At an eating disorder support group I led recently, a mom said the one “gift” her daughter could give her was to try and recover from her anorexia. She was struggling with understanding how her daughter could see the damage her eating disorder was doing to their family and still refuse to even try recovery. Without saying these exact words, I believe her feelings were akin to, “If you loved me, you would stop.”
Anyone who has been in a relationship with someone with an eating disorder or substance addiction can probably relate to that. In your head, you might know it has nothing to do with you, but it feels like it does. And often, when you push people to get better before they are ready, they will act in pretty unloving ways to defend themselves. It can be be like trying to hug a porcupine…the more you try to help, the more you get hurt. This frustrating cycle usually leads to feelings of resentment and maybe even pretty strong anger—on both sides. So how do you get out of the cycle without giving up on the other person? Here are some tips on how to love a porcupine (i.e. someone not ready to recover).
#1. Realize how difficult it is to even choose recovery, much less walk through it. Another girl in the group who has an eating disorder told that mom that her own mother had expressed similar things to her in the past before she started into recovery. “I love my mom so much. I felt like I would do anything for her… but she was literally asking me to do the one thing I couldn’t do at the time.” This brave young woman went on to explain that the fear was overwhelming, even to the point of overwhelming her love for others. “I was absolutely terrified at the thought of treatment and gaining weight.”
#2. Be a learner. Unless you have an eating disorder, you can never fully understand what it is like to have one, but you can educate yourself to become more sensitive and knowledgeable. There are a lot of books on the subject (see recommended reading at the end), online resources like NEDA and ANAD, and possibly some support groups local to you. If your loved one is willing to share about their experience, that is of course, an ideal place to learn. Eating disorders by nature tend to be surrounded by secrecy and shame, but there are things you can to make it more or less likely he or she will open up. Which leads to #3…
#3. Work on being a safe person. As you learn more about eating disorders, you’ll be more attune to things that could be detrimental for your loved one. Even with the best of intentions, people often say or suggest things that are triggering or insulting. Oversimplifying their struggles by telling them to just eat or to just stop throwing up, assuring them they look great, or suggesting diet plans are examples of common but counter-productive attempts to help.
In general, taking a non-judgmental approach that doesn’t shame, scold, or criticize the other person is more likely to foster open communication. Assure him or her that you want to understand better than you do now and that you’re ready to listen… and then really listen. At times, it will be appropriate to encourage them to get help, but if you jump to that too quickly, the other person is more often than not going to feel misunderstood. Check out this article from NEDA for more detailed tips on talking to a loved one about his or her eating disorder. If you’re a parent of a child or adolescent, check out the info and resources at FEAST.
#4. Draw appropriate boundaries. This is a tricky one that could probably be its own blog post. Basically, you have to figure out where the line is between supporting someone and not trying to control them. Trying to control others doesn’t usually work and can even make them more resistant to change (thanks to that rebellious nature in all of us). For example, unless they’ve asked you to provide some accountability, comments about what they are or are not eating will likely backfire. Pushing someone to recover before they’re ready usually means recovery won’t be successful, even if they appear to be going through the motions. The person’s own motivation is key.
There are some exceptions to these principles. One is in cases where the eating disorder is so severe that medical care is necessary and then yes, intervention could mean life or death. If you’re not sure whether you’re in such a situation, talk to a medical doctor or therapist who is familiar with eating disorders.
The other exception is if you are the parent of a child or teenager. Naturally, your boundaries with that person are already different because they are under your care and you are responsible for their physical and emotional well-being. In that case, I believe forcing a child into treatment and taking control of their food intake might make sense. They might not feel motivated to recover themselves, but there is a lot of research supporting the effectiveness of family-based therapy (FBT) for teens and children with eating disorders. Check out this article on FEAST’s website for more info about FBT.
Following all these steps won’t guarantee you don’t get “poked” while trying to help. Believe it or not, people with eating disorders feel like they have a lot of reasons to stay sick and the thought of recovery can be, as that young woman said, absolutely terrifying. The fear and shame that accompany eating disorders make recovery hard to consider. Take care of yourself and resist the temptation to take on “fixing” them. Offer patience, support, and honesty, and by all means, seek out help and support for yourself! It’s not easy to love a porcupine.
When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating (An excellent guide on taking control of your child’s eating, but I highly recommend only using this book with the help and support of a skilled eating disorder therapist)
I’m Cherie Miller, MS, LPC, founder of Food Freedom Therapy™. I offer counseling for chronic dieting as well eating disorder therapy for Anorexia, Bulimia, Binge Eating Disorder, Orthorexia, ARFID, and other eating disorder issues. Contact me here or follow me on Instagram or Facebook.