“Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.”Proverbs 4:23
As an eating disorder sufferer in recovery for years now, food issues are never far from my mind. It’s not just food for food’s sake; rather, it has more to do with what it represents.
At the height of my anorexia, food was constantly on my mind. I was particularly obsessed with recipes. I loved the ritual of preparing a dish, smelling the aroma, looking at how it filled the plate.Yet I never ate it. In fact, once I finished cooking, I would then place the contents in Ziploc bags and carry them to my family’s outdoor freezer. I’d never thaw out or eat what was in those baggies.
If you know anything about me, you probably know I’m a “Mad Men” fanatic. In a holiday-themed episode, we witness an exchange involving mother and daughter. A family member at the table asks the question, “Don’t you like your food?” And that prompted an uncomfortable force feeding session. Mother is shoving cranberries into daughter’s mouth- against daughter’s wishes.
And, even though none of the characters exhibited eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia in the storyline, it got me to thinking about how, once again, it is not the food itself, but rather what the food represents that makes things more tangled.
Observing this scene, I viewed the motivation between the mother-daughter force feeding; to me, it represented keeping the status quo of appearances. And it reminded me how family members often assumed the solution to my anorexia was “Just eat something!”
I had numerous battles with my mother especially when she repeatedly tried to ply me with cakes, cookies and pies. Sometimes I was defiant. I exerted my starvation rebellion. But, on other occasions, ravenous or obsessed, I indulged. And I remember seeing the look of relief and satisfaction on her face. It was as if my mother was saying, “There, problem solved.”
But the problem was far from solved.
Just within my own family dynamics alone, there was abuse, misogyny, unhealthy enmeshment relationships and addiction elements going on. Food was the coping mechanism used to escape and endure those things. Food was not just food. And it was insane to think that it could simply and instantly solve any of these deeper pre-existing problems.
Yet, that seems to be part of the expectation attached to the hope-laden statement, “Just eat something.” Desperation clings to those words, promising the instant happily ever after, the healed family, the restored peace, the lasting relief. Don’t face the truth, let alone, deal with it. Forget about getting family treatment, stopping toxic behaviors, re-learning healthier ones.
“Just eat something.”
And don’t think for a second resentment will not rear its ugly head within the eating disorder sufferer as he/she experiences this cure-all plea. Defiance, resilience and even more unhealthy behaviors will crop up; the sufferer will rebel. I know I did.
Because here’s another hidden meaning found in those three little words. “You are the problem and the only thing which needs to be fixed. Everything and everyone else is fine. You’re the only thing that needs to change. It’s your fault.” Really? All that? Yes, potentially so. It’s not about vilifying anyone. But it’s delusional and unfair to place all that is wrong and not working in a family solely on the shoulders of an eating disorder sufferer. This is scapegoating. It is painful and unhealthy.
As with any other addiction, it usually involves a more complex family dynamic. Yes, the individual who is anorexic, bulimic or in any other way struggling with food and body image issues is the most visible person affected. But he/she has been affected long before the starving, binging or purging. And he/she didn’t arrive there without help. The individual- and often other family members- often use food as the vehicle used to express and/or mask one’s values, frustrations and fears.
What does food represent? It’s an important question to answer. But, just as important of a question, if not more so, is “What does the eating disorder represent?” Are you paralyzed by fear, denial or anger? What don’t you want to see and deal with?
Resist the easy answer that “eating something” is, indeed, the answer to eating disorders. It goes much deeper. What is plaguing you now did not happen overnight. Likewise, the recovery, health and improvement will also take time. Nevertheless, it is possible to experience healing. Perhaps the phrase should be “just face something,” rather than “just eat something.”
Healing and the truth are intertwined. This applies to not just the individual, but the entire family as well. Eating disorders are life-threatening and widespread. They can touch both genders, all cultures, all socioeconomic backgrounds. Seeking treatment is vital and can be undermined through negative attitudes of loved ones. But a family commitment to recovery speaks volumes. Here’s some helpful advice if you or someone you love is struggling.
When You Want to Help Someone You Care About
What to do if…
If your child is younger than 18
Get professional help immediately. You have a legal and moral responsibility to get your child the care s/he needs. Don’t let tears, tantrums, or promises to do better stop you. Begin with a physical exam and psychological evaluation.
If the physician recommends hospitalization, do it. People die from these disorders, and sometimes they need a structured time out to break entrenched patterns.
If the counselor asks you to participate in family sessions, do so. Children spend only a few hours a week with their counselors. The rest of the time they live with their families. You need as many tools as you can get to help your child learn new ways of coping with life.
If your friend is younger than 18
Tell a trusted adult—parent, teacher, coach, pastor, school nurse, school counselor, etc.—about your concern. If you don’t, you may unwittingly help your friend avoid the treatment s/he needs to get better.
Even though it would be hard, consider telling your friend’s parents why you are concerned. S/he may be hiding unhealthy behaviors from them, and they deserve to know so they can arrange help and treatment. If you cannot bear to do this yourself, ask your parents or perhaps the school nurse for help.
If the person is older than 18
Legally the person is now an adult and can refuse treatment if s/he is not ready to change. Nevertheless, reach out. Tell her/him that you are concerned. Be gentle. Suggest that there has to be a better way to deal with life than starving and stuffing. Encourage professional help, but expect resistance and denial. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink—even when he is thirsty—if he is determined to follow his own path.
Some Things to Do…
•• Talk to the person when you are calm, not frustrated or emotional. Be kind. The person is probably ashamed and fears criticism and rejection.
•• Mention evidence you have heard or seen that suggests disordered eating. Don’t dwell on appearance or weight. Instead talk about health, relationships (withdrawal?), and mood.
•• Realize that the person will not change until s/he wants to.
•• Provide information. http://www.anred.com
•• Be supportive and caring. Be a good listener and don’t give advice unless you are asked to do so. Even then, be prepared to have it ignored.
•• Continue to suggest professional help. Don’t pester. Don’t give up either.
•• Ask: “Is what you are doing really working to get you what you want?”
•• Talk about the advantages of recovery and a normal life.
•• Agree that recovery is hard, but emphasize that many people have done it.
•• If s/he is frightened to see a counselor, offer to go with her the first time.
•• Realize that recovery is the person’s responsibility, not yours.
•• Resist guilt. Do the best you can and then be gentle with yourself.
Some Things Not to Do…
•• Never nag, plead, beg, bribe, threaten, or manipulate. These things don’t work.
•• Avoid power struggles. You will lose.
•• Never criticize or shame. These tactics are cruel, and the person will withdraw.
•• Don’t pry. Respect privacy.
•• Don’t be a food monitor. You will create resentment and distance in the relationship.
•• Don’t try to control. The person will withdraw and ultimately outwit you.
•• Don’t waste time trying to reassure your friend that s/he is not fat. S/he will not be convinced.
•• Don’t get involved in endless conversations about weight, food, and calories. They make matters worse.
•• Don’t give advice unless asked.
•• Don’t expect the person to follow your advice even if s/he asked for it.
•• Don’t say, “You are too thin.” S/he will secretly celebrate.
•• Don’t say, “It’s good you have gained weight.” S/he will lose it.
•• Don’t let the person always decide when, what, and where you will eat. She should not control everything, every time.
•• Don’t ignore stolen food and evidence of purging. Insist on responsibility.
•• Don’t overestimate what you can accomplish.
ANRED: When You Want to Help Someone You Care About. http://www.anred.com