At Home for the Holidays: Challenges in Eating Disorder Recovery
When I was 12 years old, in the summer between sixth and seventh grades, I was bullied. Not the “you’re stupid” in the classroom bullying, but rather the omnipresent cyberbullying that has become a staple in today’s digital age.
It was some nonevent that led to the ordeal of course -- a prepubescent spat. A boy “friend” of mine liked a popular girl “friend” of mine and she didn’t like him. One night, he complained on AOL instant messaging about her and I consoled him. To win her over, he took our AOL conversation and edited it to where it appeared that he defended her.
It was a master work of craftsmanship, back in the early 2000s, to manipulate text on a computer, but hell hath no fury like a preteen in love.
Anyway, the gist of this story is that when she saw the edited conversation, she and the two other girls in our friend group turned on me and I became the target of the popular girls’ vitriol. Being only 12, I didn’t disclose the extent of the bullying to my parents. When the yard was trashed, I blamed it on the kids down the street.
But during that summer, I experienced what I now know was depression.
How Being Bullied Contributed to My Eating Disorder
My parents, in their best effort to help what they imagined was preteen girl hormones, tried to get me out of the house. Ours is an active family in which group activity has often been the way we communicate and more so the way we support. So when my dad told me to lace up my shoes and go for a run with my Walkman in hand, I did. Running gave me endorphins, and I now know that the neurotransmitters and my brain’s reward system influenced a lot of the exercise addiction.
For example, dopamine has been found to play an important role in overall reward systems, and has been shown to influence parts of the brain involving dopamine. Like other addictive substances and behaviors, exercise is associated with pleasure and social, cultural or subcultural desirability. People who develop exercise addiction tend to be inflexible in their thinking, same as people with certain other addictions, and this can reinforce the pattern of addiction by helping them to exercise regularly. As years went on, I grew increasingly reliant on exercise to “feel okay” in my mind. And this went on until I went to treatment at age 24.
Once in treatment for the eating disorder, this piece of my past -- the bullying -- came up when I was trying to understand which events in my life may have led to the eating disorder over the years. The exercise then naturally made its way into conversation as well, as my therapist posed questions about the relationship between exercise and validation.
Ultimately, I knew once I was home that I would have to address boundaries with my family concerning conversations about exercise and that my relationship to exercise had to change. I could no longer engage in the same conversations about our workouts and amount of activity.
Setting Boundaries at Home for the Holidays
For a long time, this was hard to navigate. While I had to change my views of the world to accommodate recovery, I knew my family did not. While I understood they wanted to help, I also understood that, unlike me, they had not had months of intensive treatment and so setting boundaries would be up to me.
Over the years, there have been many difficult holidays and conversations, and I’m years into recovery. For a long time, I didn’t say much. I didn’t feel it was my place to micromanage their words around exercise. But eventually I understood that resentment would only fester if I didn’t convey what I needed.
So when I finally chose to have these conversations, I went into them knowing it would not be a one-time event. It would be a new chapter in communication and, I preemptively knew, uncomfortable at points too. But I also understood we had to start somewhere.
This is a good time to note that no matter how you bring up these kinds of boundary setting conversations with your family, they are likely to be met with some defensiveness. I understood that too. I knew -- and continue to know -- that my parents are well-intentioned people. They love my brother and me, and they love each other.
I know also that my parents struggle with their own concepts around beauty, productivity and hard work, and how those beliefs often equate to validation, worth and virtue. And I think there were years they blamed themselves for my eating disorder, which of course was never their burden to bear but is a common sentiment among parents.
Communicating Effectively in Eating Disorder Recovery
Communication and boundaries are a two-way street. To try and understand the person who you want to hear you is to first try to understand how they “hear” themselves and the world. This especially applies to a relationship as fragile, tender and concrete as most of us have with our parents.
In the beginning, I tailored the conversations to tiny pushbacks. I’m not saying it’s right or that’s the way to have the conversations, but it’s the way it went for me. Eventually I became more direct with what I needed for my recovery, but it took time.
Once I began to frame conversations around how my parents could help me, I noticed a difference. It was then I realized that if I continued to point out where I needed them to modify some of that behavior, they would.
Now, is it perfect? No. But how could I expect it to be? I don’t always even know what feels like a boundary before it’s said. And I also know I cannot control my parents’ comments or their thoughts or how those thoughts affect their behavior and expression.
But I can truthfully say that it’s gotten easier over the years since I started to have these conversations. My parents understand better now what I need each time I can frame the conversation around how the boundary helps my recovery.
It is with this patience and acceptance that I find we all have a better relationship. I have a sense of peace in the acceptance that we are all out there in the world trying to survive as best we can. Most of us do not mean to cause harm, but occasionally we are too in our own way to avoid it.
Improving Family Relationships in Eating Disorder Recovery
I’ll be interested to see where we are in another nine years -- and what conversations we will be having then. I am grateful for my family all the same.
For individuals in eating disorder recovery, conversations and relationships involving diet and exercise may need to change. Importantly, individuals in recovery can also learn to respond differently to harmful comments and attitudes about food and exercise. Keep this in mind as you travel home for the holidays.
Sports, Exercise and Eating Disorders – The Full of Beans Podcast