By: Caroline Christian, B.S.
As anyone who has recovered from an eating disorder knows too well, the road to recovery is never a smooth one. Seeing someone you care about going through this process can be frustrating and confusing. You want to do your best for them, but often it can be hard to even understand or sympathize with what they are going through. Eating disorder recovery is incredibly hard, and everyone going through this process has to work really hard as they endure a lot of really uncomfortable and scary things. If you are having a hard time understanding what eating disorder recovery is like for your loved one, here are just a few of the reasons why recovery can be so difficult.
Giving up on your eating disorder can often feel like losing a friend, or losing a part of yourself. With other types of therapy it can be easier to want to get rid of the illness. For example, with therapy for depression, there is less motivation to want to keep the depression around, as depression doesn’t make you feel good. This makes it a little easier to stay motivated to kick it to the curb. However, eating disorders are not only an enemy, they can also be a friend (see Brenna’s blog post on When an Eating Disorder becomes a Friend). Even though part of your loved one knows that the eating disorder is holding them back, stopping them from enjoying time with family, ruining their relationships with friends, and keeping them in a cycle of disappointment from unrealistic standards, the eating disorder has also been there for them when nobody else was. The eating disorder gave them something to be proud of, it helped with their anxiety (even if just for a brief moment), and it helped them feel in control when everything else was going wrong. Especially if your loved one has been with their eating disorder for a long time, it can start to feel like a part of them. Disentangling this relationship in recovery can be hard, and it can feel like they are losing a friend, ending a relationship, or losing part of their self. This battle of friend vs. foe throughout recovery can drain motivation and make them feel conflicted and frustrated.
Recovery means facing your biggest fears. Another difficult part of recovery is that most of the parts of an eating disorder are designed to make you feel safe and help you avoid (temporarily) scary things. For example, counting calories or avoiding certain foods help prevent the scary or uncomfortable expectation of feeling full, gaining weight, or being judged. But when someone recovers from an eating disorder, they have to face these fears head on. To know what this is like, I want you to imagine your worst fear. Let’s say it is spiders. Now imagine that you have to go into a room full of spiders (or whatever your biggest fear is) every day, and each day there are more spiders and bigger spiders. That’s what eating disorder recovery can feel like. To outsiders, eating certain foods and gaining weight may not seem like a big deal. But when your body is reacting to food and weight like it is a room of spiders, it can be really scary. Having to face your biggest fears isn’t easy for anybody. Your loved one recovering from eating disorders has to put a lot of energy into being courageous in the face of fear, which can be really draining.
You have to put effort into recovery all day everyday. Unlike individuals recovering from substance use disorders, who abstain from using all together and can avoid situations where they may be tempted to some extent, individuals with eating disorders can’t abstain from food. We need food to live, our society is built around food, and messages about food are all around us. Because of this, everyday with an eating disorder means confronting food and other scary situations multiple times. Recovery requires putting thought, effort, and strength into recovery everyday, whether it be the thought that goes into following a meal plan, the effort it takes to challenge negative body talk, or the strength to confront, instead of avoid, difficult emotions. The nonstop effort your loved one has to put in to recovery is a huge part of what makes the process so exhausting and difficult.
If you have a loved one who is struggling in eating disorder recovery, here are a few words of advice from an eating disorder therapist that may help you be there for them as they push through the inevitable hard times.
1. Be patient with the process. Eating disorder recovery can be a slow and difficult. A few months down the road, you may wonder why your loved one is still not eating as much as you’d like, or not hitting goals you have for them. The process of recovery takes a different amount of time for everyone, and pressure from family and friends to get better faster will not speed it up. Try to be patient with your loved one and their own personal journey, and know that just because it has been a long journey, doesn’t mean it is endless.
2. Don’t take things personally. You may notice that your loved one is more irritable, tired, or withdrawn throughout their eating disorder recovery. It can be easy to get frustrated with them. Instead of being offended if your loved one doesn’t come to your events or support you like they used to, know that they are going through a lot, and they may not have a lot left to give. Try to do things to give them support and energy, instead of asking more of them.
3. Try to open lines of communication. Everybody in eating disorder recovery utilizes their support system in a different way. Some people benefit from talking about it, while some would rather process things on their own first. The best thing you can do is let your loved one know that you are there for them and would love to talk with them if and when they want to. You have to find your own balance in which you are not forcing your loved one to talk about their struggles with recovery, as this can add more pressure and frustration for them, but also not avoiding the topic, because that can feel very isolating.
4. Educate yourself. Continue to try to read, talk, and learn about eating disorders. They are much more complicated than just not eating enough, or eating too much. They are complex psychological disorders that researchers are still trying to fully understand and treat. Learning about the disorder and how you can fit in to the picture, will help you be more aware about what your loved one is going through and how to not add stress. For example, not promoting dieting or weight loss around them, as diet culture can make ED recovery more difficult.
5. Be encouraging. Most individuals in eating disorder recovery struggle with slip-ups throughout recovery, which can feel really discouraging. Your loved one in recovery is going to be hard on themselves, and they may even feel like a “failure” when this happens, so what they need from you is encouragement. Try to remind them of all the little victories they have throughout recovery. Remind them that you are proud of them and their growth so far, and tell them about all the awesome changes you have already noticed. This can help them feel supported and energized to keep going when it is hard.
Understanding why eating disorder recovery can be so difficult is an important step to help you better support your loved one through this difficult journey. For more tips on how to support your loved one in various stages of recovery check out NEDA’s advice for caregivers.