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,