The impact of an eating disorder can have on you and your family

Anyone battling an eating disorder is constantly wrestling with stress, guilt and pain; but they are not the only ones to suffer – families and friends also have to endure their own torture.

It is very difficult to watch someone you love slowly destroy themselves, while you feel helpless. Watching anyone suffer is always painful, but with an eating disorder the stress is often worsened because, to anyone who has not experienced one, it seems as if it should be so simple and easy to get better. It is not, eating disorders affect the sufferer’s brain and can potentially turn the act of eating food into something terrifying.

Even though this may be difficult to accept, you cannot save that person. You can encourage, support and provide them with your unconditional love, but they need to want to save themselves. You cannot force someone to want to get better, nor can you force them to accept help.

Guilt affects everyone in the family

Guilt is an underlying theme in families affected by an eating disorder. The patient experiences enormous guilt for having the disease, for exhibiting symptoms of the disease (particularly binging and purging), and for violating the rules of the eating disorder by eating.

The parents may experience unbearable guilt, endlessly wondering what they might have done, or not done, to make their child ill; siblings will feel guilt for secretly (or not so secretly) detesting their brother or sister for having ‘ruined our family’.

But guilt and blame are allies of the eating disorder as they sap willpower from both carer and patient. They need to be combated by the individual, family and a support team working together to promote empowerment.

A myriad of emotions

Upon discovering that a family member or friend has an eating disorder, you will experience many different emotions such as confusion, anger and fear. You may feel confused about why it happened, what to do next, where to go for help and how to approach this.

The best way to deal with confusion is to educate yourself about eating disorders. Read books, talk to a professional who knows about eating disorders, talk with people who are in a good recovery, or who have recovered from their eating disorder, and try to speak with other families who are experiencing what you are.

Families feeling angry

Some people find themselves feeling angry; angry with yourself for not knowing about the problem sooner, for not preventing it from developing and for not being able to fix the problem immediately.

You may also feel angry with the person for not being able to stop the eating disorder behaviours and for continuing to abuse themselves.

You may feel angry with the person for causing you pain and you may believe that the person is doing this to hurt you.

Remind yourself that the person is not doing this to hurt you, they are doing this to themselves. Becoming angry with the person will not help matters. It will probably only cause them to feel worse, which will only enforce their belief that they are horrible and deserve to be punished or die.

Keeping your anger inside will also not help, so it would be important for you to be able to talk about it. Seek out a friend, doctor, therapist, or a support group for families

The fear

One emotion that many people experience is fear. You may be scared the person will do great damage to themselves or even die. If the person’s health is in immediate danger, hospitalisation may be necessary. Dealing with all the fears you may experience is very difficult and it would be important for you to seek out support for yourself.

How to support a family member

When helping a family member, it is vital to be positive and supportive. People with eating disorder have very low self-esteem and believe they are worthless. They need to know that you love them and that they are very important to you. They need to be made to feel worthy and know that you are on their side.

Try not to spend time focusing on their behaviours or talking about it. Instead, try talking to them about how they feel inside. Eating disorders are only symptoms of other problems. The person needs to deal with how they feel inside and they need to talk. Assure them that they can come and talk to you and that you will be there for them and you will listen.

It is important to remember that no matter how much you love this person and want to help, there is only so much that you can do. Trying to help someone can be frustrating, scary and emotionally draining. That is why it is important that you do not lose yourself in their problem.

How Tabor Group can help

If you or a loved one needs help with an eating disorder, or a family needs support, please come and talk to us at Tabor Group about how we can help. For more information on Tabor Group’s services, click here.