Much has been written about the isolation created by chronic illness. Healthy people have the luxury to live as they please, or believe they will one day, and to dream about the future. Being sick takes away those gifts in a moment, destroying the pleasure of each day and allowing only the hope for survival. Although sickness highlights how precious each day is, that's no solace for the loss of personal freedom.
This pain is magnified when the sick person is young, and eating disorders are afflictions of youth. Adolescence and early adulthood, the typical time of onset of eating disorders, are typified by idealism, hope and brazenness. Even if the reality of these stages feels much harder to the individual, society idealizes the freedom of this age and cherishes the passage from childhood to responsibility and seeks to delay the transition as long as possible.
It's a bit easier when the young have diseases that instantly trigger sympathy and understanding, but for people with eating disorders, the loss is magnified further by the confusion surrounding these illnesses. Not sympathized with like cancer or dramatized like addiction, painful and destructive though they both are, eating disorders are the strange diseases when someone cannot eat. The general misunderstanding of eating disorders makes it easy for family and friends to ascribe blame to the sick person. The psychological and emotional torment makes little sense to the uneducated, and the refrain "just have a milkshake!" seems as likely a fix as intensive, and usually expensive, treatment.
Crossing the line from well to ill, early age of onset and limited public knowledge quickly isolate someone with an eating disorder. For a time, many people can hide their symptoms and suffering while acting as if they are fine, just like everyone else. There's a time, around the mid-twenties, when it becomes much more difficult to stay connected with the truly well. As social events typically revolve around food and as other people's lives progress in the way a sick person's can't, it becomes too hard to continue unfazed by daily life. The isolation, once internal, largely about feeling different, becomes external and much more real. The time spent alone burdened by the years of sickness, the years gone by and the hours still lost to the eating disorder symptoms become even more painful and isolating. The years of feeling so different from everyone else truly takes its toll.
Much is made of the medical and psychological treatment of eating disorders, but the isolation created by these illnesses brings an even greater need for people to get well: community. Fostering the growth of connectedness, of not feeling alone and of others who have tread the same path opens up a long sick mind to the hope of getting well. The shame that is a bedrock of eating disorders furthers the notion that these people cannot connect. The misguided fears of clinicians that patients will only egg each other on and worsen their symptoms limits potential friendships and bonds. The rules of some programs to curtail personal connections among clients serves to heighten the isolation. But connection and dependence on others strengthens each individual's belief that full recovery is possible. It's crucial the clinical field and national organizations not only support awareness but support building community.
There are several ways to build community and give hope to
the chronically ill with eating disorders. Probably the most common option is group therapy. The opportunity to engage with other ill people and therapists is often eye opening for people who've been so isolated by their illness. Seeing the similarities between themselves and others also afflicted makes it clear that an eating disorder is not a personal failure but an illness.
Many programs hire therapists who have recovered from eating disorders themselves. Becoming close to someone who found a way to health is a powerful experience and makes true recovery tangible. It also helps people so alone in the disease see the larger picture of relapse, recovery and wellness right in front of their eyes. Encouraging people to stay in touch with therapists and clients after discharge solidifies the reality that a bonded community fosters healing and isolation encourages sickness.
The organizations and opportunities already exist to encourage togetherness to help people get well. The more clinicians help patients and families connect to community from the start, the more the message of true recovery will spread. A therapy team is a critical first step in treatment, but community is a lifeline that ought to be part of that first line of help. Knowing full recovery is an option within your grasp, and that there is a group of people behind that imperative, must be part of any initial steps to get help.