“This excruciating business of food…”
That was the statement, uttered by legendary writer, Virginia Woolf’s husband concerning her disordered eating issues.
In a recent article, Emma Woolf explores the eating disorder tendencies of her famous great aunt, including observations and statements from a concerned Leonard over his troubled wife:
“…he did not call his wife anorexic, but said ‘there was always something strange, something slightly irrational in her attitude towards food…'”
When I read the article, I thought of my husband. How many times did he, in fact, echo that same frustrated, baffled sentiment about my behavior? I write about our relationship in my book, “Thin Enough: My Spiritual Journey Through the Living Death of an Eating Disorder.”
“…The prospect of someone being close enough to truly know me was scary. I knew that, sooner or later, I would have to tell him the ugly truth about myself.
Moving from dating to engagement was difficult for me… Every time we went out to eat, I’d pretend not to have issues with food and weight. I hated feeling like a liar, but I was scared that he’d reject me if he knew the truth. What man, in his right mind, looks for all of this mess in a mate? I knew when I told him that he wouldn’t want me anymore. It bothered me constantly. He sensed something was wrong, of course and asked me about it. What do I tell him?
As we prepared for our wedding, I finally mentioned to him that I had a secret I wasn’t ready to share with him yet. Of course, he was curious and wanted to know right then and there, but he displayed patient understanding. He told me that he loved me and that it didn’t matter what it was. He didn’t pressure me to tell him. He knew there was a secret and left it at that. Even though his response helped me feel freer and safer, I still felt guilt pulling at me. I began wanting to tell him. After all, he’d been so incredible with everything else I’d told him. He knew about my family secrets. He knew all about my weaknesses aside from the eating disorders. He knew about all that yet still chose to love me. But I kept thinking, ‘don’t press your luck…’
…The time for truth came a couple of weeks after we were married. It was our first Thanksgiving together, and we had been married for only twelve days… Russ and I did the cutesy newlywed couple ‘this is the first mashed potatoes we’ve made together’ and ‘this is our first stuffing and cranberry sauce’ thing. We both ate our holiday feast, and I had tried not to think about all of the calories.
True to form, however, I proceeded to exercise after the meal… Russell thought this was strange and unnecessary; it was a holiday, after all. He told me to just relax and enjoy the day. I, of course, repeatedly told him that I couldn’t until I’d exercised. The conversation continued while I was on the stair stepper for two hours. But I saw a new look on his face: hurt. I was forfeiting my time with him, my brand new husband, to climb steps that weren’t going anywhere? I was so tired of keeping this secret, and I wanted to explain myself to him. The only way I could explain it was to tell him the whole story from the beginning. First, I played an alternative rock song, an anthem, a coping mechanism for me to deal with the eating disorders. It was an angry loud song of rage, and I thought that it would tell him clearly what I’d been through. It didn’t. He didn’t understand it. I took a deep breath, realizing, ‘No, Sheryle, the song isn’t going to tell him. You are.’ And so I did.
And the worst didn’t happen. He didn’t leave me, throw me out in the street, call me worthless and tell me how much he hated me. No. He looked at me, asked me, ‘This is the big secret?’ He hugged me, told me he loved me, and told me I was beautiful. I didn’t have to lie, hide, and pretend anymore in front of the man I loved. I felt a little freer.
Since then, Russell has been an incredible support to me as I’ve continued my path in dealing with my food, weight, and body image issues. It sounds so cliché, but it’s true: he loves me just as I am.”
His response is the comforting ideal; I wish everyone could experience that loving reaction. And, years later, he’s been with me as I’ve gone through therapy, issues and all manner of ugly, painful truth concerning “this excruciating business of food.” It’s been eye opening and empowering.
Relationships certainly are a part of life. And yes, people with disordered eating patterns and “outsiders,” like my husband, Russell fall in love and get married. That is a wonderful hope out there. But it’s not issue free. Since my book has been out, I’ve been approached by not only concerned parents and siblings, but also worried husbands and boyfriends, feeling fear, confusion and powerlessness over their loved ones’ conditions. The eating disorder reality can be quite alarming.
Because of that, I’ve asked Russell to offer his perspective, as my husband, dealing with the eating disorder from the outside. The dilemma, of course, is that it’s never truly outside when you love the person who is affected by the disorder(s).
Nevertheless, Russell has some words of encouragement and help for those of you husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, friends and sons out there.
Sheryle: What did you know about eating disorders before you and I got involved?
Russell: I knew about them peripherally, but had no real knowledge about them. I’d heard of anorexia and bulimia but knew little about what they were.
S: What are the “do’s” in dealing with a girlfriend, wife, loved one who has eating disorders of any kind?
R: Be supportive; be understanding and open to listening to them if they talk to you about it. Do seek help for both yourself and your loved one. Educate yourself on what is going on because having an idea what you are dealing with is a good thing.
S: What are the “don’t’s” in dealing with a girlfriend, wife, loved one who has eating disorders of any kind?
R: Don’t assign blame, don’t bargain or try to coerce the person into eating: it doesn’t work. Don’t allow the person’s illness to become the overwhelming force in your life because that helps no one. Don’t be judgmental because that is a component of the “control” issue and reinforces their wrong thinking.
S: What’s the most frustrating thing about living with/loving someone who struggles with disordered eating?
R: Knowing there is nothing you can do but try to be supportive and understanding in the face of their continued practices. Not being able to enjoy certain things without fear of triggering their disordered patterns.
S: What would you tell boyfriends, husbands and male loved ones right now, about eating disorders?
R: One: It has nothing to do with you. This is something the sufferer did to themselves and your only requirements are to help and be supportive of attempts to get help.
Second: There is no way you can “fix” this. Only when the sufferer chooses to get help for their problem can any progress be made.
S: Any other advice?
R: Always let the person know you love them, no matter what. I think it’s important they know they are loved but there is a line you shouldn’t cross.
S: How do you feel about Leonard’s quote?
R: I believe it was said out of frustration and not understanding Virginia’s problems ,whatever they may have been.
The eating disorder issue is complex, requiring education, understanding and willingness from both the sufferer and the loved one who loves her.
But it’s not hopeless.
Over time, my relationships with both God and Russell have shown me it’s not. There can be incredible life, purpose and relationships, in spite of any eating disorder track record.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11
With love, support and treatment, life can, indeed, go from “excruciating” to wonderful. It’s my hope each of us experiences that freeing reality!
…He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”Philippians 1:6