To People Who Love People with Eating Disorders…

We don’t want to make your life hell, even if it is and it feels like we are, I promise you we don’t. Let me say that first. I don’t want to make excuses here. I know that we have to take some responsibility, but I think I’m doing that in a way just by writing this. It’s complex, but I’ll try to explain the best I can.

Back in 2017, journalist and presenter Mark Austin ‘bravely admitted’ to the press that he had once told his anorexic daughter to ‘starve herself to death’ whilst she was in the grips of a potentially fatal mental illness. I couldn’t read the full account because the original piece is behind a pay wall, but if you’re able, it’s here. If you’re not able, you can read bits of it here, here, here, here and here (it’s probably in the Mail and The Sun too, but y’know, not sharing that shit). He also appeared on ‘This Morning’ but I didn’t see that either because I can’t stand it. It was kind of unavoidable though, especially if you, like me and probably most people who have had or do have eating disorders, have this kind of stuff on your radar.

I’m glad that Mark decided to share his feelings; as much as I often think there’s a suffocating amount of emphasis on men opening up about their feelings, I think this is the first time I have ever read such a real and raw account of a father speaking about his child’s eating disorder. For me, it reminded me of my own dad and certain things he’d said or expressed, even just looks he had given me whilst I was at my worst, and even now, 10 years on from being treated in hospital for both anorexia and bulimia. He never said that I should go ahead and starve myself to death, but I can completely understand the amount of frustration that led to those words being said, as harsh as they may seem.

What got me about this revelation, or whatever you want to call it, is that Mark Austin made the decision to speak out so that he could call for “improved mental health provision to deal with the crisis of more than 850,000 young sufferers, predominantly girls, in the UK.” But my first thought was, ‘What about those parents? What about the carers? What about anyone who loves someone with an eating disorder but who doesn’t fully understand what that means?’ Yes, there is a disgustingly outrageous lack of support for people with eating disorders – that’s nothing new – and yes that needs to change, but if parents and carers don’t have a basic level of understanding, then how can they provide the support that’s needed during and after treatment, if that’s available at all?

I guess there are pamphlets and books and helplines available for parents and carers that could help, but only if they know they are there. Many people don’t, or they don’t want to read or listen to someone else telling them how they should best look after their own child.

I think I just want to say a few things, for myself but also for other people who are struggling to understand what someone they love is going through. I can’t speak for every eating disordered person; we are all as different as anyone else, but I think there are some things we probably have in common and I just hope that this can help some people, even if it’s just a little.

We’re Sorry – Honestly. We feel awful for putting you through this. It may seem selfish and it may seem like this is our thing and that sometimes we even revel in the fact that it worries and upsets you, but we’re not that evil, honestly. We may behave as though we hate you and do everything possible to stop you trying to care for us, but that’s because we’re in self-destruct mode and the last thing we want is to be looked after. We know you care, but it hurts us and when we are consumed by eating disordered thoughts, we will push anything else away. We’re sorry.

We’re Not Vain – Even now I think some people think eating disorders are the direct result of women being told that they have to look a certain way, especially younger teenager obsessed with perfecting their pouts for Instagram. But as someone close to us, if you love us, please try to see beyond that. Societal pressures don’t help, but eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and should be treated as such. Nobody starves themselves half to death or spends half their day bent double over a toilet because an advert in Vogue made them think they’d be a better person. Yes, our brains tell us lies; that not eating will make us feel better, that we’ll be happier when we are 5lbs lighter or that we’re not worthy of food or love or treatment or anything… but please don’t ever think that this self-torture is the result of something only skin deep.

We Don’t Hate Food – This might surprise you. Most people who have eating disorders actually love food, or at least have a love/hate relationship with food. This of course differs massively from case to case, but generally what seems to be the case is that when you deprive yourself of food, or the enjoyment of food in a physical sense, you tend to obsess with it in some other sense. We’ll watch every food programme that’s made, follow every restaurant on Twitter, scroll through #foodporn on Instagram and watch our family and friends as they devour the calories that we won’t or can’t allow ourselves. We don’t hate food. We hate what it does to us, how it makes us feel. We’ve trained ourselves (with or without the help of the diet industry) to feel guilty, indulgent and undeserving of anything that isn’t on our ‘safe list’. And we act on those feelings, desperately. We starve or binge and purge or over-exercise or chew and spit or take laxatives or diet pills – none fun, all addictive and destructive and dangerous. We have all kinds of unhealthy relationships with food, but they are complex things, so please try not to use what we eat or how we eat as a weapon. Little steps to you are huge to us, try not to belittle that. I’m kind of asking you to understand that you’ll never understand – but that brings me to my next point.

