A Partner’s Perspective on Recovery – Guest Post by Shaun Hodges
Today we read a partners perspective on eating disorders and recovery. This contribution is from my husband Shaun, chief supporter and cheerleader for nearly 20 years.
An eating disorder is a horrible insidious illness that is rarely spoken about, and when it is, almost certainly is misunderstood and treated with an aloof disdain.
While I am no expert on such a topic, I observed and lived along side such a creature for quite an extended period of time. This doesn’t mean I know all about how to resolve eating disorders, nor does it mean I completely understand what it is like for the person going through it. What I do offer is some insight into what it is like to be in such a struggle, to be in there with a sufferer as they fight to gain control and work their way towards a reclaimed life.
It isn’t easy to try and boil down to a few simple facts.
This is such a complex and individual thing that if I attempted to say “Do X and then Y and I guarantee it will work”, it would be (almost certainly) completely untrue. However, I do think there are some common threads that most likely run through many peoples experiences.
I have considered what it is that I might be able to share to other partners or carers, be they parents or siblings etc, in giving some advice or thoughts as to what they might be able to do. What things they might be able to do better. What to really focus on, what things to ignore, and just as importantly, the pitfalls to try and avoid.
Bearing all this in mind, here are seven things that I learnt on the journey together from the beginning, through the darkness and despair and eventually to recovery.
1. It can be beaten:
Yes I know I it is a cliché, but I feel it was very important to get this out in the open. As terrible as they are, and for all the destruction they can cause, an eating disorder is not immune or indestructible.
Just as it may manage to get a foothold and grow, it can also be attacked and deconstructed one piece at a time. Exactly what this looks like is difficult to say as everyone will have a different story to tell, but keeping this small fact in mind might just give you something to hang on too when all seems impossible and hope is lost.
2. Don’t be afraid to say something, but be mindful of how you go about it:
The nature of eating disorders is that they are silencing. They seem to have a built in sensor that suppresses conversation around it. There are all sorts of other factors at play, such as societal expectations and norms in that most people at some point or another seem to be on some kind of ‘crazy’ restrictive diet, and limiting intake in the pursuit of an idealistic figure (be that in the mirror or on the scales). As such it can either be overlooked, or simply not wanted to be approached as a serious topic.
When you do feel that something has to be said, make sure this is done in a sincere and private way. Creating a scene in front of others, or approaching it in a flippant or joking manner will not be successful, and could just reinforce and reinvigorate the secretive behaviour which was likely there in the first place.
An eating disorder is really a silent cry for help. Don’t respond with silence of your own. But don’t point at it and yell either. Tact is the key word here.
3. Everyone will have their own unique path into an eating disorder and each recovery will be unique too:
Everyone’s journey into and through an eating disorder will be completely unique. There may be some similarities in there of course, but the set of factors which fell into place for this outcome shall be unique for essentially all.
This is where the conventional treatment model is somewhat fallible. It tries to create a ‘one size fits all’ medical approach to fixing this ‘condition’ and as such can be wide of the mark for many.
If along the way you find that elements of what is being offered is assisting, but others are either benign or perhaps causing more problems, then you may have to start forging your own path. You may meet some well intended resistance to this and I can tell you that we certainly did, but there will be some moments of clarity where the course you need to take will be clear, and it may not have been where you were heading before.
Essentially everyone’s path will be unique – so don’t be afraid to try something different to help in the fight.
4. The weight and eating disorder behaviours are not the real issue, but they also can’t be ignored:
You can restore the weight – essentially force feeding in a highly controlled environment will see to that. In order to move towards a lasting recovery though, and not just hitting a magic figure on the BMI chart, you need to ensure that what is driving the behaviour is being dealt with too. If this isn’t the case then it is like putting a bandaid over a wound that isn’t healing – it looks better for a while but it will eventually fall off – and then you still have the issue there to deal with.
Make sure that proper help is being obtained to deal with all aspects of the eating disorder, not just being transfixed on the weight. Yes the weight needs to be kept under control. It may be that in times of crisis that that is all that can be dealt with, as it may be a matter of survival.
In the longer term though, and indeed all the way through, if you don’t ensure that the reason you are in this predicament is addressed then you are signing up to be part of an endless cycle.
5. This is a long, hard fight and there will be false dawns:
For some it is true that eating disorders are a lifelong struggle, and while that may seem a particularly disheartening thing to say, it is the truth. Combating an eating disorder is a long, hard fight and it isn’t something that is beaten overnight.
Our struggle took years and years to get on top of. There were moments of absolute dark despair, where I simply could not see a way out. I was convinced it was going to be too difficult and it was just a matter of time before the inevitable happened.
On the flip side, there were also many times that it seemed we had come out the other end, things were essentially on track and it was simply a case of keeping things generally in check and all would be good.
As a partner all you can really do is try and keep doing what you have to do. Keep assisting as best you can and try not to get too carried away with small victories, or too despondent in the wake of an obvious or apparent defeat.
6. One slip and you both fall:
You have to stay strong and unmoving – and this is perhaps the most difficult thing for the partner to do. It is a truly horrible thing to go through. I cannot even begin to describe in any meaningful way what it was like to see someone struggle and fight so much with something as simple as eating a serving of food, choosing something off a menu or even just buying something from a supermarket.
The natural thing for anyone to do with a loved one is to try and remove the source of the pain, to try and make things even a bit easier.
This simply cannot happen.
If you take nothing else away from this then heed this advice – do not give the eating disorder an inch. Do not allow the eating disorder a place in your life. Once you invite it inside, and willingly allow it to remain to some degree, it gains more power. You really need to treat it like an enemy, a physical enemy that you simply have to drive out of your house and life at all costs.
You are all in, absolutely 100%.
I will freely admit that there were times that I slipped. It is fatiguing having to be constantly on your guard, and there will be times you just don’t feel up for the fight. However you simply have to keep fronting up, meal after meal, day after day, week after week, as best you can.
Think about what may support yourself in this and make sure that you are looking after yourself at the same time. I didn’t seek any formal assistance, but this was a decision I freely made. Make sure you listen to your own needs as they come up.
7. It can actually bring you closer together:
This may sound a little bit crazy, given all the talk of battles, struggles, fights and fatigue. I can tell you that despite all this, and despite the nearly 6 months (over two different years) we spent stuck in a tiny room in Ward 4G at ‘Hotel Flinders’, night after night after night, that it really did bring us closer together. We were forced to find a way through it as a couple, or else that would have failed too.
This is also a harsh reality in that an eating disorder, if you don’t hang on to the things that brought you together in the first place, it will find a way to divide and conquer you too. Don’t let your relationship become another casualty.
We found that playing cards and talking about anything and everything not contained within those walls was a good way of getting through. Distraction is a completely valid technique here for survival – you do have to remember there is more to your world together than just the eating disorder.
There are many aspects to it that could be discussed but these were seven themes and things to keep in mind that I experienced. Whether some or all of these apply to you is impossible for me to say. If you take something from this then that is great. If you didn’t then that is ok too. The fact you are reading and looking for some answers or support, some clues as to what to do, will stand you in good stead.
… with heart