When I talk to people who lived through my anorexia with me, the overwhelming theme is that people didn’t know how they could help me.
They felt their hands were tied. They saw their friend/daughter/sister rapidly wasting away right before their eyes, and they felt helpless.
They didn’t know how to get through to me. They didn’t want to say the wrong thing and trigger a blow up or melt down. And yet they wanted to express their concern.
Meanwhile, I was pushing everyone away, withdrawing from the world, so that I could be alone with my eating disorder, not having to show my friends how sick my mind really was.
But looking back, I’ve come to realize that above all else, there is one thing that is paramount when it comes to dealing with eating disorder sufferers. And that is tough love vs. tender love.
And I think my perspective will surprise you.
I think there is a grave misconception about eating disorders. That the girl (or boy) just needs some “sense” knocked into her. She’s choosing to starve herself for vanity reasons, or “for a guy” or whatever. She just needs to be set straight. Enter: tough love.
You take away privileges. Ground her. Threaten with consequences. Maybe you’ll even go as far as drawing up court papers to turn her over to become a ward of the state.
Not that I would know anything about that…
But here’s why none of those tactics ultimately work:
They are feeding into the self hatred that fuels her eating disorder. That lack of compassion – that toughness – is exactly what she thinks she deserves.
I wish I could express to you what the mindset is like for someone in the throes of anorexia. Because spoiler alert: it is a desolate place full of fear and obsession, and an underlying abhorrence of self.
Just to give you a glimpse: there were nights that I would sleep on the floor, feeling that I didn’t deserve to sleep in my bed.
There is nothing gentle, everything is harsh — inflicted willingly on the self.
I would only shop at Goodwill. I would torture myself with grueling exercise routines. I’d walk through bakeries, and tempt myself with the smells of foods I would never allow to cross my lips.
I saw to it that my life was a living hell. After all, that’s where I believed I belonged.
So…tough love was exactly what I thought I deserved. Of course my loved ones were acting as though they were emotionally unavailable…because that’s exactly what I should be receiving.
If there is one thing your daughter or friend needs, it’s tenderness. Gentleness. Which, I know is hard to even fathom, as you look at your loved one, and not recognize the angry, hollow shell of who she once was. But now is when she needs that compassion more than ever.
And when it’s life or death, I know that words can get the best of you, and emotions run high, and sometimes we utter things in the heat of the moment that can be hurtful or too harsh. That’s to be expected.
But soft love is crucial. Tenderness, patience, gentleness is so foreign to her, and yet vital to her healing.
She needs to be reminded what that feels like.
I remember for probably about 2 years during my disease, I wouldn’t let anyone touch me. No hugs. No foot rubs. No gentle touch. I was too ashamed of my skeletal body, I didn’t want anyone to feel the sticks beneath my baggy Goodwill sweaters.
Can you imagine? I lived it, and I can’t imagine not being touched for two years. And that’s coming from a virgin…
There is a time and a place for tough love.
And yes, there are probably times when it seems like the only solution. An intervention, for one. But even that can be finessed with the gentleness she needs. Because it’s true, there are some decisions that she is incapable of making in her present state that you will need to make for her – like going to inpatient. But find the grace to be gentle and compassionate rather than slip into Stone Cold Steve Austin mode.
Her journey to recovery is going to involve learning how to love herself.
The greatest gift you can ever give her is showing an example of just how to do that.
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