Guest Post by Rachael Steil
Eating disorders thrive in secrecy. Friends and family members will rarely (if ever) see the dozen empty candy bar wrappers stashed in your trash (perhaps wrapped/hidden in crumpled toilet paper) or find measuring cups lying on the counter. It may take months or years for them to find the scale hidden beneath your bed.
They may never know your struggle until you tell them.
Having to explain your eating disorder to a loved one is probably one of the most difficult tasks to take in the journey to recovery. The biggest lesson I had to learn is that friends and family members simply may not understand–but the goal isn’t to make them walk in your shoes. It’s to feel they will always support you and that even in their confusion, they will understand that having the disorder is just that–a disorder. It’s not a way of living we decide to take on.
When I first told my mom about the eating disorder she seemed to continually ask the wrong questions and make the wrong suggestions (“Well let’s step on the scale to see where you’re at!” and, “But did you throw up all your food?”). It’s tough to get off to a good start when someone hasn’t experienced an eating disorder. My dad probably had one of the most difficult times trying to break it apart.
“How can you physically keep stuffing in more and more food?” he asked one night when we had agreed to sit down to talk. “I mean, I get to the point where enough is enough in one meal.”
I sat there trying to figure out how to help my dad understand this. It seemed so obvious to me, but I knew we had different bodies and different lifestyles. I had to help him see how different my mind and body processed food—especially since I had such a warped view of it after all the restriction in my past.
Thus the hour-long conversation went a little like this:
ME: “When you hold back on food for so long–like my two-year restriction–then your body is going to try to make up for it. It’s going to go for the simplest sugars. That’s why many people crave junk food at the end of the day if they don’t eat enough. Your body wants to find the most calorie-dense, simplest form of food so that it can break it down fast and get into the body’s cells. And with an eating disorder–with your body in that desperation mode–you often stuff yourself until you are uncomfortably full, even if it hurts.”
DAD: “But how is that physically possible? When you’re full of food, how can you take any more in? That would feel so uncomfortable.”
ME: “The body will do anything in its power to get the calories, even if it means shutting off your brain to it or overcoming ‘willpower.’ Believe me, your body can do the seemingly impossible to get what it needs–especially when you have forcibly deprived it.”
DAD: *confused silence*
ME: “Do you understand that?”
DAD: “No, not really. Aren’t you full after a meal?”
ME: “I am, most of the time. But some days I feel hungrier than others. That’s when I go back to get another small meal or a snack, according to the meal plan I was given by my dietitian. But I try to wait for a while first.”
DAD: “But where does ‘discipline’ and ‘disorder’ get mixed up? I mean does me eating a whole tub of ice cream qualify as a ‘disorder’? Or is it my lack of discipline?”
I could see his point with this last question, but it made me uncomfortable. I suddenly realized he did not see my case as a disorder at all, but perhaps just something to cover up a lack of discipline. He had not seen the battles raging in my mind, had not felt the emotional guilt during and after every meal.
ME: “I wouldn’t see that as a disorder unless you did it almost every night and felt guilty or out of control about it. If you are living in constant fear of food and fear eating all of that and feel like you can do nothing to stop yourself . . . if it holds you back from living a normal life, I feel like that would qualify as a ‘disorder.’”
Confusion and Building Trust
My dad and I continued to talk in circles late into the night. I hadn’t ever thought it would feel this difficult to explain the eating disorder to him. I had imagined that he would come away enlightened, fully understanding everything I had gone through.
It wasn’t until weeks later that I began to realize the best support I could have from my parents is that they were willing to listen, made an effort to understand through books and speaking to specialists in the area of eating disorders, and accepted that this was a disorder–that like anorexia on the opposite end of the spectrum where you cannot force someone to “just eat,” you could not force someone with binge eating disorder or bulimia to stop eating “too much.”
Despite the difficulties in understanding, I feel I have grown with one of the greatest support systems I could have ever asked for. I have spent countless hours venting, crying, and explaining my eating disorder to my mom. I repeated myself more times than I can remember, but the repetition–with someone there to listen–was essential in my recovery. I needed to speak, needed to repeat thoughts and feelings for me to come to my own realizations and make changes. If I chose to change, if I made the connections, I was much more willing to make better decisions for my body.
My loved ones listened. They allowed me to speak, encouraged me to get the confusion, loneliness, fear, and isolation out of my frantic mind.
I am my best form of myself now because of my parents and my friends.
Rachael Steil has published several articles in Michigan Runner magazine and regular blogs and advice on her website at www.runninginsilence.com. She has spoken about eating disorders for events at Aquinas College, the Grand Rapids Women’s City Club, the “Go Boldly, Love Your Body” campaign in Grand Rapids, Mindful Counseling GR, and has been interviewed for several websites, radio shows, podcasts, and the Grand Rapids Press. Her debut book Running in Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It was published in 2016.
You can find Does Every Woman Have an Eating Disorder? Challenging Our Nation's Fixation with Food and Weight on Amazon (as a paperback and Kindle) and at BarnesandNoble.com.