By Sarah, F.E.A.S.T. Volunteer
We love our children very much. On this, Iʼm sure we can all agree. Beyond this, there is a huge umbrella of beliefs and ideas as to how best to raise our children. Add to this a mental health issue that leaves many medical professionals scratching their heads and you are often left with parents who are scared, confused, overwhelmed and underprepared on how to help the most important person in their world. We often hear about partners who are not on board. Partners who have very different ideas about how best to help someone who is suffering from an eating disorder, and it can sometimes feel like an impossible situation to resolve. So how do we work through this?
Letʼs perhaps begin at the end. Letʼs look at the things we donʼt want for our children. We donʼt want them to exclude certain foods from their life that they previously enjoyed. We donʼt want them to worry constantly about their weight. We donʼt want them to be isolated and alone because social situations cause them too much stress. I think this is a good place to start and discuss with partners or exes. A place where I think we can again mostly agree with each other.
The next stage can be more difficult. How do we achieve these things? What do we do when we have very different ideas of how to achieve these goals? I would perhaps begin with looking at why you disagree. Did your partner/ex grow up in an unsupportive family, where you were expected to ʻsuck it up and get on with itʼ? Would they benefit from exploring their past experience and considering that times have changed; that we no longer have to suffer in silence? Can you show empathy that you understand that their childhood was that way and that you want something more for your own child? Is it possible to learn from the mistakes of generations gone by?
Is your partner/ex in denial? Do they believe that this is a phase or not as serious as we believe? Maybe they have not reached the same place that we have in processing the situation. Maybe they havenʼt reached the same place of understanding the illness that we have. Some people need to learn the why before they learn the how. As we research how to treat with books by Eva Musby or Lauren Muhlheim, their energy might be better placed with books like Decoding Anorexia by Carrie Arnold. Learning the science behind this illness can help some people reassess their viewpoint.
Is there a power struggle in the relationship of the caregivers? Much like our children donʼt like being told what to do, sometimes our partners/exʼs donʼt take instructions well from us. They may need to be guided by suggestions of reading material or forums like ʻAround the Dinner Tableʼ. They may need to reach out to others who have lived the same experiences. They may need to spend some time with the therapist either alone or with the sufferer and allow the therapist to be a kind of mediator that helps guide them. This method worked well for us between teenager and therapist. My daughter would argue with me over something and my response, some of the time, would be ʻask your therapistʼ. It removed the teenage power struggle and she was more prepared to listen to an outside voice. Maybe when a partner or ex has an approach that you donʼt agree with, keeping our opinion to ourselves and suggesting to discuss it with the treatment team might be met with less resistance.
When coaching a sufferer through a meal we are often advised to tell them, repeatedly, “It’s okay. I know what Iʼm doing. Iʼve got this. Itʼs going to be okay.” I see no reason that the same approach canʼt work on someone who is not on board with our plan. To ask them, with love and compassion, to please trust you. That you have researched and listened to the stories of others who have lived through this. That you know how to help. That you need them to put their faith in you and support you even when it doesnʼt feel right to them. This may be something that will need to be repeated much like the meal coaching; and just like the meal coaching, we do so with love and compassion.
Feeling overwhelmed or afraid can invoke strange reactions in some people. It can help to give that person back the power by helping them work to their strengths. My role in helping my daughter through her eating disorder journey was very firmly placed in meal preparation, supervision and meal coaching. She often would not let her father be part of this process. So this was my strength. My husband’s strength was to scoop up his tired, exhausted wife and to tell her he loved her. To tell her that if there was anything she needed, he was there. To remind her she was doing an amazing job and remind her of how far our daughter had come when it felt like she couldnʼt go on. That was his strength. Together it worked, but we each played a very different role. What is your strength? What are your partner/exʼs strengths? Maybe they are the one that helps distract your child after a difficult meal. Maybe they are the one who can talk more calmly to our loved one when our patience has failed us.
This process is a roller coaster ride. We can become so focused on helping our loved one through this journey that we forget to look sideways at those around us that are perhaps not keeping up. We can be so passionate and have such strong beliefs about what the recovery process should look like, or what the perfect treatment plan should look like; but unfortunately, we donʼt live in a perfect world, and when we are dealing with a beast of an illness that is made that much more challenging because of the other people in our childʼs life, we perhaps need to learn to bend so that we donʼt break. We need to accept that everything may not be the way that we want it to be but to never stop trying to find a solution. That solution will only come if we continually look for ways to speak so that we can be heard, to maybe accept that our treatment plan may be hindered by others, but it does not mean that we canʼt make it work and that we can’t continue to push forwards.