There is so much I would like to share with the world about anorexia from the perspective of one who feels its torment on a daily basis. Here is an issue I find especially intriguing and, of course, complex: family.
It’s so simple to blame your mother, your step-family, your over-achieving brother or your star athlete sister for an eating disorder. In all actuality it is yours and yours alone. When I say this I do not mean to sound like Dr. Phil (who did a hideous story about anorexia) and imply that you “brought this upon yourself” as I have often been accused of. I mean you are genetically hardwired to respond to your environment (stress, expectations, etc) in a manner that predisposes you to an eating disorder.
How does family play into this etiology? Growing up family is your primary environment. If you’re like me, the ebb and flow of familial life is both triggering and essential to recovery. For a decade I have been so antsy and agitated when simple family arguments arise (e.g. who needs to be where and when, what expenses need to be addressed immediately and which can wait until payday) that I would lose my appetite and ability to sleep. Looking back at my fourth grade self I can connect the dots and accept that it is not the mere presence of my family and our oddities that make me anxious. It is instead the fact that familial life cannot be perfect and that I cannot make it so that triggers my anxiety and need to control something: usually my caloric intake. I am often reminded (usually by Supermum) that I can only control my own behavior, beyond that I need to let it go and allow my family to cope, do laundry and argue in their own fashion. Damn, it’s hard to accept this – I just want to make it right, perpetually peaceful and simple.
In many senses families introduce stressors to one’s life; they are the one social network we are born into and cannot easily escape. This sounds harsh, but my assessment of the family’s role in eating disorder recovery is overwhelming positive, so bear with me. The family is also the building block that catalyzes an education in conflict resolution. As a young person you can experiment with coping styles around “the fam” and they will still love you. This didn’t occur to me until it was too late – I had already succumbed to anorexia.
If your is as tuned in and supportive as mine is anorexia will not be able to pry you away from them. Family can be both a source of anxiety and the rope tethering you to shore on your darkest, windiest night.
There is a growing movement to keep children and young adults with eating disorders out of inpatient facilities and instead with their families. This is the basis of Family Based Treatment (FBT). The basis of FBT is this: parents must be there for each and every meal until the child is ready to assume responsibility for her own eating. When I began my recovery, we didn’t know that this approach had a name. It was just common sense. We cook together, we eat together; we always have. When you hit rock bottom, family is al you have. Blame them and their “cooky-ness” all you want, but remember this: they are the only people who will both support you and hold you accountable twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Let me end by saying: no family is perfect. The past year has made that clear. Don’t give them too much Freudian grief about the cards you’ve been dealt (ok, you can give them a hard time about the less then stellar gene pool, but leave it at that). Instead of using family as a scapegoat, communicate with them, allow them to engage in the recovery process.
I’ll admit, I’m not usually this positive about my family. I’m learning to appreciate them and share my trials with them, but I don’t exactly sit on the floor and sing “Kumbaya” with my siblings. Let me add some perspective by saying: you’re still allowed to fight with your sisters about rights to the washing machine, pout when your mum threatens you with Ensure and make fun of your dad’s singing.