“My husband needs treatment, but he is reluctant to go. He has been once before and doesn’t think it will help him this time. It is so hard to watch him struggle. When I try to bring it up, we always get in an argument and the conversation leaves me feeling like we took 10 steps backward. I can see him sinking further and further into the disorder, and I don’t know what to do.”
If you can relate to these words above, please know that you are not alone.
The scenario above is a topic of discussion that comes up frequently here at Eating Recovery Center. We hear similar stories during our Support Groups, at Family Days events and in ERC’s online community for caregivers, Eating Disorders Family Connection.
As a Licensed Master Social Worker and Alumni/Family Liaison for ERC, I often have conversations with friends and family attempting to support someone over the age of 18. They call or email us looking for guidance — unsure of how to help or what to say. They see their loved one struggling and feel that they have no real influence over their loved one’s decision to seek treatment. My heart goes out to these friends and family as they describe the fear, frustration and helplessness they are experiencing.
If you find yourself unsure of how to approach your loved one about their illness or if you can’t get through a conversation with your loved one, here are some helpful tips and resources to help you:
1. Show yourself grace and compassion during difficult conversations.
Does your anger and impatience rise during challenging conversations? Please know that you are human, and this is normal. Take a 10-15-minute break away from your loved one and allow yourself to experience those difficult emotions in a safe environment and way. Realize that you are most likely experiencing appropriate feelings given the circumstances, that it’s okay to feel this way, and that these feelings will pass.
If you feel yourself getting stuck, try distracting yourself with an activity you enjoy or by calling a trusted friend. If you took a 10-15-minute break but are still too upset to talk about things, it is okay to return to the conversation at a later time. And, if you feel shame or self-criticism about how you handle difficult conversations, know that this is also common. Try some of Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion resources
or seek out a therapist to confide in if you get stuck in a shame spiral or in a self-criticism rut.
2. Separate the eating disorder from the person you love.
You probably know that eating disorders are not a choice. While the exact cause of eating disorders
is unknown, researchers and experts in the field believe the cause is a combination of biological, environmental and cultural factors. Essentially, the eating disorder is impacting your loved ones’ neurobiological responses
. This can result in your loved one feeling differently, thinking differently and processing information differently than they used to. When they are engaging in disordered eating behaviors, your loved one may not seem like themselves. Recognize that this is normal, but that it can make these conversations about treatment options even harder.
3. Know that professionals can help both you and your loved one.
These tough conversations about treatment aren’t easy. Caregiving is even harder. You may want to consider finding your own individual therapist for yourself during this process. Therapists can help you identify and notice what may be impacting your specific situation, and tools to help you through it.
There is also tremendous therapeutic power in being heard and feeling understood. Having a trusted therapist to vent to, problem solve with, and confide in can be an extremely valuable tool. If you feel burned out as a caregiver, therapy will be even more important as it can help you function more effectively in your day-to-day life. Psychology Today has a great search engine
for those looking to find a therapist who specializes in eating disorder treatment. NEDA provides a guide
with tips to help you find a qualified therapist that is the best fit for your individual needs and therapy goals.
4. Educate yourself about the best ways to encourage your loved one.
I was recently speaking with the husband of an ERC Dallas alum who was asking for resources geared specifically toward spouses supporting a loved one. Unfortunately, eating disorder education and resources for spouses/partners are limited. The good news is, there are many online resources with general information to get anyone started whether you are a spouse, friend, parent or other support person. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has a great page titled “Encouraging a Loved One to Seek Help” that you can find here
. There are valuable tips on how to start conversations, and what to do if your loved one is over 18 and refusing treatment.
5. Know that your support and love are invaluable
Loving someone with an eating disorder can be hard, hard work. Remind yourself that you are loved, and that your love is felt. Know that your support can help your friend or family member, even if it may not seem that way. Research shows us that feeling connected to others can neurobiologically make us more resilient, which can aid in the recovery from an eating disorder. For more info on the reality of this topic, read Dr. Ashley Solomon’s blog, “How Love Can Help Those in Eating Disorder Recovery
Above all, remember that you can support your loved one, and help them in their recovery process…but that you ultimately cannot fix or cure their eating disorder. This act of letting go while simultaneously supporting can be so hard. That is why seeking support, education and self-care — for yourself — throughout this entire process is so vital.
To find peer-support and education about eating disorders, visit our Family Support Center here
or check out our Virtual Family Support Group here
Katie Bendel, LMSW, is an Alumni/Family Liaison for Eating Recovery Center. Katie is passionate about helping individuals in recovery and their support persons connect to their internal strengths, external tools/resources, and recovery community.