A common question from families, parents and loved ones about how to support someone in recovery from an eating disorder is about the type of support that is best to offer. After extended periods of illness, many people believe a hard-line approach will be helpful, one that emphasizes eating at all costs. They hope that standing their ground will enable the person to make the harder choices needed to get well.
But often this kind of support represents frustration more than the compassion the person in recovery desperately needs.
Given the choice between this type of support and the eating disorder, most people don't feel like they have a choice. The eating disorder is a way of life and has dominated every decision of every day for a long time. It provides comfort as much as it does misery. In the absence of other comfort, it feels like the only option. Just standing firm won't change an illness. It will just alienate the person who is unwell.
Plus, families typically understand their loved one very well but don't understand the intricacies of the eating disorder thought process quite as well. The emotional bond of a close relationship remains important despite the illness but is not enough to lead to a magic cure. Instead, the person feels worse about the personal relationships but no more empowered to get well.
The best support remains boundless love and compassion. This is not easy for even the most patient person to maintain through years of illness and recovery, but no one battling an eating disorder ever tires of that kind of support.
It inevitably creates a level of connection that sustains a person struggling to get well. Moreover, love and compassion send a clear message of believing the person can get well. That is invaluable.
However, standing firm does have its place in the recovery process. The treatment team has a responsibility to assess the person at each step of the way. After a period of learning about recovery and learning how to face the eating disorder thoughts, most people get stuck. They can see the steps of recovery ahead of them but often back down out of fear of many things.
It can be fear of getting well and the expectations that might come when the illness is no longer a crutch. It can be fear of losing the eating disorder, something that has defined identity for many years. Or it can be fear of gaining weight and looking healthy so that people stop worrying about their well being. Although these fears are the most common, there are many more.
At this point, the treatment team has a responsibility to stand firm that it is necessary to take those steps forward in recovery. All these fears are present, but they cannot halt the steps towards getting well.
Years of illness have proven that life with an eating disorder is only a shell of a life. That is not enough.
What the family needs to do is trust the treatment team, their loved one and the process of recovery. Taking recovery into their hands inevitably backfires, but family can provide love and support in ways no one else can. Love and compassion will be sustaining after recovery is finished and present the building blocks to life after recovery. That support plays a crucial role in treatment and allows the team to play its role as well.