Eating Disorders and Collateral Damage

It’s tough being the partner, friend or relative of someone with an eating disorder – or any kind of disorder or addiction.  In all the fuss around the person with the eating disorder, the other people involved are all too easily forgotten.

Pretty often, people ask me: how does your girlfriend cope with you being bulimic?  Doesn’t it upset her, that you’re doing that to yourself?  Why do you still do it?  Why hasn’t love ‘cured’ you?  Is she OK about it?  Or, what can i do to help so-and-so who has an eating disorder?

Well no, of course she’s not OK about it and of course it upsets her.  She may be going out with me, but she’s not a complete nutcase.  She copes because she accepts that she has to.  We all have to accept people’s bad points as well as the good, if we’re to accept a person at all.

That’s not to say everyone can tolerate something so distressing.  Anorexia and bulimia have destroyed some of my relationships in the past – one of them quite spectacularly; this is, sadly, one of the realities of Living With An Eating Disorder.  It’s wrenched some people out of my life; it’s pushed some people away gradually and over time; yet others can’t accept it and maybe have chosen to not think about it and carry on as if it’s not really happening.

I suppose to an extent that’s what i do.  I’m altogether too good, to be honest, at not thinking about things – all sorts of things – just putting them away in a closet of my mind where i can’t see them.  Yet at the same time, i do acknowledge and accept things the way they are, more and more as the years drip by.

Perhaps things change as we get older.  We can accept things we couldn’t accept before, such as that we’re actually not that powerful and we can’t change other people.  I’ve accepted that, no, love does not cure everything.  I suppose we all have to calm down in order to survive: we get more worn out and tired – that includes people who haven’t got an eating disorder (or any recognised disorder) too – we get subdued by major stresses, yes, but also just by life, work, mundane worries, etc.  It all takes its toll.

As time slips away, we feel things less strongly, we feel less angry, less passionate; we no longer belligerently feel like we SHOULD have all the answers, nor that we MUST change the world or control how other people behave anymore.  I have some grey hair now; i’m always tired and have aches and pains all over the place; i no longer have the energy to stomp my righteous boots till 4 a.m.; i don’t actually have the inclination.  I can’t even finish a book in less than a week these days.

That probably sounds all very depressing, but actually, from my point of view, it’s just another thing i’ve come to accept.  We all have limits and we must know what they are.  I mean, i don’t mean to sound like the veritable octogenarian dishing out wise advice.  How can i, when i clearly don’t have the answers?

There’s a lot that’s wrong with the world, but there’s also a lot that’s right and good and wonderful.


Are you the friend, partner, relative, colleague, teacher or anything like that, of someone with an eating disorder?  Have a butcher’s at this – it might help:

http://www.mind.org.uk/help/diagnoses_and_conditions/eating_distress#friends

The thing is, my girlfriend, my mates and my family DO mind that i’m bulimic; and at times i get very sad thinking about how it affects them.  But like i said, i quickly pull my thoughts away from such things, rather than get upset.  If i didn’t, how could i get through the day?  But i think people need to know it’s not their fault, not their responsibility, not something they can do anything about… and not to take it personally.

Oh, there are always theories, aren’t there, as to why someone like me Ended Up Like This.  This or that factor in her childhood, or this or that incident or event drove her bonkers.  But what good is laying blame anywhere?  How does that help anyone deal with now?

If you want to help someone with an eating disorder, you do need to accept that this is the way they are, AT THE MOMENT; that “here and now” is the only place anyone can start from, and they’re the only one who can change things.

As anyone who’s ever had anything like an eating disorder, addiction or similar will know, of course, it’s not as simple as just “choosing” to get better. None of us chose to get ill. It takes a lot of work to even realise where you are, mentally and emotionally; often people will SAY they want to get better – that they’re ready, even, to get better – but they may not realise that they just aren’t yet.

A typical example might be someone with an eating disorder who’s underweight: they hate the way their life is, because it’s fucking miserable, but when faced with having to put on weight, they think, oh no. I want to get better, but i don’t want to put on weight.

Well, there’s no such thing as half recovery. If a person wants to recover, they can’t pick and choose. They have to take it all. And that’s REALLY fucking hard, especially as it will mean giving up the one thing, or the main thing, that makes a person feel ‘safe’.  Such as… retreating into food, as if it were a shelter (and it is, in a fucked up sort of a way: it’s familiar and we know how it works; it’s something we know how to do; it’s a distraction; it rarely brings surprises).  Like being underweight and therefore visible or even invisible.

It’s different for everyone – i hardly need tell you that, dear reader!

But for as long as a person ‘needs’ to cling onto any aspect of their eating disorder – and they will have good reasons, weird though it may sound – for as long as they are unwilling to completely let go that piece of driftwood to which they’re hanging on so grimly, for fear of drowning… they’ll never be free.  They need to trust, just trust that they’ll be all right – that they can swim.

So why am i still gripping that bit of flotsam, when i obviously know SO bloody much?  I dunno, maybe i’ve got so cold from being in the water so long, that my hands have frozen and i can’t uncurl my fingers.  OK, this metaphor’s getting ridiculous now.

Importantly, partners/friends/family need to think a little more about themselves and their own needs.  What do you need to do, to keep yourself OK?  I mean, if it means distancing yourself, so be it i suppose.  That’s what i’ve said to people i’ve ended up having to lose in the past.  You can be a friend without being a lover, you can be a good mate without being a best mate, you can step back but stick around, if that will mean YOU can cope better. Because you coping better means you can be there for someone, whereas if you’re not coping, you’re not helping – in fact you can end up dragging them down.

OR, you can hold on as you are, in the relationship you have with them, and you can accept that everyone’s got problems of some sort or another.  You won’t meet some miraculous person with no baggage whatsoever – anyone who reckons they haven’t is either deluded or lying!) – but you must just work out whether this is a problem YOU can deal with.  Just remember, you haven’t got a magic wand with which to make everything better – or how you want it to be.

Because all too often, in life, we really really REALLY want something, but we just can’t have it.  And there’s nothing we can do.  And that’s just how life is.

Many authors have said that life is a series of obstacles to overcome. That’s the point of life. You’re faced with a problem, you solve it, you move on to the next problem, rinse and repeat, ad infinitum. Sometimes the “solution” is to accept that there is no solution, that there’s nothing you can do right now, if ever. That’s all life is.

The best thing, in the end, is Honesty And Communication.  That’s what it always comes down to, innit?  Talk.  Don’t pretend.  Don’t hide.  Don’t make out like everything’s OK when it isn’t.  Forget pride and forget shame.  They don’t help anyone.  We need to understand, not avert our eyes.  We need to stand up and let people know more about these things, not hide away in denial.

If you want to help someone, talk to them, ask what it is they need.  They may not know yet.  But Rome wasn’t built over a single cup of tea.

The only person who can work out what’s going on inside someone’s head is that very person.  Deep down (maybe very deep down) they know what will work for them.  It takes a lot of patience and a lot of talking, but anyone who’s capable of giving that level of support to another is a Seriously Remarkable Person.

We need more people like that in the world.

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Published in: on 11/05/2011 at 1:57 am  Leave a Comment  

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