Heartbreak Often Accompanies the Battle
The emotional impact of witnessing your child or significant other battle a dangerous eating disorder is much the same as if it were any other debilitating physical disease. The pain, guilt, anger, sorrow, confusion, frustration, and a myriad of other emotions experienced as one watches their loved one suffer a potentially life threatening disease are the very similar. The heart hurts the same, regardless of the affliction, as it beholds the suffering of anyone we hold dear.
The truth is, just like any other deadly disease, an eating disorder can become a battle waged against a wily foe. Just as cancer cells dodge valiant efforts to arrest the progression of that disease, widely unseen and powerful psychological mechanisms embedded in disordered eating can also prove formidable adversaries that inhibit recovery.
Just as a person battling a drug or alcohol addiction becomes fixated on their next hit or drink, someone battling an eating disorder is also expending much of their energy on obsessive thoughts and behaviors. In both cases, significant relationships suffer as a result of neglect.
Built in to the behaviors of a person who suffers from an ED is a tendency to keep people at an emotional distance, usually in an effort to avoid judgment for their affliction. Because at the root of their disorder lies shame and self-loathing, your loved one may believe that they are unlovable or undeserving of your love. In addition, with their central focus on continuing on the path of disordered eating, your loved one may even see you as an adversary—someone who wants to block his or her efforts.
Sometimes an eating disorder is the result of a subconscious desire to avoid intimacy and authentic relationships. In order to avoid the perceived messiness of a close emotional connection, some develop eating disorders to sidestep the difficult aspects of relationships, such as experiencing uncomfortable emotions like sorrow, disappointment, insecurity, or anger. All close relationships include difficult moments and challenges, but someone with disordered thinking looks for ways to avoid possible undesirable emotions, and to exercise some control over the relationships.
Common Emotions Experienced by Loved Ones
Loving someone with an eating disorder can be difficult and trying. Strong emotions rise up in response to the stress that accompanies the disorder, which may include:
- Feelings of guilt are usually associated with the parent of a child or young adult suffering from an eating disorder. It is common for parents to wonder if their parenting itself was to blame for the resulting ED. They may wonder why they did not recognize the symptoms earlier, or have doubts that they can provide the right support for their child’s recovery.
- An eating disorder is a serious disease. Suicide rates among those with all forms of eating disorders are the highest among all mental health disorders, and premature mortality due to organ failure, heart failure, or malnutrition is a daunting reality. Those who love someone with an eating disorder live with constant fear of losing them.
- It is difficult to witness a loved one’s decline mental and physical health. As the disease progresses, there is a pervading sense of loss felt by family and friends who sense their loved one drifting away. Loved ones feel sad about the life changes an ED imposes on the person they love, while they witness hopes and dreams fade away with the progression of the disease.
- Loved ones may feel exasperated as they watch an ED take over the victim’s life, and wonder why they seem to make no effort to get help to stop the destructive behaviors. When a loved one’s attempts to help are shunned, they may become frustrated and angry. Also, people with an ED may resort to deceptive behaviors to hide their disordered eating habits, leading to angry feelings and a loss of trust among friends and family.
As with other mental health or addiction disorders, loved ones may not know how to help. The disordered thoughts and habits confuse them because they seem irrational, so they don’t know how to act or what to say, or even how to support the person with the eating disorder.
We Can Help
At Casa Serena our caring and supportive professionals understand the difficult emotions that family and friends experience when their loved one is afflicted with an eating disorder. Our individualized treatment plans include weekly multi-family groups that help loved ones address issues related to the eating disorder dynamics in the family and within significant relationships. Individual family counseling is also available when needed. Casa Serena provides education to the family as a tool to support their loved one’s path to a full recovery. Call us today (925) 682-8252!