did get the chance to speak, it was too late. I had again frozen and mentally departed. I just remember snippets and blurred snapshots of vision.
The exact sequence of events escapes me but I remember they stood above me shouting and my mum thrusting pictures of extremely skeletal women in front of me. How could I do this to her? Is this what I wanted? I was scared and intimidated. Curling up I could only muster a “go away” in repeat, to which my mum grabbed me and tried to “shake some sense into me”. Petrified, I do not remember the rest of that night. At some point it ended. I am not sure when or how but it obviously did.
I knew from these experiences with my parents that talking about it, my feelings, my thoughts, would not be tolerated. It wasn’t about me, it was about me doing this on purpose to hurt them. It was about misbehaving and trying to seek revenge or attention. I was just being “fucked up”, apparently.
In time I mastered keeping it a secret and covering up my life: they didn’t want to know and I didn’t want them to know. It was a dirty and shameful secret. Although my GP was nice, and I proceeded through CAMHS and then an adult charity service to see therapists for 3 years. I remained afflicted by my disorder. I gained control of my bingeing and purging behaviour but the eating disorder remained.
So what was wrong with these approaches? Why was this approach so bad and detrimental?
There are many ‘Do’s Don’ts’ in approaching someone you suspect has an eating disorder. An eating disorder is relatively little to do with food and quite a lot about emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, coping and control, amongst other deep-rooted difficulties. By screaming and intimidating me I did not feel safe. I couldn’t talk about what was happening for me, and it was portrayed that I was being bad, and that now I looked ‘disgusting’. From this I learned the importance of keeping it more secret than ever and making more effort to hide it more effectively. I was not ready to recover and this approach didn’t help me believe that it would be better to do so.
By violating the privacy of, and confiscating, my diary they removed the one form of expression that I had for myself and my emotions. For some people with eating disorders there can be a deep difficulty in expressing and managing difficult emotions: this rang true for me. So not only was my coping mechanism “bad behaviour” but then I had the one coping mechanism that I did have for self-expression tarnished, violated and confiscated. In addition, I would get into trouble for the contents of my diary, for feeling suicidal or depressed and other such private matters. I was trapped and silenced. Everything I was experiencing had to stay silently inside of me.
The tone within which the subject was addressed was highly aggressive and accusatory. Blaming me for “doing this to them” and addressing me with stigmatising, ignorant and shaming “jokes” made at the expense of my mental illness did nothing to quell the shame I felt and furthering feelings of defectiveness: thus essentially exacerbating the shameful, guilty and failure driving aspects behind the eating disorder.
The effects of these attitudes and approaches perhaps furthered the entrenchment within the secrecy of the disorder that I experienced. My eating disorder, for as ironic as it may seem, was a method of coping and thus surviving a difficult time. From this approach I learned that I had to become more secretive in order to survive and protect my eating disorder. An eating disorder can be a terribly isolating and lonely existence as a sufferer withdraws and feels incapable of joining in with everyday activities and socialising at meals, parties and lunch times. The shame I felt in experiencing such a ‘defect’ made my self-hate grow and my self-esteem shrivel entirely. I learned that my feelings did indeed not matter, and thus became entirely emotionally and personally invalidated again furthering my psychological complexes that led to the development of the eating disorder. In summary, this approach and similar tactics of guilt-tripping the sufferer, of shaming the sufferer or of intimidating the sufferer with fear only exacerbates the existing difficulties being experienced.
Next time I will talk of a later experience of being confronted about my disordered eating again. This time it was by my partner who, on the contrary to this experience, provided support, relief and safety. In the meantime below are some relevant and helpful links.