In my previous post I spoke about how to NOT confront someone you suspect may be suffering from an eating disorder. This may seem like a negative angle because really, the most helpful thing would be to explain the how TO confront someone. However, I felt it was too important to ignore the effects of a hostile approach. I didn’t want to glide over the issue you see.
The second time that my eating disorder became problematic my partner noticed and subsequently confronted me. The truth is, between stopping the binge/purge cycles of bulimia and developing anorexia my eating disorder pathology hadn’t healed. The behaviours were somewhat controlled, but the underlying disturbances remained.
We were living together and had been for almost a year. I had started to become overwhelmed and old habits crept into routine. I lost weight, felt the initial pleasures that the disorder has to offer and boom, before I knew it what had been a wet mossy bank that I could navigate in a jagged succession on my own feet became a sweeping water slide that engulfed my everything. I hid behind denial but there came a point when, ‘I’m not hungry‘ didn’t cut it any longer as not only had I changed around food but my mood, temperament and entire person became affected.
‘Babe, I’m concerned about you because you’ve changed around food. I’m worried because of what you told me about before, are you OK?’
Anorexia spoke for me, ‘Nope. No, absolutely not, nothing to see here. I don’t know what you’re talking about at all. I’ve lost weight? Well, what a surprise. It must have been an accident‘
So let’s play a game: ‘Spot The Difference’.
1. When she brought up the subject she tried to make it feel as comfortable and less awkward as she could.
Why is this important?
It was my secret. It was my hidden gem for coping that I didn’t want to talk about. Also talking about emotionally raw difficulties can be awkward enough but by providing me with a place and tone of safety she made me feel enough at ease to open up and talk a little – and progressively more so. I could actually talk about it. Wow!
2. Her approach used ‘I’, ‘I’m concerned about you because…‘ instead of, ‘you are…a freak/attention seeking/fucked up!’
Why is this important?
I didn’t feel attacked by her approach so I didn’t recoil. She was gentle, kind and caring in her approach instead of passive aggressive remarks with no clarity, or, as it resulted in finally, aggressive outbursts. Her reasons for confronting me about it seemed more rational and justifiable even to my unwell mind.
3. Openness. She was frank yet sensitive in her approach. This meant that for the entire duration of my eating disorder whilst living with her, and even now, we can talk about it. I can say if I feel triggered for example. Whilst I was unwell too, I could outright say, ‘I’m uncomfortable’ or ‘this food scares me’ and it was OK. We would talk about it.
Why is this important?
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. They are by their very nature a secretive and hidden disorder. Pretending it does not exist basically allows behaviours to escalate and worsen behind closed doors, causing more distress as the disorder becomes entrenched. I still struggled but the distress was less because I could talk. We were able, together, to tackle the disorder and negotiate it out of my life; honesty had become safe. Previously however, I was shamed, furthering feelings of defectiveness and embarrassment entrenching the root cause of the disorder, and subsequently making it worse. Being open doesn’t mean that we didn’t acknowledge my partners feelings about it ever too. Sometimes she would cry, then sometimes we would both cry: but it was open and that meant we could support one another.
4. Acceptance of the situation. I was not punished nor penalised privately nor publicly for having an eating disorder.
Why does this matter?
People with eating disorders lie about food. They lie about what they have eaten, what they weigh, and sometimes maybe where they have been for example, if they’ve been out binging and purging they will try to hide it and say something more along the lines of shopping. This is not the person speaking. This is the illness. This is important. Additionally, if I ate all the food in a binge she never once shouted at me. She would ask “what happened?”, “was I OK?”, “is this food difficult to have in the house at the moment?”. Sufferers really do feel shit enough after a binge, and although it may be frustrating that all the ice cream and bread has gone, trust me, in their minds they’re mentally lashing themselves with bladed whips. An eating disorder is an illness, not a spiteful vengeance of bad behaviour and saying, ‘just eat/don’t eat it’ really is a slap in the face to the suffering and reality of what an eating disorder is. We did have boundaries though; I was going to binge, I was going to purge and I was going to eat very little so, for example, we agreed that I would try to only purge in the toilet and preferably when she was out, and to at least eat ‘something’ throughout the day even if it was small.
5. She came to the Dr with me, and advocated positively with my consent. When I wanted to see the Dr on my own, I had privacy. Most importantly, that privacy was respected.
Why does this matter?
I needed support in asking for help. I didn’t want to stop losing weight, but I did want to feel happier. I was unable to see that being so underweight was unhealthy. I wasn’t quite in denial, but I was definitely defensive of my un-secret secret. By coming with me she made sure I received the professional help I needed and that I attended appointments. Had I been on my own the temptation to go to the front door and not walk through it might have been too great. Additionally, she knew that I would tell her what I felt like telling her from the appointments and I would not tell her what I didn’t. This respect for privacy built trust.
If she felt that she needed to contact the health care professionals out of concern for me, she would tell me and explain her reasoning. Despite my reluctance at times, there has not been one time where trust was broken. This eased the unnecessary stresses from the situation whereas my parents would sneak around and lie 24/7, including to health care professionals in order to manipulate my care – and that was never OK.
6. She listened when she confronted me.
Why does it matter?
I was a person and she wanted to listen! She valued what I had to say, what I felt and what I thought. She wanted to understand as much as she could to help me. A lot of the time an eating disorder is a method of coping. When we have no one to talk to, are invalidated repeatedly or ignored then there is no vent. It builds up. It ruminates. It becomes problematic and we become entirely devalued people of no worth but not this time. Not only was I given the time of day but she truly wanted to know what was genuinely best for me. This helped me to feel safe in expressing myself to her, thus helping the process for acceptance and healing.
This was just the beginning of a long journey, and some of the most significant aspects of her approach that made my experience of confiding in her, and thus battling my eating disorder with support, most manageable. It remained challenging, but the difference that this approach made to my journey from the start was phenomenal.
However, although this approach worked for me every sufferer is an individual and people vary. These ways that I found most useful and comfortable as an approach may not be the same as your loved one’s experience and feelings. If you are concerned about someone some other sites that may help for further information are: