Recovery from an eating disorder is an incredibly challenging journey – not only for the person experiencing the eating disorder, but also for those who are caring for them.
When someone is recovering from an eating disorder, having a professional team around them is vital. A treatment team would typically be made of a psychologist, dietitian, and GP who provides the patient with support and information on how to overcome their eating disorder.
However, carers (whether they be parents, partners, siblings, other relatives, or friends) usually have little or no support during their loved one’s recovery. Naturally, carers want to help their loved ones get through the illness, and see them re-engage in activities they once enjoyed, but without their own information and support, carers are often at a loss as to how to effectively help their loved one or how to navigate the recovery journey.
The carers face an incredibly difficult task. Often it is those at home who witness and must deal with the behaviours and emotions that accompany an eating disorder. Carers are the frontline of the recovery team and, in giving support, they also need support.
I am an eating disorder carer. When I was in the acute stages of my own daughter’s eating disorder, I had never felt more alone, more isolated, and more misunderstood. I was worn out and in so much despair that I could barely look after myself, let alone anyone else in our family of six. Compassion fatigue was real and overwhelming.
It is this sort of experience that Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) was set up to address and prevent. and support others to navigate. We want the carers in our community to know they are not alone, they are understood, and that hope is always present.
EDFA’s May 2023 Carer Experience Survey found around 89 per cent of the 216 respondents believed their mental health had suffered or suffered significantly as a result of their caring role. It showed 84 per cent felt overwhelmed by their caring duties, but only 46 per cent of those surveyed were seeking assistance for themselves. Another 35 per cent were seeking those services but very rarely.
Our understanding of the carer experience inspired EDFA to develop and seek Federal Government funding for a new and unique, free, one-on-one, online counselling service. Besides being highly qualified counsellors, our counsellors bring their own experience of being a carer for a loved one with an eating disorder.
Aptly named Fill The Gap (FTG), this counselling service overcomes many of the barriers carers face in looking after themselves and being the most effective support they can be for their loved one. Through accessing FTG, a carer can talk to someone in the privacy of their own home and around their caring duties, without the worry of extra costs at a time when finances are usually strained.
Sessions are open to carers over the age of 18 and they can occur at any point in the eating disorder journey. For example, carers may have noticed changes in their loved one’s eating behaviours or that their loved one makes concerning comments about their appearance, body weight, or shape. Carers may be in the midst of treatment with their loved one and want to know how to best provide support. Or a loved one may be closer to the end of the recovery journey and carers are looking for skills to manage and assist with relapse prevention.
Carers can use FTG sessions as needed – no commitment is required to attend ongoing sessions and there is currently no cap on the number of sessions available to carers.
I think we all instinctively know, and we’ve certainly heard, that accessing our own support is vital. However, we can feel unsure about what to talk about or how accessing our own support can help our loved ones in the recovery journey. FTG provides support in the following ways:
● FTG is a safe space for us to talk with someone about how things are for us and to learn self-care strategies. Supporting a loved one can be challenging in several ways and we so easily overlook our own needs. Taking care of ourselves can help us to support our loved ones.
● FTG helps to increase our knowledge of eating disorders, their treatment, and navigating the health care system. Fill The Gap counsellors can also help us explore topics tailored to provide more understanding of what is happening to our loved ones. This could include understanding the emotions that may arise, ambivalence around changing eating disorder behaviours, and what can help us to manage in difficult times.
● A counsellor can provide different approaches to communicating and approaching a loved one about concerns and how to offer and provide support. I’ve heard carers say many times, “I’m walking on eggshells because I am so worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.” This means we often choose not to say anything at all. We are then holding on to these thoughts and emotions and this can lead to feelings of not doing enough. At the same time, our precious loved ones may interpret our lack of communication as them not being important or worthy of support. Exploring and practising ways of communicating in sessions can be incredibly helpful.
● Caring for a loved one with an eating disorder can be stressful and emotionally draining. Counsellors can provide carers with stress management tools and strategies for handling difficult emotions, such as anger and fear.
Most of us at EDFA have lived the experience of being a carer for someone with an eating disorder. Our lived experience makes us passionate about improving the journey for others. A counselling service specifically for eating disorder carers and informed by lived experience was not available to any of us while our loved ones were unwell, but we wish it had been.
Caring for someone with an eating disorder is exhausting, draining, and all-consuming, but this support is essential to the successful recovery of a loved one with an eating disorder. As the saying goes, You can’t pour from an empty cup. That’s why we are pleased to offer this service and encourage all eating disorder carers to use it.
You do not need to be an EDFA member to access Fill The Gap, you do not need a referral, and there is no waitlist. In accessing Fill The Gap, you will find compassionate understanding and helpful tips and advice from people who have walked in your shoes. They understand and are there to support you as you support your loved one.
Bookings in Australia can be made online through EDFA’s website at https://edfa.org.au/counselling-service/ or by calling (03) 9125 5670.