Family and a village of care are vital for eating disorder recovery

“Life is not fair,” my psychiatrist said rather bluntly some years ago, when I was bemoaning relationship losses. The losses – my parents, sister and extended family members – were ongoing casualties of my eating disorder and I was feeling sad.

I felt very indignant and offended at first, at my psychiatrist’s dismissive phrase and lack of empathy. I had fought hard for several decades to regain my true self from the horrid ‘ED’. The illness was no longer in the driver’s seat of my thoughts and behaviors. Yes, under its dominance I had caused my family great frustration, concern, embarrassment and disappointment; I could understand they might be wary of trusting and embracing me.

But I was healthy me, now. True, authentic “me”. Surely they could see this and accept me. No, they could not. Too many years had passed; they had made decisions in their best interests without including or consulting me. Like a scarred branch on an otherwise beautiful family of origin tree, my growth had withered while the rest of the tree prospered and consolidated; my branch’s life support had been severed; I was alienated and about to drop off.

I would hit the ground and rot. Or, my psychiatrist pointed out, I could refuse to be an ongoing victim of my eating disorder – I could germinate and start fresh growth, as a new tree in my own right; for me, and my descendants.

Eventually, when I calmed down, and thought about it, the acknowledgement that “life is not fair” helped immensely. It took away the expectation and pressure that everything should be fair. Life suddenly became less black and white, and more manageable, and I felt more free to do what was right for me.

What makes things harder for people who have had an eating disorder, is that it is our nature to want “everything to be right”. We want “everyone to be happy”. Eventually comes the realisation that the only person we are responsible to keep happy is our own self.

Note the losses but focus on new growth

The losses in terms of relationships ruined or scarred, because of our illness, can weigh us down and impede our recovery journey if we are not careful. If family members accompany us on our recovery journey, it is very likely that withered branch on the tree will burst into life with new buds, blossoms and leaves. It will be consolidated and merge back into the overall foliage.

But if family members have routinely denied the presence of the illness, refuse acknowledge it and remain in the dysfunctional state that existed when the illness was raging, and prefer to point to us as ‘the one with problems in the family’, well, there is only one thing to do. When our branch falls we must brush ourselves off and walk on.

We must focus on people who do understand us, who accept us and who help widen the window of our own true self. Most often this will be our family of origin, but when this is not possible, it may also be our family of choice. When those around us work collaboratively towards recovery, we all feel safe and secure.

Surrounded by a village of care, we can strengthen and widen the window of our healthy self while simultaneously closing the shutters on the eating disorder.

This is why I am an advocate for F.E.A.S.T., a global community of parents and those who support parents in families affected by eating disorders. I feel deeply honored to serve on the F.E.A.S.T. Advisory Panel and support the work of F.E.A.S.T., because I know how devastating it can be for all members of a family when an eating disorder develops – whether in a child, a parent, or a partner. Definitely belonging to a safe and supportive group like F.E.A.S.T. has strengthened my own wellbeing, as well as giving me opportunity to help others.

If you are a carer of a family member or friend with an eating disorder, and are feeling alone today, reach out to F.E.A.S.T.

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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