Bulimia/Anorexia and Compulsive Overeating: When Family and Friends Don't Get It
by Joanna Poppink, LMFT, www.poppink.com
Often a person with an eating disorder covers her pain so well that when she tells the truth about her suffering, people don't believe her. They think she is exaggerating, overreacting or in a mood that will pass.
She can look so good or so happy that people who love her and think they know her well, cannot get past what they wish to see and hear. They can also be too afraid to believe that her descriptions of personal pain might be true.
If that eating disorder person is you, you may be in a situation where many well-meaning people in your life do not take your anguish seriously.
Perhaps they feel helpless because they don't know how to help. They wish and try to believe that whatever is bothering you would just go away. Nobody likes to feel helpless in a painful and bewildering situation, especially when it concerns someone they love.
But as you well know, recurrent bouts of anxiety are not something you can make go away through an act of will. Anxiety like yours is often a signal that something needs to be dealt with. It's what usually sends people looking for relief and then real help.
Attempts to find relief take many forms such as starving, overeating, drinking, using drugs, over-sleeping, overplaying, over-TV viewing, over-exercising, over-flirting, over-dating i.e. doing anything to excess in order to block out thoughts and feelings.
Some people never get past the search for relief in these ways, and they cause great havoc and destruction in their lives. Others like you, since you are still reading this, start exploring and looking for the meaning of their symptoms. They, like you, know a better, happier life is somehow possible, even if they don't know how to achieve it yet.
And they, like you, sense that real help involves honoring yourself and your feelings, including your anxiety. Deep down you know you need to work to discover what the anxiety signals, what it means for you, and what kind of developmental process is called for now.
Sometimes friends and family can be a big help while you do the inner work required to get well. Sometimes they can't. Sometimes they just don't have the understanding of psychological processes necessary. They may be impatient with emotions or be unaware of the significance of feelings. They are only human and may have personal and protected inner feelings of their own which they can't risk coming into their own conscious awareness.
If they can't respond to your need to be heard and understood, the challenge for you is to accept your friends and family realistically including their limited ability to be involved in your healing process. You can still love them, but you may have to look elsewhere for people who are both willing and able to understand and support you as you go through your personal and individual recovery experience.
Even when friends and family have understanding and willingness to listen and help and are supportive, they can't be your therapist. Even therapists can't be therapists for their personal friends and family.
When you are in the early stages of seeking help for an eating disorder can feel anxious and desperate. You want someone to listen and genuinely hear you. Yet because you've experienced so much personal isolation the thought of being truly known is both frightening as well as a deeply desired dream.
You are at a threshold, on the verge of leaving isolation for honest connection. First you will experience this connection with another person (your therapist) then with yourself (honestly knowing yourself) and then with others in the world as you choose because you will be free to choose.
To this dream of health a realityyou use all the courage you can muster to bring yourself to your first appointment with your therapist. Once therapy begins you disocver that one of the most important things a therapist does is listen to you. It's a listening that goes deep. In time it teaches you how to listen and hear yourself in ways you never dreamed possible.
As you learn to hear what your inner depths are crying out for you gain information, guidance, support from within and from your therapist so you can heal what needs to be healed, be free of barriers to happiness and grow into the unique woman you are and can be.
If seeing a psychotherapist would cause other people to judge you harshly, then you may be associating with people who do not have an appreciation for what working with a trained and experienced mental health professional can accomplish. By seeking out and reading this essay this far you must have a sense or a hope of what is possible in a professional relationship. Often the work involved is something that a person simply cannot do alone.
Family and friends don't have to get it. It's your healing path, your understanding and your willingness to go for what you need that matters. It's your life. It's your pain. It's your pathway to health. It's your eventual freedom and capacity for joy. In time, as you go through your recovery with your psychotherapist and your chosen support system you will be able to meet your friends and family on emotional ground they can tolerate. They may grow to understand you. They may never understand.
What's important is that you understand and proceed with the actions and commitments that will bring you health and freedom.
Someday, they may or may not recognize or appreciate what you had to accomplish to achieve health and freedom. But you'll appreciate yourself. And from a position of strength and health you will be able to have compassion for them. In this way, you can maintain relationships you wish to maintain because once you can be present and genuine with yourself you'll know how to be present for what and who matters to you.
Your friends and family may not get it. But you get it. And that's how you get well.
Professional Resources For Finding Help
Academy for Eating Disorders (AED)
American Anorexia and Bulimia Association (AABA)
Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANRED)
Edreferral.com - Professionals treating eating disorders
International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP)
Joanna Poppink's Eating Disorders Resource List In-Patient Treatment Programs
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)