Regaining healthy relationships from an eating disorder
by June Alexander
An eating disorder is about more than our relationship with food. When food increasingly dominates our thinking, our relationship with self and with others can disconnect and disintegrate at an alarming rate. Confidence and belonging give way to shame, stigma, fear and rejection. Openness gives way to secrecy. Contentment gives way to chaos.
An eating disorder is tricky, manipulative and conniving. It sneaks into our brain and takes over our thoughts and our will, causing us to think and behave in ways that are not of our true self. It’s no wonder that people who have an eating disorder often feel deeply misunderstood, and that our actions are often misunderstood and misinterpreted by others, even close others.
The fear of eating (or eating too much) is debilitating and isolating. It feeds rejection. This in turn eats away at our center, disconnecting our healthy mind and self from our body and leaving us vulnerable to the self-harming vagaries of the eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or any of the combinations) as a way of trying to get through each day. For my Diary Healer co-founder, Diana, who is in recovery from anorexia, rejection is akin to food restriction – both the feeling of rejection and behavior of restricting stem from fear, and both are isolating and diminishing. Diana writes:
“When I became estranged from my siblings, restriction gave me a sense of purpose and a feeling of empowerment by diligently working at being as physically small and insignificant as their rejection made me feel. It was a way of punishing myself and creating a physical pain to help dull the far worse emotional pain that I was experiencing.
This rejection impacted virtually every aspect of my life. I spent years keeping my family estrangement a secret, fearing that others would think of me negatively. In addition to the sadness and loneliness that I felt at the loss of my family, I felt broken, unlikable, and unlovable. I second-guessed myself in every interaction that I had with others – was I doing enough, saying the right things, making them feel that I was invested? And, I became cautious of making deep connections with others for fear that they too would reject me.
Today, I still struggle with my family’s rejection, but I have come a long way in working through that pain. In therapy, I’ve worked on understanding my complicated family estrangement and co-existing eating disorder, and my therapist has been pivotal in providing me with clarity and an ability to move forward with healing. It has also been freeing to share my story with others – initially I did this through writing blog posts (which felt safer and more anonymous), and eventually I opened up to friends, family and co-workers.
One co-worker in particular, a trusts and estate lawyer who has guided countless families though difficult times, gave me the best reaction of all by saying, “I’m sorry you’re going through that, but you know you’re not alone?” His reaction and those of many other kind and thoughtful people in my life, has not been one of negative judgement as I feared, but instead of compassion, empathy, and in many cases, a point of bonding as they too are in a similar situation.
Bringing the secret of my family’s estrangement out of hiding has helped me to stop hiding within my eating disorder.”
I identify with Diana’s experience and likely you do, too. Relationships can become complicated when an eating disorder enters and becomes embedded, not only within us, but within a family. My diary records numerous failed attempts to discuss issues with, and seek answers from my family of origin. Responses are uniformly dismissive: “That happened a long time ago and we don’t talk about those things.” “You are the only family member who thinks there is a problem; get over it.” “You think too much. Pull up your socks and think about others instead of yourself.”
The pain of rejection and yearning for acceptance at times may intensify to the point where suicide appears as an option. To live, change is imperative. We need skills to tackle the un-ease within to survive, and to re-story (re-construe and re-write—in our diary most of all) relationships in a way that will allow the next generation on our branch of the family tree to grow up feeling safe and secure.
Complications increase when, besides eating disorder secrets, there are family secrets. An awareness of secrets in my family began to emerge in my early 30’s, each revelation providing a clue for re-piecing the shattered jigsaw that was “me.”
Worse, after each momentary revelation, everything closed up again. Lips sealed. No action taken. No wounds cleansed or tended to, no family or self-healing possible. My diary records: “I feel my heart has been wrenched and ripped from my body.”
The secrets about abuse were concealed in layers that I needed to address to recover from my eating disorder. As Evan Imber-Black notes in The Secret Life of Families, in many families where eating disorders develop, true individuality and painfully unacknowledged wants and yearnings may be hidden under layers of perfectionism and a defensive focus on appearances, social standing, and proprieties. This was my experience. Secrets had been suppressed in my family, by parents who were highly respected in their community, for years.
Not until middle age did I have sufficient information to reflect on and understand that in my childhood, the family secret of sexual abuse, of which I was not consciously aware, had preceded development of my eating disorder, also of which initially I was not consciously aware. Disengagement with my healthy self had begun early.
The genetic and environmental stage was set for traumatic times upon entering adolescence and adulthood. Although my diary was an unwitting accomplice to my eating disorder, it also was a vital survival and learning tool. As recovery edged forward, its pages helped me to see how and why my illness had developed, and to accept the eating disorder was an illness, not a weakness or “choice.”
When verbal communication attempts to my parents and sister failed, I did not want to give up. As a next step, I tried letter-writing. Using pen and notepaper, as this method felt more intimate. With my diary as a resource, I would make several drafts, with each re-write enabling a fresh perspective and more concise expression of emotions. This writing process encouraged more rational and realistic thinking.
Letter-writing was like a step up from diary writing. While diary writing was to myself as audience, letter-writing built on the diary’s content to a wider, yet specific, audience. This form of written communication was particularly helpful in conveying feelings and thoughts too painful to be expressed verbally, or perhaps verbal attempts had been made but were shunned or misinterpreted. Letter-writing was another way to cleanse inner wounds and assist healing. It helped to validate my experiences, allowed feelings and thoughts to be put without interruption or judgment, and provided a safe environment in which to feel connected with others and feel heard.
Whether or not the letters were sent, the process of creating them helped to strip away hurtful emotion and allowed healing. By storing original or copies in my diary, the letters became an adjunct to daily private writing. Sometimes, not sending a letter was most beneficial, for I could imagine and visualize a response or outcome that would be most helpful, and bring most happiness, to me. Sometimes, when letters were sent, no response was received, and this was more painful. I would wonder if the letter had arrived at its destination, had been misplaced, or deliberately ignored. Rejection would fire up and the diary, again, would be my solace.
Anger can be healthy
Anxiety, fear, frustration and anger are among the eating disorder’s dominant levers.
But now we are recovering, they need to be confronted, addressed and expressed on our true self terms. This can be a delicate, tedious process. Much therapeutic guidance, for instance, was necessary to convince me that expressing anger could be healthy and sometimes necessary.
I had to learn to stand my ground, safeguard and protect my self; and be pro-active rather than re-active. This turnaround in expression that required switching from feeling angry with self, to feeling angry on behalf of self, was scary but fortifying. Not only did I need to get in touch with my emotions, I needed to release them.
In doing so, I developed a healthy relationship with food, a healthy relationship with self, and a healthy relationship with others around me. Farewell ED!