How To Love Someone With An Eating Disorder Without Trying To Save Them
When someone you love has an eating disorder, it's impossible not to get involved.
It's National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and this year, the social push behind #NEDAwareness has been “Let's Talk About It.”
But through HLG Studios, Angela Gulner and Yuri Baranovsky took the push a step further by creating a series to show people what Angela's 10-year struggle with bulimia has been like.
After the debut of her short film “Binge,” Angela made a prequel video highlighting years of a toxic relationship with her ex called “The Blind Girl.”
The beginning of the short film breaks down the story of St. Valentine, a priest who fell in love with a jailer's blind daughter. Before his execution on February 14, St. Valentine healed her and left her a letter signed “Your Valentine.”
When Angela's boyfriend Jack (played by Drake Bell) tells her this story on Valentine's Day, he is clearly siding with the romanticism of St. Valentine and labeling Angela as his damsel in distress.
This sets the symbolic tone for the rest of the film: Angela depends on Jack for physical affirmation, Jack depends on Angela to make him feel like a hero who can free her from an eating disorder and Angela goes back to depending on binging and purging to cope with it all.
Both Angela and Jack are bound together with the idea that he can save her.
But after many failed attempts, they both realize this just isn't how it works. You can't change someone you're dating, and people can't be helped if they don't want help.
You can't change someone you're dating, and people can't be helped if they don't want help.
Whether you're the one caught in a cycle of addiction or you're the care-giving lover, here are three quotes from the film that can help us all realize with how to love someone with an eating disorder — even if that person is you:
“It's just, like, maybe she wanted to be blind. You know? Maybe it gave her comfort in a world where it's shitty, and nothing is fucking anything.”
This is Angela's reaction after Drake desperately tries to convince her once again that he is her St. Valentine, destined to save her from her eating disorder.
Everyone is on their own timeline. Unfortunately, just because you're a good person doesn't mean you can enter a damaged person's life and wave your magic wand of optimism to save them from the broke track they're already on.
Donna Fish, M.S., fully certified social worker and author of “Take The Fight Out Of Food,” says that most of her clients with eating disorders are using eating as a coping mechanism to deal with something else.
Really developing an eating disorder is an avoidance of actually processing feelings.
When you get older, things are not black and white; they are sort of all kinds of gray. There are all kinds of feelings that have to get managed.
And if a child does not have a strong connectedness to their experience, it becomes difficult for them to become connected and really navigate that and communicate that and get their needs met.
It leaves them more vulnerable to then focus more on their bodies and regulate their feelings, tensions, confusion and emotional anxieties via their bodies, via something very black and white of ‘I can eat this, I can not eat it.'
It becomes a way to avoid the complication of all that other terrain.
Eating disorders are an isolating illness, so it may be tough for the person you're with to open up. This is where Fish says therapy comes in and can be really helpful.
Monica*, 32, who is currently receiving treatment for anorexia nervosa, advises people to be compassionate:
My friend Laura has been supportive and patient. Best thing to do is be concerned and keep asking ‘How are you?' ‘How are you really?' and letting them know ‘I care for you and I'm here for anything.'
Just showing that it is a safe space is most important.
Freeing your thoughts when struggling with anything is helpful. When you let damaging, negative thoughts marinate in your head, they get even worse.
“You aren't going to save her dude. You've got to love the whole thing or nothing at all.”
Never love someone for what you believe they can become.
Someone you're dating may never achieve the goals they've set out to accomplish, or it might take them longer than expected.
But the outcome doesn't exactly depend on your own ability to save them. You have to love them wholeheartedly for who they are right now, even if they fail, and you can't minimize their experience just because you think they're not doing enough.
Amy*, 31, who's suffered from anorexia since the age of 16, says one of the worst things you can do is tell someone to “just eat.” Doing so is almost of a mockery of how simple you think it is to “turn off” an addiction or disorder.
Amy credited her husband for how he's treated her eating disorder. “He never tried to fix me or change me. He knew that he just had to be there for me,” she says.
According to Fish, the average recovery time for an eating disorder is 10 years. Yes, some people can drop the behavior cold turkey, and others can taper off after a few months, but for many, it's a lifelong battle.
No matter how much you want to “save” someone, you can't. The only person that can save someone is that person themselves. All you can do is be compassionate and supportive.
“Blind girls don't get healed. You know what blind girls do? They buy a walking stick and get their shit together.”
These are powerful words for anyone that wants to get better.
Everyone can be there for you. You can have a support team with loving friends and family, but they can never fully heal you — they can only help you.
If you struggle with an eating disorder, you should never feel guilty for any burden you might put on others. If someone has chosen to be in your life, let them in.
But also know that you can only rely on yourself to recover.
And for the person who loves them, if you ever want to leave, you can. Don't feel bound to the idea that you must “save them.”
They have gotten this far without you, and it's more important that they can continue to be strong without you always by their side.
Don't love someone out of charity. Love them for love.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is here to help.
Call the toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237
Click to chat with a NEDA Helpline volunteer
For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
*Name has been changed.
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