This post isn’t just for parents of adults with eating disorders. It’s for parents, spouses, grandparents, cousins, siblings, friends, loved ones, colleagues, neighbors, uncles, aunts, children, and in fact anyone who knows or cares about an adult with an eating disorder.
The emails that I get from parents of adults with eating disorders are those that I treasure the most. I am not sure why I appreciate them so, as they hurt like hell — far more than even the emails I get from desperate sufferers. I think it might be because when parents of adult sufferers write to me about their adult children they could have been writing about me. In doing so they remind me of the fact that I recovered and got out of anorexia and flood me with gratitude for that.
These emails drip with hurt. And so they should. You see parents of children (the live at home school-age sort) with eating disorders are existing in a place of luxury compared to parents of adults with eating disorders. Let me explain: When the sufferer is a child, doors can be locked, rules can be set, phones can be confiscated. Action can be taken in order to help that child become well. Family-based therapy works! It is difficult, but it works. Parents of children with eating disorders have the ability to make their children well. They need education on how to do so, they need peer support, they need resources, but they can take action.
And even then, parents of children with eating disorders suffer ptsd-like symptoms from the trauma and stress of parenting a child through an eating disorder. So they should. It is traumatic. That is something that as a community we need to recognize and support for.
Parents of adult sufferers of eating disorders don’t have the advantage of being able to lock their grown child in the kitchen until a meal is finished. They often don’t even have the luxury of being able to bring up the subject of food and eating because if they do the phone is hung up, or the front door is slammed and a car started.
These are also the emails that haunt me the most for the simple reason that I often have to write “I don’t know,” or “I don’t have the solution here.” That fucking burns. Write to me about how to treat yourself for anorexia and I can tell you how I did it. Write to me about how to feed a child with an eating disorder and I can tell you who to talk to. Write to me about how to stop exercising obsessively and I can give you a plan. Write to me about how to achieve weight restoration and I can set you up.
Write to me about how to get your adult child who lives in another state and won’t even talk to you or acknowledge that they have an eating disorder to eat and I’m frustrated by my inability to give you a boxed and ready to ship answer.
We have had some breakthroughs. A number of parents now I have instructed to leave my book on their adult child’s doorstep in the hope that they will pick it up and read it. A couple of times this has resulted in the sufferer actually reading the book and contacting me. (That still blows my mind, as when I was sick I would have thrown that book back in my parent’s face — but then, I was a particularly hard case.) I cannot express how happy that makes me. Truly.
The thing is, if you can get an adult sufferer to talk to me, I know I can get them into treatment. If they will talk to me that is the first step to accepting recovery is something they want. If they will talk to me I can throw their eating disorder arguments back at them — because that is another book I could have written.
Other times I have been able to work with the parent to work out what their adult child might respond to. Something that has worked a couple of times is bringing in a family member or family friend whom the sufferer has a good relationship with. One adult sufferer was finally reached when her old school friend drove three states to visit her and literally dragged her to inpatient help. The sufferer later admitted that if her own mother had tried to do that it would not have worked, but for some reason her old friend was able to.
I have known this approach work in so many instances now that I am interested in trying to work out what it is about having a less-involved loved one intervene that throws the eating disorder enough to allow the sufferer to listen to them. Whatever it is, I am thankful for it.
I also know that when I was sick, the people whom I pushed away with the most viciousness where those I loved the most. I think this is because they are the people who threaten the eating disorder. That’s a back-handed compliment I know.
Why parents need support
There are a number of studies on the effects of powerlessness. Most are done on adult males who have lost jobs, or are unable to support their families. I think that these studies apply to the population of people who have to watch an adult loved one go through an eating disorder. There are also studies that show that feeling powerless can lead to a reduction in executive brain functioning. Almost like a sort of numbing.
Long story short, feeling powerless in the long term is bad for one’s mental health.
If you have no control over an adult child it is no wonder that you might feel powerless when they don’t listen to you. You feel like you are unable to do anything to help them yet you have to watch them deteriorate. Torture.
The faceless abuser
I think that often parents of adult sufferers and child sufferers alike go through what is to all intents and purposes emotional abuse. If a partner spoke to and treated you like a child with an eating disorder does then they would be locked up. Trouble is; you cannot and must not blame your child because it is not them — it is their mental illness that is emotionally abusing you.
However, you do have to recognize the abuse so that you can deal with it.
