remember last week i asked people to be interviewed about eating disorders? well, some people volunteered. today i am happy to introduce you to joanna poppink, MFT, a long time private practice psychotherapist in los angeles specializing in eating disorder recovery. her blog is at stop eating disorders.
joanna will talk about how eating disorders affect relationships. she has a lot of very interesting things to say, so we’ve decided to present her wisdom in two parts. i’ll be posting part two by sunday.
isabella: i am often contacted by people whose boyfriends or girlfriends suffer from anorexia or bulimia. they want to help and have no idea where to start. what advice do you have?
joanna: i’m a trained licensed psychotherapist in practice since 1980. i’ve specialized in treating people with eating disorders since about 1984 and have attended countless 12 step meetings. and, helping someone with an eating disorder is still challenging for me.
so, then, what can a loving friend or family member or caring colleague do to help?
first is to separate the person from the illness. you support the person you care about, but not the eating disorder. you make no special arrangements to defer to the demands of the eating disorder, don’t make special foods, avoid certain restaurants, keep secrets for the person or go against your own values and principles to help them feel better.
the best thing you can do is let them know you care about them while you continue to live a healthy life yourself. let them meet you in health. let them be inspired to find their way to recovery so they can join you in a healthy life. let them see what they are missing when you don’t compromise your values to accommodate the eating disorder.
you can’t force a person into recovery. but you can show them the benefits of living a healthy life and perhaps, by so doing, inspire them into recovery.
isabella: once a person starts on the road to recovery from anorexia or bulimia, how does that impact on their relationships – romantic and otherwise?
joanna: anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that affect a person’s body, mind, heart and soul. a person with an eating disorder often believes her perception of herself, her values, her strengths and weaknesses, her intelligence and even her loves and hates are her own. she doesn’t realize that all these aspects of her lived experience are powerfully influenced by her eating disorder. her dreams and visions for herself are limited and distorted. she doesn’t know who she is, and she thinks she does.
everyone, and i mean everyone, in her life is present in a relationship with her based on who they think she is. many are in relationship with her because of who they need her to be.
when she moves into recovery mode, her genuine personhood begins to appear. her taste and preferences become clearer. she is surprised by her strengths, and often, so is everybody else. instead of trying to please or deferring out of fear, she finds herself saying, ‘no,’ where she used to say, ‘yes.’
some people benefited from the gifts she has but never used for herself, like intelligence, creativity, education and various skills. some needed to be with a dependent and frightened person so they could be in the powerful, rescuer/savior role.
the people who can grow themselves, who can live a mature and responsible life with respect for another’s boundaries, goals and lived talents as she follows her heart can remain in relationship with the recovering person. the relationship will become more equal.
but it’s difficult for people to grow and change if they are set in their ways and committed to a particular way of life and sense of themselves. many will not be able to tolerate the recovering person’s emerging self and her self respect.
a challenging part of recovery involves dealing with the shock and pain of discovering how vested others were in the eating disorder symptoms. when the symptoms fall away and the true person emerges, many old relationships fall away.
the new relationships are based on who the recovering person is now. people who are attracted to a sick person are different from people who are attracted to a healthy person.