The Answer I Wish I Had Given

One of the more difficult aspects of parenting a child who is battling an eating disorder is dealing with inevitable instances in which the so-called “eating disorder voice” begins spewing the abusive, hyper-critical and demeaning comments that it typically bombards your loved one with at others, usually those who love the sufferer the most.  Last night, during a NEDA Webinar for Dads, I was asked how best to deal with those situations, particularly when the venom is coming from someone who, just a few months earlier, had been such an openly loving and sensitive child. Anyone who has been a presenter appreciates how difficult it can be to field, process and respond to questions in a limited amount of time, especially when the issue is so complex and deeply personal.  I think I managed to convey the gist of what I wanted to say to that obviously (and understandably) hurting mom or dad – at least I hope I did.  But, having slept on it, this is the “fuller” answer I wish I had given:

Dear Mom or Dad,

I know how painful it can be to have someone you love so much say hateful things to you in the midst of their eating disorder battle.  It’s even more difficult when you know their “true” heart and are sacrificing so much of yourself to try and be supportive of their efforts to heal. Here’s what I want you to know:

Those words really aren’t directed at you.  Actually, the hate speech you’re hearing is usually directed inward and “reserved” for your loved one.  On occasion, however, it has to be released, not unlike the pressure valve on an old-fashioned boiler, because “the vessel” that is being asked to “contain it” has simply reached its limit – and you happen to be a logical (and convenient) target.

The words being uttered (or, more likely, screamed) at you do not emanate from the heart you’ve known and loved (and that, in turn, has loved you) for most of your child’s life.  Instead, they come from a place of unimaginable pain – “hell” as Dr. Berrett described it during the Webinar – and they need to be “understood” from that perspective (i.e., with empathy and compassion).

Eating disorders thrive when their sufferers are (or feel) isolated and alone.  Ultimately, the disease cannot survive in the warm climate of steadfast unconditional love.  The hate speech is simply a means of trying to drive you and your love away.  Under no circumstances can you allow that to happen.  Like a championship fighter, you have to be willing to absorb some “body shots” in the early rounds of the fight if you are to have any hope of retaining or regaining your crown.

Most importantly, you should take comfort in knowing that your loved one’s “true” heart didn’t suddenly disappear.  Rather, it’s buried beneath a mountain of lies and distortions.  But, I assure you, it’s gasping for air and desperately struggling to regain a foothold.  It (like you) is longing for the day when it can love again and deem itself worthy of fully receiving the love you (and others) have to give.

Wishing You Peace,

Don

One thought on “The Answer I Wish I Had Given

  1. My experience has been that the loved one suffering the torment of the Eating Disorder (ED) voice, will often single out one particular person for the most vehement “attacks”. I believe the loved one chooses the person whom they feel safest with – someone who has demonstrated unconditional love in the past, and has not abandoned them during past difficulties; someone who will still be standing when the momentary category 5 hurricane is over. If two or more people fit the bill, she may choose the one least likely to hold her accountable for her actions after the storm has passed — the “easiest to deal with” safe person. Or perhaps if she has a choice of two, she may decide NOT to choose the person whom she is most afraid of disappointing. Regardless, it is an excruciating “honor” to be the one chosen to bear the brunt of the venom that your loved one needs to release. She is trusting you to be able to handle it and still be there afterwards. When you are being blasted, keep in mind that you are seeing only a fraction of the pain inside and only a glimpse of the self-hatred ED is unleashing inside your loved one 24/7. This helps you remain compassionate between onslaughts. Finally, there are limits to what we can bear. Try to keep calm. Don’t take the bait — ED wants to draw you into a fight so you will say things you’ll regret later, or turn away from your loved one, so ED can have her all to himself. Don’t raise your voice even if your loved one is screaming at you, or it will get worse. Try to talk reasonably and reassuringly to your loved one, but if you see that she’s not able to be reasonable, don’t keep debating with her. Tell her you love her, care about her, and will be happy to discuss this with her later, when she is not in her eating disorder. When she persists, say that you are not going to engage her ED voice, but you will call or see her again at (specific time) to talk. Then you have to walk away or stop responding or hang up with good bye.

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