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A Letter to Those Supporting a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery

Monte Nido & Affiliates Education Training Manger Jacquie Rangel shares a heartfelt series for anyone supporting a loved-one with an eating disorder. Jacquie shares some advice of how to best be there for your loved one from her personal experience. 

To all who are supporting a loved-one with an eating disorder:

If there were one thing I wish I could tell the people who cared about me when I had an eating disorder, I would express how incredibly lonely I felt. I don’t mean this to say that you aren’t enough for your loved one. This issue is not speaking to scarcity or quality of people but rather the reality that it is not possible to feel truly connected to anyone without a clear sense of self. The eating disorder is made up of a system of beliefs that are reinforced by behavior to match it, so it becomes easy for the person living in it to take this on as an identity. In reality, the eating disorder is a mask that a person creates to alienate themselves from their true, healthy-self. Whether it’s insecurity, distortion, trauma or a combination of all of the above that drives a person to reject who they truly are, the eating disorder serves to disconnect a person from their senses and over time leads them to believe that anything their intuitive nature tells them is wrong. This level of deprivation from the true-self is why you might feel your support is “never enough” to your loved one. So what’s a well-intentioned supporter like yourself to do? I have one word for you: Connect.

Connect. What is it like for you to live in your body? Having someone close to you experience an eating disorder will get you quickly educated about the reality of this illness. Contrary to what you might have once believed, this isn’t a joke, a diet or a problem with vanity. An eating disorder is a life-threatening condition and in reality, the majority of the population will go their life without living in one. However, years of advocacy, open conversation and a lot of observation makes me feel comfortable asserting that nearly everyone knows what it feels like to feel uncomfortable in their body. We associate success and happiness with a set physical features we’ve been primed to believe are superior to the rest. When we don’t have the flat belly or proportional curves or clear skin we’ve placed on a pedestal we automatically believe we cannot experience success or feel happiness. Start a vulnerable conversation about how this has played out in your own life. Have you ever felt shamed by a person or popular culture directly or otherwise for your physical appearance? These conversations can really level the playing field, especially in the early phases of recovery when your loved one is fascinated with observing the way the people they believe to be “normal” experience the world.

Connect. Take any one human’s dietary choices and simply turn to Google to find hundreds of people who would be willing to tear it, and furthermore, that person to pieces. We have moralized food to the point of hostility and we find ourselves picking sides. We use what a person puts in their body to determine their worth as a person and measure it against our own. It is time that everybody, not just individuals who have lived with eating disorders, begin to call out these acts of dietary warfare and evaluate the role they play in feeding the problem.

To start out, consider the diet and body talk you put out there and tolerate in the world. You don’t have to engage in conversations that perpetuate shame, stop being polite about it. Body shamers need an audience- walk away and you’ll find the people who follow you are worth keeping. Also, don’t be afraid to explain to people why it makes you uncomfortable to hear them shaming themselves or others. Ironically, some people aren’t as fortunate as those of us who have been touched first-hand or through association by an eating disorder. In the long-haul when you keep at recovery alongside your loved-one you’ll find that your relationship with food is better than most people’s for having gone through your experiences. Finally, I strongly recommend for both the support of your loved one as well (as a huge gift to yourself) to examine your own relationship with food. It’s not to feel bad about what you find, but to liberate yourself from routine choices and beliefs that do not arise from your body’s internal cues. Whether you share what you uncover with your loved one or not, curiously investigating your relationship with food might help you see your loved one’s struggle in a new light.

Connect. One big realization I’ve had in life after the recovery-high is that it continues one with non-ED-related highs and lows. While I once thought that nothing could hurt as much as my eating disorder did, life has shown me that pain continues to be inevitable at certain points and that no one gets to avoid it, no matter how hard they try. From difficult experiences post-recovery, I’ve been able to channel the resilience I gained and remembered that how I respond to adversity is sometimes the only control I have over a difficult situation. Something that has really helped me is hearing from people without eating disorder about how they have overcome the obstacles that life has thrown at them. Sharing moments of vulnerability with others has not only made me thankful for being dealt cards I can handle, but has also has realize me learn that just because people don’t feel my particular brand of hurt, doesn’t mean that they aren’t fighting their own battles. Furthermore, it helps me remember that when I’m faced with a pain I can turn to the people around me for support.

Carolyn Costin’s 7th Key to Recovery is “Reach out to people rather than your eating disorder”. Reaching out is easier said than done whether we are living with an eating disorder or not. We think we’re doing people a favor when we present a perfect, unflawed self. We believe that sharing a less than polished side of ourselves puts a damper on our relationships and places burden on the person on the receiving end. What this façade does in reality is creates isolation and cuts us off from the help we sometimes need to ask for. Your loved one simply will not reach out to you at first. Their behaviors might command your attention, but this is not communication from their healthy-self; this is why I encourage you to connect. Drop your resentment towards the eating disorder and connect. Get curious about their likes and dislikes when they don’t have the eating disorder dictating their interests to further connect. Do your own self-work and talk their ear off about it- connect. Lead by example- reach out to them when you feel you need support and let yourself feel connected. By connecting, you remind your loved one that you are human and you too, are doing the best you can.


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