With an eating disorder, when sick or when recovering, one of the most frustrating and sometimes hurtful things that can happen, is when people around us unintentionally collude with the eating disorder.
Those close to us – relatives or friends can be guilty of this, as can health professionals whose job it is to know better and to help us.
What do I mean though when I say that people can collude with the illness?
I am talking about a number of ways here in which it can feel like, not only are we having to battle the illness ourselves, but those around us are making it harder for us to do so as they support or even encourage some of our behaviours, decisions we make or things we say that are stemming from the eating disorder.
Of course, they are not doing so with the intention of harm… in fact they are more often than not trying to help, but they are often all too unaware of what they are doing or how their actions can make it harder for us and make us feel more alone in our battle against the illness.
Some examples of ways in which people might collude with the eating disorder:
– Noticing restrictive eating habits and patterns and not challenging it or even passively encouraging it (i.e. buying restrictive foods for us, accepting as normal that we eat ‘differently’ to the rest of the family, no longer even inviting us to meals out or family events as ‘she/he won’t come’, etc)…
– Not challenging other behaviours and routines around eating and accepting them as the norm – rigid eating times, only eating in certain ways or other disordered patterns.
– Encouraging exercise or walks – supporting behaviours that can be very compulsive and disordered for the person with the eating disorder.
– Allowing the illness to be the elephant in the room… not addressing it, not talking about it, despite the fact it is damaging not just the life of the person who is sick but others too and impacting on our relationships.
– Alongside this comes people talking about us and how worried they are but not telling us that fact, which allows us to continue to believe that things must be ok, we must be ok as nobody else is worried or saying anything.
– Being too scared of eating disordered tantrums or ‘upsetting us’ that they will try anything to avoid triggering one or back down quickly if one starts up…. this usually means letting the eating disorder take the upper hand!
– Encouraging work or studies or other pursuits when we are not well enough to sustain them with recovery… Not intervening to help us ensure that recovery comes first in life – then more meaningful life can be fully possible!
As I said above, none of this is done with any intent of harm and I definitely do not write this with any blame attached whatsoever.
People act in the way that they think is best for us in any given moment and this illness is complex. Nobody wants to see someone else upset or distressed (particularly someone they love) and a challenged eating disorder is often not a pretty sight!
I write this though so that there is awareness of these ways in which those around us can make the illness even harder for us to address…. Awareness for those of us sick so that we can do something about it and awareness for any family, friends or professionals reading so that they might understand where their actions might be helpful in keeping a person calm in the short term but will be keeping them sick in the long term!
For those of us with eating disorders, when our loved ones or health professionals who desperately do want to help us, are in fact seemingly colluding with our illness and making our recovery harder, we have to learn to be so brave and tell them.
Tell them what is not helpful, tell them when their well meant actions increase our struggles.
We need to help people know that these behaviours we have carried out for years and been accepted as our norm are things we need to stop and we would love those around us to help us do that.
We have to be brave and ask people to challenge us when they see us restricting, exercising or being weird in eating disordered ways!!
And we should let people know that we want and need to eat more and eat with them and we want to be invited to family gatherings or social events and supported to come.
Those around us have a learning curve in our recovery too.
They have accepted our illness for a long time and need to rewire their brains too that we are different now, we are healing and we can teach them how to not only not collude with the eating disorder but how they can also help us beat it, even if we do fight them and cry if they try. We teach them that the tears are ok, we can tolerate them but staying sick…. we cannot tolerate that and neither should they.