So now for the Million Dollar Question: What can I do? How can I help her? How can I reach the girl I used to know, who is being controlled by the eating disorder?
It’s a two part answer that I’ll get to in a minute, so stay with me. Allow me to first set the stage.
I try to think about how someone could have gotten through to me. People felt that they were walking on egg shells around me, and were terrified to bring up food and upset me and send me into a tail spin. But the truth is, I just withdrew. My friends would call and I would not answer, too ashamed to show how attached to my eating disorder I’d become. So in order to get though, you have to be persistent – more stubborn than her eating disorder.
Simply meet her where she’s at. I think if someone would have taken a walk with me and not talked about food or how many calories I’d had, or how worried they were, they might have gotten through. If they would not try to fix me but simply be with me.
Come from a place of love, and simply accept the broken, hurting girl that’s in front of you. Open up a non-judgmental, non-patronizing, honest conversation about what some of your own insecurities are. What are your inner voices that try to shape who you are and how you live. By you yourself being vulnerable and open about the struggles in your life, you’re simultaneously inviting her to do the same. It might not happen the first time, or the second, or third, or tenth. But perhaps one of those times, when you’re sharing about a fear you have, or a wound that you carry with you, she will open up about hers. The key is to create a space that is safe for her to break down the barriers. If you can help her to recognize the Lie that is on repeat in her brain, you can help her to overcome it. Naming it takes away its power. It allows you to take back control over your mind.
Some topic ideas:
When do you feel the most free?
What is your biggest fear?
What is a dream you have?
What is a time when you were hurt?
What is something you wish you could tell your five-year-old-self?
Where do you want to be in five years?
Explain a time when you felt _______ (betrayed, afraid, encouraged, hopeful, guilty, ashamed, joyful, loved, angry, misunderstood, disappointed, like a disappointment, rejected, alone, excited, proud, empathetic, forgiven, etc.)
And I know this is hard to hear. I know that as a parent or loved one, if you’re reading this, you’re probably at a point where you’re desperate for your daughter just to eat enough to survive. You’re probably scared that she’s going to pass out or waste away. My parents were so panicked that they would check on me in the middle of the night, scared that I would have gone into organ failure or cardiac arrest in my sleep and died. These are desperate times, and the last thing you want to do is interact with her, avoiding the issue.
But let’s face it. The cold hard facts are that at this very moment, your relationship is strained, to say the least. Broken might be a more appropriate word. It seems like every day there’s a blow up or melt down about calories consumed, exercise, expectations, weight, where to go from here, etc. Saying that eating disorders cause stress and tension is the understatement of the century. So, believe me, I know that the last thing you want to do is have a “lovey dovey” conversation with someone who you hardly recognize anymore. But try. Catch her when she’s as least panicky as possible – not right before or after a meal, but maybe right before bed? Suggest a cup of tea. Or in the afternoon, invite her to take a walk. She’ll be stunned that you’re suggesting exercise and will for sure take you up on the offer.
So, with that said, onto the Million Dollar Question. Part one of the answer to the MDQ: Help her to figure out the Lie.
The Lie that is infiltrating her thoughts is the culprit behind the eating disorder. And in order to discredit and replace it with the truth, you have to know where it is coming from. There was something in her life that caused this Lie to come about. Perhaps it was an abusive relationship, being a child of divorce, the death of a loved one, or a toxic friendship. Wounds and hurts can come from even the smallest of things. A “throw away” remark she received could have been astronomical in its significance to her and her psyche. Perhaps it’s none of those things at all? Perhaps she comes from a family of overachievers and feels pressure to keep up? Perhaps she’s a perfectionist and feels overwhelmed to keep raising the bar and this is her way of “jumping ship” — She can’t fail so she’ll forfeit instead.
Whatever it is, the Lie is real to her. And she’d rather waste away than fight back.
But that’s what is so important. She needs to fight back. And that’s what so important to remind her: that it is worth fighting back. That’s part two of the answer to the million dollar question: You need to remind her that there are things worth living for. You need to help her remember her hopes and dreams. Help her see that there is a world outside of her eating disorder. The desire to get well will come when she a) believes she is loved and precious, and b) has a goal or dream to get better for and work towards.
Right now, your loved one lives completely in her own head. She thinks about food, calories, exercise, weight, and control 24/7. Literally every moment of every day. She has forgotten that there is more to life than her ED prison. There are things that are so much better than her anorexia. Things worth living for: friends, adventures, fun, life, goals, dreams, things to discover! Right now, all she can think about is how to get out of eating the next meal, or what that next meal is going to be, etc. etc. etc. She’s forgotten that life is for living. We were made to live abundantly and passionately. We are meant to live life big! Remind her! Remind her what she loved to do pre-anorexia. Remind her of places she wanted to visit, dreams she had, adventures she took. That girl is still in there somewhere, desperately holding on for dear life. That girl is not the girl before you today. The girl before you today is a shell of the vibrant lady you know and love.
During family week at inpatient, I remember describing my life in the eating disorder like being on a treadmill at full speed. I couldn’t slow down – couldn’t get off. My life was ruled by this all-consuming mental state of panic about food and burning calories and weight and fear and I felt so out of control. I didn’t know how to get off the treadmill and it was killing me. And I had construed this web of lies that I had to keep up and keep going. It was a Constant. Never-ending. Treadmill. And I Just. Couldn’t. Stop.
So you need to help her accept that it is okay to stop. In all honesty, treatment at an inpatient center is probably the best option in terms of weight restoration because frankly, she’s too close to you: She has so many emotions and feelings attached to you and her loved ones, that it would be impossible to enforce the tough persona that she needs right now. You don’t want to have to be the bad cop, policing her caloric intake and standing up to her resistance. That is unfair for you to have to be put in that situation. And also, she knows you: She knows how to manipulate you and how to get her way. With eating disorder treatment, it’s all or nothing – no compromising. That is why inpatient is best for severe cases.
But the main thing, is to love her through it. The “girl you used to know” is inside there somewhere, trapped and dying to get out. She is being suffocated by the darkness that is possessing her. Show her love, keep trying to reach her, because you never know when you just might get through for a split second of clarity, like during my intervention.
And as much as it hurts, don’t take her illness personally. She’s lying to you, deceiving and manipulating you, and that sucks, it really does. You feel hurt and trampled and just downright awful. But know that she doesn’t mean to do it – it sounds like a cop out, but it’s really the truth: it’s not her, it’s her eating disorder that is doing those awful things to you. And that eating disorder is also doing those things to her as well. ED is manipulating and controlling her, as she’s doing the same to you. It’s a destructive cycle, and sadly, you’re the lowest on the totem pole.