I’ve noticed a sad and strange paradox in my clients struggling with eating disorders. While sufferers are typically bright, compassionate and caring people, when they are in the midst of an eating disorder, they can appear selfish, deceitful and even lacking in integrity to those around them.
To paraphrase author Anne Lamott (who has written about her battles with food): “I felt like the piece of sh*t around which the world revolved.”
I believe this fundamental paradox (selfish yet lacking Self) helps explains the difficulties that those in the eating disorder community have with increasing compassion and understanding surrounding these illnesses. In the wake of an eating disorder, loved ones may be as emotionally and physically devastated as victims.
Just imagine this scenario: your best friend gets cancer, but the cancer actually causes her to believe that the life-saving treatment, chemotherapy, is toxic. The cancer itself has made her phobic of the cure. Now imagine your friend has to get chemo three times a day and you must convince her on a daily basis that she can no longer trust her own brain.
Some tense battles would ensue. You can envision how such an illness could tear at the fabric of your relationship as you watched the person you love slowly commit suicide by denying herself treatment.
For people with anorexia and bulimia, the “chemo” is food. Supporters become angry at the illness that has stolen their loved one (who still walks and talks but is not really there). And there is no place to direct their anger except towards the person who is already suffering. Typically people-pleasers, the person with the eating disorder does not want to upset anyone else, so she becomes an expert in faking, hiding, placating. This is but one of the ways that eating disorders destroy relationships.
Kate is a 30-year-old client who has had an on-going battle with bulimia for over half of her life. Bright, beautiful, outgoing and funny, she used to binge and purge a dozen times a day. She has worked hard in therapy and is down to a once-a-week binge-purge episode. Married to a patient and supportive guy, they have an adorable 2-year-old boy whom she “loves more than life itself.” She refrained from purging during her pregnancy, but relapsed immediately after his birth.
While her husband is aware of her on-going struggles, despite my urging she will not reach out to him for help before an “episode” (even though at this point he could likely talk her out of it). On the contrary, she diligently works her bulimia around him, squeezing it into her moments alone and then “not lying, but just not telling” her husband about them. He tells her how gorgeous she is (of course she thinks “he has to say that”) and he just wants her to love herself and her body as much as he does.
And yet when he leaves the house for a trip to Home Depot, she sneaks in a binge and then heads to the bathroom to throw up. According to her, they have a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy about her eating disorder: “What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him,” she rationalizes. This is a woman with strong morals who will teach her son the importance of honesty and trust.
She only lies in the service of her eating disorder.
I believe that she will only let go of her eating disorder when she realizes how important she is; how much she matters to those she loves. I am hoping she can remember in those alone moments, to put her marriage and her love for her child above the ”secret love affair” she is having with “ED” (Eating Disorder).
I reach for analogies about secret addictions and affairs. Her husband has been trying to quit smoking for years. “How do you feel about your husband smoking?” “I hate it! I think it’s a gross habit!” “But what if he only smokes when you aren’t around and hides the evidence so you never find out? Is that okay?” She smiles, ”OK, I see where you are going with this. But I don’t want him to die from lung cancer!” “Well, I’m sure he doesn’t want his wife and the mother of his baby to die from a heart attack or esophageal cancer from years of purging, either.”
You see, Kate, when you walk into that kitchen to binge and the bathroom to throw up, you bring your child and your husband and me and all the people who love you in there with you. Not only are you NOT alone in that bathroom, it is very crowded in there. Every one of us hurts when you binge and purge. When you injure this person that we all love, when you are not fully present in your life, you not only deny yourself of life’s joy, but you deny the entire Universe of the gift of wonderful YOU.
Yes, Kate, you matter that much.