We Know You’re Treading On Eggshells – and believe me, we hate that almost as much as you. It’s horrible to know that someone who loves you is scared to say anything in case it’s the ‘wrong’ thing. You don’t know what is right or wrong and it’s quite likely that we don’t either. Everything is unpredictable. I can’t even begin to imagine how frustrating this must be for you, and again, I’m sorry. I don’t really know what to say about this one – I’m certainly guilty of making my parents tread on eggshells for years. Quite early on in my illness, if they said the slightest thing that didn’t agree, I’d yell at them and slam doors and scream and make them feel like they’d done something unforgivable. In time, they said less and less, and I know why. I honestly don’t know the answer to this one. I think that sometimes there is no getting through to someone with an eating disorder, no matter how hard you try or how many different ways you try to approach it; it will always fight back. All I can say on this one is, please don’t see this as a flaw on your part. It’s an impossible situation and all you can do is your best. And we don’t really hate you.

We’re Probably Just As Scared As You – This is what it all comes down to really. You are scared for us and it might look or feel as thought we are set on destroying ourselves completely, but most of the time, we don’t really want to die. We might say that and we might pretend that we’re not scared, but when a bit too much hair falls out in our hands, when we cry because we just can’t get warm, when our heart skips a beat and we get dizzy standing, when we can’t sleep because it’s too painful to lie down, when we physically can’t drag ourselves out of bed… the list goes on and the truth is that we are not as big and powerful as our eating disorders – we are just scared, like you.



6 thoughts on “To People Who Love People with Eating Disorders…

  1. I was never diagnosed with anorexia and never received any treatment for any condition, so I feel like I didn’t have one, but I know I did. I got to the hair-falling out stage is, I think, enough to say. I was worst between 11-15 and I just wanted to say that in fact the thing that shook me out of it was two teachers (a dance teacher and a maths teacher) who a little like the man in question, said horrible things to me. Kindness did not help me at all. They prodded me. They said YOU’RE SO THIN. Not in a complementary way. In an accusing way. They said “STOP!” But never said stop what. (By the way, clearly I wasn’t news-reporter-thin: as I say I was neither diagnosed nor treated for anything, ever.) Anyway: In my situation, the last thing I wanted to be was visible. They drew attention to me in a way that made me seen as a physical presence. My worst nightmare. I could not thank these teachers enough.

    I suppose I was in a denial that anything was happening to me, or perhaps that it was me who had control of it, though my control those days was mighty. But they (and, admittedly, as a conscientious child, the knowledge my GCSE’s were fast approaching and that I would not do as well as I could have done if I continued the way I was doing) shook me out of it. It was not a miracle solution. Well, it was at the time in fact: completely. But a few years later, my Dad died and it threw me back into a place where I once cried myself to sleep as I got so hungry I bought and ate a tiny dairy milk from a vending machine. I’ll never forget that ridiculous night. I sort of knew it was ridiculous as it was happening. I suppose it was devastation that I could not keep the control. I don’t know.

    But now? I think, now, at last, I am in a place where I am free of it all entirely. I mean, nearly. I probably may not have read this article were I utterly free. There is nothing I won’t eat though (well, except meat.) And I’ll eat as much as I can of any thing. I cannot say I could never return there, because the nature of the disease is it is a way to try to gain control and so it threatens at its worst in those moments when you feel you have lost all other control. It is, I think, why it is so hard to help: the one thing the suffer has is complete control so they can often speak in a way that can pacify, I think. I cannot imagine how powerless it must make the people who love you feel. It is like a wall of broken glass.

    But to the parent who may say something cruel to their suffering child, I do not say continue at all. I do not think at all that what worked for me would work for even one other person. But I kind of think it is probably better in the end than collusion or ignoring matters…? I don’t know… What I would say is it is OK: there is some level on which the person suffering knows you are too and is sorry for it, it is just that their control means there is nothing they could do to help it or you.

    I know there must be people out there who are stuck in awful situations for the whole of their lives. I wish I could help it. And perhaps even more, I wish I could stop it for the people who love them who must never be able to escape the pain which at least the sufferer has found some means to temporarily block.

  2. Oh so true, as always with your blogs. I’d add partners to parents – I think I’ve put my long-suffering husband through more anxiety/ frustration/ bewildered lack of understanding with my anorexia over the years than my bipolar disorder has ever caused.

  3. I am one of those parents.
    Thank you x 10 for this.

    I was lucky enough to have a colleague/friend who ran an experience-led Bulimia & Anorexia group, and as well as being the main saver of my daughter, she also gave me massive and much needed insights like those you share above…

    The best thing I did at the time was write my daughter what I called an “Open heart” letter. It made no real mention of eating or illness, just a statement of our love for her and all the good things we had seen grow in her, and how the negative things we may have said or done were our own shit coming out – how we all make mistakes and can all recover via love, even if it is sometimes only expressed in silence.

    Having dropped out of A levels and become a waitress, she is now (20 years later) a psychology lecturer, department head, and delightful, loving, mother of three.

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