02.04.18// Sister Spotlight - Taking Care of Yourself When Your Loved One Has An Eating Disorder
My sister wrote this to help anyone who has a family member or friend with an eating disorder, it made me ugly cry and it once again proves how cool my sister is.
Whether you are struggling or you know someone that is; please remember to surround yourself with people who support you. You can choose the people who will cry and laugh with you, you deserve it. Whether that’s your family, or the people that are your chosen family - make sure you have the support you need. And if your struggling to find it, please reach out. x
Meg, you’re my inspiration.
In honour of it being national eating disorder week, I thought it would be more appropriate than ever to share my story of being a sibling to someone with an eating disorder. If you know anything about my family, or have ever met my sister, you have probably heard her story many times. My sister is incredibly brave as she openly shares her experience with mental illnesses; and has done so through various speeches, articles and public advocacy. However, from the perspective of someone who has witnessed her journey for 5 years now, it is pretty strange to hear the stories and struggles wrapped up into 20 minutes of a well-tailored speech or shortly summarized in a 1 page article.
Eating disorders are complex and terrifying, and they have the capacity to take over someone’s life in a way that just can’t be expressed in words. You can hear the facts and listen to the stories, but until you or someone you know is struggling with this disorder, you don’t understand how much it changes your life.
I first found out she had anorexia nervosa when I was in grade 9 – and I had absolutely no idea what that meant. My mom picked me up from school, sat me down and explained it was an eating disorder. If I am being totally honest, I didn’t really see it as a problem at first. I thought it was a stricter version of a diet, and something that could easily be fixed. I decided to use the very reliable source of google to see if I could find out more about this ‘anorexia’, and it lead me to a Psychology Today article. It stated that, “Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder manifested when a person refuses to eat an adequate amount of food or is unable to maintain the minimal weight for a person's body mass index (BMI).” Okay, my grade nine self-thought… what the hell does that mean? How can someone just not want to eat? I was incredibly confused - my entire family was. We had no idea how to navigate what was about to be an incredibly difficult part of our lives.
I saw a lot of change happen over the next year or so with my family and even bigger changes happening to my sister. Dinner time, which once was a family bonding experience, became screaming matches and uncontrollable crying. I saw my mom cry for the very first time in my life because she was so lost and scared. I saw my sister, once a social butterfly who actively participated in everything become distant; she isolated herself from her friends, aggressively fought with our family, and things that once made her happy ceased to matter. Not only to mention the physical changes of rapid weight loss, thinning out of hair, red fingertips and frequently being uncontrollably cold on average days. When I was first doing my internet search of what anorexia was, it didn’t warn me how much it was going to affect my relationship with her.
She was my best friend growing up, and the first year of this battle was seriously detrimental for our relationship. All of our conversations were centered around food; one of us was always yelling and one of us was always upset. To say it was tough during the first year is an understatement – it was absolutely devastating. I never realized how greatly an eating disorder could affect someone, and even further affect the people around them.
Over time it did get better, slowly but surely. As my family learned what worked and what didn’t, and Kate got the appropriate help she needed, we started to recover and become stronger as a family. The recovery was not easy, and there were multiple setbacks and fluctuations that really hit us hard. Eating disorders are such an insane concept to wrap your head around. For someone like me, I absolutely ADORE food; I have my favorite types and I truly look forward to a good meal. But to my sister, and all those who are dealing with eating disorders, food becomes the most terrifying part of your day. Everything in your life is centered around eating – If I go out what will I eat? What is my next snack going to be? If I see this friend, will I be able to eat what I want? What I noticed with my sister, however, is that the eating disorder wasn’t actually about food. Controlling intake and restricting the food she ate was about trying to find a sense of order in a world of chaos. This was a concept I really had a hard time understanding, how can food be linked to any sort of control? What I’ve discovered is that food became the one part in her life she felt like she had force over. Food became a mechanism for dealing with OCD and Anxiety, and when Kate restricted her food to a dangerously low point it was because she was looking for a sense of peace within the crazy thoughts of her mind. I really wish I had realized this earlier, and could have understood that all the times I yelled and begged for her to eat it was never about the food, but instead linked to something much scarier I didn’t understand
There are days when things aren’t perfect, there are days when I am filled with worry and fear. This disorder is 24/7 and it is really hard to see someone you love go through that. However, there are things that I have discovered over the years that helped me cope as the sibling of someone with this disease.
1. Your problems deserve to be heard
This one I really cannot stress enough, specifically for someone that is a sibling of a person struggling with an eating disorder. I found myself actively not telling my parents when I was struggling with my own problems because I felt like a burden to them. There was so much going on with my sister all the time that I didn’t want to add any extra stress to their life. It became exhausting trying to keep everything to myself, to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore. Reach out to someone, anyone, and tell them your stories. Your problems deserve to be heard and acknowledged.
2. Know that the eating disorder is NOT the person
This one is harder to understand, but once you do really positively changes your relationship. A lot of the time, eating disorders can make a person easily aggravated and change their behavior – when they are this way it’s really easy to just get angry. It’s in these situations where you have to realize they are battling with their own ‘evil demon’ inside their head, and it’s that evil voice in their head that is yelling at you – not the person themselves. When I realized that, it became a lot easier for me to deal with bad situations and help her fight through them rather than fight with her.
3. Ask the person what you can do to help
This is literally one of the easiest and most effective things you can do. A lot of the time you can’t understand what they are going through, and giving advice might not be the most effective thing in the world. When my sister is talking to me, I usually ask her what she wants me to do. Sometimes it just is listening, sometimes it’s validating and even just sitting in silence together. Tailor your support to what they feel will help them to be the most effective.
4. Educate yourself and the people around you
One of the best ways you can understand what they are going through is to try and learn. Talk to them if they feel comfortable sharing, read books on the disorder; do everything you can to know more about it. Also, open up to your friends and tell them what’s going on. There is nothing more upsetting then hearing the phrases ‘she looks so anorexic’, or ‘I just ate I really should just throw up’ being used casually – because you know how serious those statements actually are. I am fortunate enough to have an amazing network of friends that have supported me when I need help and that know I am hypersensitive to topics like that. By telling your friends what an eating disorder is and how it affects you, they become advocates and help you change conversations around dieting and mental health.
To my sister, I love you so incredibly much. You have been through hell and back and have come through resilient, strong and powerful. You face the toughest battles every day and I couldn’t imagine going through what you do. Keep sharing your story – it truly is amazing.