Eating disorders are faceless abusers. While I am not interested in trying to attribute blame as I don’t think it helps anyone, I do think that understanding the symptoms of emotional abuse and ho to treat them is helpful
Symptoms of emotional abuse:
- Surprise and confusion
- Questioning of one’s own memory, “did that really happen?”
- Anxiety or fear; hypervigilence
- Shame or guilt
- Aggression (as a defense to the abuse)
- Becoming overly passive or compliant
- Frequent crying
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Feeling powerless and defeated as nothing you do ever seems to be right (learned helplessness)
- Feeling like you’re “walking on eggshells”
- Feeling manipulated, used and controlled
- Feeling undesirable
Longer-term symptoms of emotional abuse:
- Low self-esteem and self-worth
- Emotional instability
- Sleep disturbances
- Physical pain without cause
- Suicidal ideation, thoughts or attempts
- Extreme dependence on the abuser
- Inability to trust
- Feeling trapped and alone
- Substance abuse
What can you do?
#1 – Prioritize
I just tricked you. I knew that if I put the real subject of this point #1 as the header you would have skipped over it. You’d have sighed and thought “yeah, yeah, I’ll skip to point #2 and hope it actually tells me something helpful.”
Now that I have your attention, I want you to read this point #1 really, really carefully. If you remember one thing from this post, let it be this: you have to look after yourself.
Yes, the real header to this point #1 is “Self care.”
Don’t roll your eyes. I bet you that whatever you are doing in terms of looking after yourself is not enough. You need to treat this situation like trauma, or grief, or some other deeply stressful experience.
Many parents I talk to suffer depression due to the long-term state of powerlessness and stress they are under. Some cry uncontrollably sometimes. Some can’t be intimate with their own partners. Some experience binge eating. Some drink too much. Some struggle with their careers. Almost all tell me that they no longer remember what it feels like to be truly happy.
Whatever you are already doing in terms of self care is not enough. The next couple of points will be more on how to do this, but I really would appreciate some parents commenting on this post (not on Facebook as people won’t see your comment) as to what you do to look after yourself.
#2 – Utilize peer support groups
Because chances are your friends, supportive as they may try to be, don’t get it. They probably don’t get eating disorders for a start. Even less likely they get what it is doing to you. Nope, talk to people who get it — other parents of adults and children with eating disorders.
F.E.A.S.T is meant for parents of children with eating disorders, but nobody is going to kick you out of the Facebook group or forum if you go there for support, and support and understanding is what you will find. Same with the Facebook group Eating Disorder Parent Support. While seeing a professional can be helpful, I actually think peer support is more important. Never underestimate the power of feeling that you are not alone in your experience.
I have recently set up a Slack group for adults in recovery from eating disorders and it is going really well. I want to set up a group for parents and spouses of adults in recovery too. This will function like a support forum specifically with caregivers and loved ones of sufferers so that you can talk with people in a similar situation. If you are interested in joining this group please contact me.
#3 Consider professional help
Not for your child, for you.
You’ve been through trauma, and talking about it to someone who knows how to deal with trauma might help you work through it or at least be prepared for it. Think about it this way; if we were talking about a situation of domestic abuse lasting a number of years you would probably send the victim to therapy.
Your child is not abusing you, but his or her eating disorder is abusing you. You may not be able to control the eating disorder, but you can take steps to control your own wellbeing. Doing so will leave you better prepared to help.
#4 Involve other family members
More times than is okay when I ask “do you and your spouse talk about your child’s eating disorder,” I get a negative. Not always, but enough times I want to address it.
One woman told me she didn’t feel it was right to “bother” her husband with it. Obviously, Ms. Feminist over her flipped her lid at that. If you are intimate enough with someone to make a child you are intimate enough to discuss said child’s health.
Here’s the kicker: when she finally did talk to her husband about their child’s illness, he was not only massively supportive, but he expressed gratitude at her involving him! Turns out that all the time he had been worrying too but was too scared to ask about things because he didn’t think his wife wanted to talk to him about it.
Eating disorders affect the whole family. They do not go away if you don’t talk about them. You cannot pretend an eating disorder doesn’t exist and hope it will just go away one day. Chances are that other family members are just as terrified as you are. I suggest calling frequent family conferences where you talk about eating disorders in a businesslike manner. Set goals, do research together, and create action items for the rest of the family to help them manage stress.
My mum often tells me “you never stop loving your children, no matter how old they get.”
Just because your child is an adult doesn’t mean that you are less deserving of support when they are sick then a parent whose child is younger.