I’m not sure that anyone, unless they have been in a similar situation, can imagine the fear and helplessness you feel when someone you love has an eating disorder. If that person is one of your closest relationships, the daily, and usually long-term, struggle can literally dominate every part of your life, because you have become an Eating Disorders carer as their partner, wife, husband, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother or good friend. It may also have all kinds of effects on you if you are their colleague, their teacher or their classmate. Often, it seems that other people do not understand or listen to your deep concerns over your loved one, and that there is consequently nowhere for you to go to get the support that you need. While the focus, quite naturally, is directed on the sufferer, there seems no place for you to turn to talk about how their eating problems are affecting, controlling and frequently devastating you. There may be many mixed emotions that are quite literally eating away at you too:
- feelings of complete despair and confusion about the eating disorder itself;
- still wanting to enjoy being together by separating out the eating disorder from the person;
- anger and resentment towards your loved one, perhaps with the desire to retaliate at times;
- trying to offer assurance and comfort that you will always love and be there for them;
- taking the situation personally and self-blaming in terms of it being your fault in some way;
- dealing with the times when you feel you have handled something badly;
- desperately trying to find reasons and explanations for why this has happened;
- the excruciating nightmare of the inevitable food battles;
- treading on egg shells to avoid the focus being on eating, weight and appearance;
- the difficulties involved in remaining a healthy role model;
- the frustration of trying to break through the walls of denial and secrecy;
- encouraging the continuing of social activities and contact with friends;
- having to cope with your loved one’s extreme mood swings and behaviours;
- witnessing your family being torn apart while struggling to keep it a strong and loving unit;
- trying to negotiate with professionals for the much needed medical care and therapy;
- the stress of the continual conflict and power struggle between being gentle and sympathetic, or being tough and direct.
When you enter the world of eating disorders, in whatever shape or form, it can become your own personal battle even when it is not you who have the actual problem. You are likely to feel that you can’t express what you are going through, and that you have to pretend in many ways, because these issues pale into insignificance compared to the individual in your life who is starving, or vomiting, or stuffing, or manically over-exercising, amongst the many various other disturbed food and weight obsessed behaviours that they may be exhibiting.
It is vital to appreciate that you will be able to help your loved one in more positive ways, if you are able to find an objective, non-judgemental, informative, honest and empathic environment, as an outside support for you. Whether you want just one session or a few meetings, or regular on-going talking time, I will listen to what you are experiencing, and try to explore with you your Eating Disorders carer role, so that you can work towards greater insight and understanding of your own inner responses and outer reactions. You will be suffering in your own distinct ways, whilst you are travelling alongside the suffering of the person you are also caring for.
As a result of confidentiality issues, I am however unable to offer you therapy if I am working with the person you care for who has the eating problem. Nevertheless, I would still encourage you to find your own help with another professional, and I would be happy to recommend colleagues whom I think may be appropriate for your situation. Occasionally, but only with prior discussion and with the agreement of my client, it may be helpful for an Eating Disorders carer to come for a joint therapy session with me, as this can be very productive especially with regard to the prevention and management of possible relapses.