I decided to write something a little different this week, in honour of Eating Disorders Awareness week. This is my struggle with the illness anorexia – no, I wasn’t a sufferer, but I still struggled, while I had to sit and watch my sister go through this destructive process.
It first dawned on me that something wasn’t completely right at the bright young age of 13 when one day, I spied my elder sisters deliciously stylish red high-waisted skirt lying temptingly on the bathroom floor. I was on the brink of teenage hood and the skirt was literally begging me to try it on, like I often did with my sister’s clothes, because I literally thought she was the coolest thing since… the Spice Girls. I greedily picked up the skirt and stepped in to it, already thinking about to what occasion I could where it to, when I struck a problem. I couldn’t get it past my bum. As I said, I was mid child to teen transition and I still hadn’t completely shed all of my puppy fat, but I was still fairly small. That’s when it dawned on me, if I couldn’t fit in to clothes that my sister, three and a half years my senior, owned – then something was severely wrong.
I don’t know why I never registered it before that. I was the baby of the family and happily ignorant of the problems going on around me – I knew she was thin, but I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal – I just thought that was what happens to your body when you reach your late teens… but no, it turns out my sister had been starving herself and suffering for a very long time. These days, we don’t talk about her anorexic years that much, but from what she has mentioned, she used every trick in the book to stop herself from eating and successfully hide her illness for quite some time; she would say she had eaten at a friends house, she would spend hours in the bath and go to bed early to stop herself from eating, she would wake up in the early hours of the morning to go for a 5k run and then go back to bed before school.
When her illness was finally discovered, I felt one thing. Not worry, not sympathy, I wasn’t even scared! I was just consumed with anger. I blamed her for the hundreds of family arguments that were to follow, for the tears my mother shed when she refused to eat, for the holidays where we spent most of the time shouting over her refusal to eat. It drove a wedge through our relationship and I completely disconnected from it, and her. For quite some time I harboured on to this feeling, deep down, even after she gained weight – I was still angry. Even to the point where, when I heard about other people I knew suffering from eating disorders, I became angry at them! I had no sympathy at all, infuriated by the selfishness of it all; to me, it just seemed like they were looking for attention.
I digress, my sister’s time of suffering from anorexia is not the reason for this post – that’s just some background information for you. What people seem to not realise, myself included, is at the other end of the spectrum – the result is almost just as crippling as being severely underweight. The irony is, that my sister was only anorexic for about two years, it’s the day to day struggle she has had to live with, since then, that is the most destructive problem.
You don’t just ‘get better’ from anorexia. The body may recover, but the mind is the thing that is most difficult to change. In my sisters case, and many others, she suffered (and still does almost a decade later) from overeating and binging. She reached a weight that was deemed as healthy, so the counselling and all the help stopped. But the binging didn’t. Her weight seemed to creep up and up, her body storing up every piece of nutrition and fat it could after being starved for so long. She would then follow a strict diet to try and shed the weight, but before too long she would crack and end up in a worse position than where she started.
All I could do was sit and watch. We recently patched up our relationship and I struggle to watch her torture herself every single day. That’s roughly 2,920 days that I’ve watched helplessly as my dear sister has been drowning in her own misery, consumed with thoughts of food, yet being unable to stop bingeing, verging on the very depths of depression, being unable to live her life.
And this is the part that people just aren’t aware of! Surely she can’t feel that sad about it, otherwise she would just stop overeating, I hear you think; I thought that too. Until I saw it this way… food is like a drug, but it is also a necessity. If it were drugs or alcohol, by now she would be in rehab (or even worse, dead?!) if she abused these substances the way she abuses food – but you can’t just go cold turkey on food now, can you?
What I’m trying to say, in a round about way, is that just because she wasn’t underweight, it doesn’t mean she was… fixed. As a loved one, there are certain things I have learned you need to do, in order to help someone suffering from this condition:
- Don’t hate. The frustration of this type of illness is difficult for outsiders, yes, but how difficult must it be for them? They criticise themselves enough without you doing so too – and it’s only because care and wish for them to be happy that this anger appears.
- Recognise the post anorexia struggle. It is important not to undermine their problem, just because they aren’t dangerously bony anymore. At this point they are probably suffering even more because they think that the only way they will be happy again is to be skinny.
- Tough love – it’s taken my sister a long time to recognise (or more probably admit!) that the problems she has with food and binging now are a direct result of her anorexic years and that in order to get better the end result should be stabilising her mentality; NOT being a certain weight.
- Seek professional help – Mental illness’, which in effect eating disorders are, can be a lonely journey – but they don’t have to go it alone – just knowing that you are there for them, willing to help them find the right professional aid to recovery, will encourage them to really work on getting better.
Eating disorders are an ever-growing problem in our society these days, and it can be almost as destroying to watch someone you love go through it as it is to endure it yourself. I implore you, don’t do what I did, don’t disconnect, ignore it and push them away – BE there, love them, help them and prove that you will be there every step of the way, no matter how baby those steps may be.
My sister is still on her journey to recovery and I am determined to help her find life again, to restore a healthy relationship with food so she can finally, for the first time in… forever, really LIVE.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I will be happy if it has helped even only one person out there.