If you’ve lived though an eating disorder, it’s no secret that they take a toll on your relationships. We all know the damage it brings to the body and to the mind, but the havoc ED wreaks on relationships is often overlooked.
Eating disorders are like a Category F5 tornado. They rip through and leave a trail of destruction that takes time and perseverance to rebuild. Eating disorders destroy her physical body: I developed osteoporosis as an 18-year-old girl. My hair fell out. I stopped menstruating, and to this day I still don’t. They mess with her digestive system, her circulatory system, her brain function, and her growth and maturation process.
Eating disorders devastate her mental wellbeing as well: She has to fight the Voice of ED for the rest of her life. She develops OCD and perfectionist tendencies that she will have to combat from here on out. She battles guilt, fear and anxiety. She continually will have to beat back feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy from this point forward. Her Lie never truly goes away — she can only muffle it and become stronger than its influence.
But those things are all openly talked about and rather common knowledge. What people often forget is how the eating disorder also destroys the relationships in her life.
When I was in my eating disorder, it was all consuming. As I mentioned before, I didn’t care about anything or anyone else. I was simply controlled by my obsession with losing weight, restricting my intake, avoiding eating, sneaking exercise, throwing away food, and keeping the deception up. Period. Not how my behaviors were affecting others, or how concerned my loved ones were (although I did carry around immense guilt and shame). But at the end of the day, all that mattered to me was myself. And as a result, needless to say, my relationships suffered.
You see, during my illness, my friends were so concerned. They knew I had Ulcerative Colitis, and they knew I was sick, but they didn’t really know what was going on. I was adamant that it wasn’t an eating disorder, and my family wasn’t talking, in order to respect my privacy. But everyone saw my body wasting away, and knew that there was something not right.
So they reached out to me. They would call me every day — they’d invite me to take walks or come over to watch a movie. They invited me to grab a cup of coffee, hang out — anything! But I never answered their phone calls. I was too caught up in the F5 tornado that was raging in my head, that I couldn’t break the cycle – not even for 30 minutes – to sit down for tea with my friends that cared and loved me so much.
Part of the reason why I pushed them away was that I knew that if I let them get too close to me, they’d see how entrenched in my anorexia I was. They’d figure out that, “Wow, it’s not Ulcerative Colitis, but actually an eating disorder.” I chose to protect my eating disorder over keeping my friendships. That’s the sad truth about anorexia and eating disorders, and why it’s so hard to “get through” to her: she would literally do anything – including die – in order to protect her eating disorder. So she’ll lie to you. Manipulate you. Hurt you physically, mentally and emotionally. She’ll hide food. She’ll vomit behind your back. She’ll isolate herself. She’ll threaten this and that. All to protect the thing that is controlling her every move.
But back to my friends. They loved me. They were concerned. And they called everyday. But there comes a point, where after months and months of reaching out and never even getting a return phone call, that you just stop reaching out. They never stopped being my friends, but they just stopped trying, and chose to support me from a distance.
Many of those relationships – not all – did end up healing. It took a long time to rebuild them, but they did recover. And just like you didn’t destroy those relationships overnight, you can’t rebuild them overnight either.
I had to come clean with the truth. This was something that I did at inpatient. I think Alcoholics Anonymous refers to this as “making amends,” but I did just that at inpatient. I made a list of all the people in my life that I had been lying to: my family, my friends, my teachers, trusted family friends. And I wrote letters to each of them, explaining that I actually was suffering from an eating disorder, not Ulcerative Colitis. And I apologized for lying to them and betraying their trust.
The process of coming clean was a big part of my journaling at inpatient. I was so terrified of being honest with my loved ones, because not only was I going to have to disappoint them, but I was also going to have to be vulnerable and reveal that I’m not perfect. Both of those things: being a disappoint and being imperfect, were two of the biggest lies that ED was telling me. They were his stronghold on me. And so to admit those two things to literally everyone in my life that I cared about, was something that, a) I was filled with so much anxiety about doing, b) was completely terrified of doing, and c) knew that it was something that just needed to be done.
“I have to do this. If I want complete restoration from the ED, then I have to come clean to the list. They are still going to love me, and it will actually offer them some relief. It will be a way of showing them that I love them and that I am sorry.”
After I wrote and sent my letters, I had an overwhelming sense of the gravity that my illness had on the people I loved. It became real: I had truly hurt them. It was the first time where my eating disorder “blinders” had come off, and I realized the gravity and the impact of my actions not just on me, but on others.
I just wrote my first amends letter to Luke. I feel very ashamed after that letter. I need to remember that God loves me.
The letters to my friends go out today. I am anxious as to how they will be received. I know I have wounded them and I am hopeful that they will forgive me and still love me. I know I have a lot of trust to earn back. I am anxious about the awkwardness of afterwards and seeing them for the first time when I return.
The responses I got from my friends were full of love and relief. They said they were honored that I would trust them enough to share this part of myself with them. They said they were sad that I had been battling this alone and relief that I was getting help and healing. There was not one bit of anger. They were all full of hope for me, and for our friendships in the future.
In addition to writing letters to my friends and loved ones, I also called my immediate family. I already recounted first admitting the truth about my anorexia and calling my parents immediately after. It took a few days, but I then called my siblings — Some relationships merit a phone conversation.
I just called my siblings and I told them the truth. It was so hard and scary, but now I feel so free because they forgave me and told me how much they love me and just want me to get batter. I want to rebuild their trust, and by me getting better, I will be a walking picture of the regained trust.
Telling your friends and loved ones the truth is a very humbling and scary thing, especially when doing so means coming face to face with the lies ED has been feeding you. But it is worth it. Those relationships are worth repairing, and honestly, it will make them grow stronger.
When I got home from inpatient, my friends were waiting at the house for me, and greeted me with warm hugs and such genuine excitement that I had chosen life. We all were so happy to see each other that we all jumped in the pool in my backyard with all our clothes on. They had the “old me” back. They had the “old friend” back that was trapped inside, being manipulated by ED. Yes, they had been lied to. Yes, they had been hurt by my isolation and withdrawal, but I think deep down, they understood that it was not really me who was choosing to hurt them, it was my eating disorder. Everyday I am grateful for the forgiveness I have received, and have made it my mission to take the love and compassion that I generously received, and pay it forward.
But there’s one aspect of Broken Relationships that isn’t quite so “lovey-dovey,” and that’s toxic relationships. Yes, you will have a handful of relationships that, let’s face it, just aren’t good for you, and jeopardize your recovery. Then what?
That’s a tough topic, and it’s up later this week in my Relationship #RealTalk series.