When an eating disorder makes three in a relationship: the impact
“ED had swept me into a meaningless void. I lost touch with ‘me’ completely, and also with my husband George…. In my mid-30s, ED convinced me that my husband was the cause of my inability to feel at peace. Once this thought took hold, our marriage was destroyed in a matter of weeks. I gathered the children, aged 9 to 13, around, and tried to explain as best I could my eating disorder history, and how it had led to this crisis, where I felt my choice had been reduced to ‘leave home or die’.”
June Alexander in Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer, p 36
An eating disorder affects our health and, especially for those who experience a long-term illness, the effects often impact on our relationships, too. Over coming weeks, Dear Diary will share perspectives and shed light on this issue that has been ignored or set aside in many instances for far too long.
Guest diarist: Elysa Roberts
When invited to write about the nature of relationships in my recovery from an eating disorder the chorus of a song came to mind:
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run*
In other words, relationships can fuel or defeat an eating disorder. I’ve experienced both scenarios. Part of breaking free from my eating disorder ultimately meant walking away from significant relationships and subsequently holding onto others. Like the song says, you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to walk away.
The lesson of these lyrics is best exemplified by the story of my relapse after several years of recovery from bulimia nervosa (bulimia). I didn’t see it coming. In hindsight, I don’t think I’d recovered as strongly as I thought I had when I met the man I’d eventually marry right about the time I was approaching discharge from the care of my psychologist. This man was aware of what I’d been going through; however we essentially never discussed my eating disorder again after I was discharged ‘recovered’. I moved on and fell in love with a man who, for a while, found me to be ‘the pick of the litter’ wherever we went and no matter who we were around. Over time things changed between us, not the least of which was his once positive regard for my figure.
A comment is all it takes
As you might imagine, for someone with a long history of my own criticism of my figure, any suggestion of my body not being good enough, especially from a supposed loved one, was just the crack in the armor the bully-monster needed to make its way back into my life.
Somehow, in the face of my feelings of inadequacy, I had enough self-regard to “know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away.” We were divorced nine years after we were married. I was 35 years old.
Unfortunately, my struggle with myself and bulimia did not end just by walking away from that significant relationship. The detrimental effect of that relationship ran deep. I’d end up struggling with my body image and bulimia for another decade. Shame in failing to stay recovered and some misfires in reaching out to unexpectedly judgmental others kept me silent and suffering.
Finding support online
In 2013, however, I mustered up the courage to tell my secret and seek help again. And fortunately this time, I found myself in new relationships, compassionate relationships, albeit anonymously at first. You see, I sought help in an online support network for people recovering from bulimia. I chose this option because I could be anonymous; I was still too ashamed to be open about my struggle. The idea of this ‘network’ was to chat and connect with others with similar lived experiences. It was a place to share our struggles to overcome the lure and lies of bulimia with those who truly understood how we could do what we did to our bodies. And it became a place to inspire and celebrate our small wins and big steps into recovery.
There was one relationship from that virtual environment that most stands out as the game-changer in my recovery journey. This relationship was not romantic nor with a man. This anonymous relationship was with a woman, who like me, was doing her best to recover from far too many years with bulimia. She too questioned her worth in relation to her weight, shape and size. She too was highly educated, a professional. She too had failed relationships with men. She too had moved continents for a job opportunity. The empathy, compassion and unconditional regard I felt from this stranger was a key to my recovery.
And as the song goes: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em …”
I know to hold onto this relationship. Since that time, with identities and stories revealed, she’s become a treasured friend beyond the confines of that online, anonymous world that I will always be grateful I entered.
Learning when to walk away and when to hold on
As I shared at the start of my reflection, relationships can fuel or defeat an eating disorder. Knowing when to walk away from detrimental relationships and hold healthy ones is part of the recovery process. I see World Eating Disorder Day as a collective force holding those affected by eating disorders in empathetic, compassionate and unconditional regard, just like a positive relationship does. Through discussing the effect of eating disorders openly, the message will spread that no one needs to suffer in silence or alone.
Elysa advocates for advancements in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders through her story-telling, membership in the Australia New Zealand Academy of Eating Disorders (ANZAED) and her teaching and research as a Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia.
* Schlitz, D. (1978). The Gambler [Recorded by Kenny Rogers]. On The Gambler [vinyl]. Nashville, TN: United Artists Music & Records Group, Inc.
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