If you are caring for a child or partner with an eating disorder, chances are people keep telling you to ‘take care of yourself’. It can be infuriating and increase your sense of isolation. You don’t need a bubble bath, you need your loved one to be well!
I got very low when my daughter was taken over by anorexia. From my experience of supporting many parents, I know that most of us have times we suffer hugely. If you are crying every day, or catch yourself having fantasies of escape or suicide, of punishing or abandoning the very person you so care about, you are normal, and you are in good company. The most loving, upright, courageous human beings I know have been there.
Attend To The Treatment
Your body and soul are crying out for your child to be well and thrive, so prioritize this need and seek out the information and support to make wise decisions. (I will refer to parents and their child, and I hope you can translate to your own situation of caring for someone.)
I find that the most burnt-out parents have confused doubts about their child’s treatment. For them, it’s like watching a car crash. Once these parents get clarity on what can and cannot be done differently, they are energized to change the things that can be changed and to do very demanding work.
Review What Matters To You
Caring for someone with an eating disorder is demanding and marathon-like. We’ve never been so stretched and we’re not (yet) equipped for this level of challenge. Our suffering is a call to action, to getting major human needs met. Pay particular attention to your body’s needs (rest, nutrition, movement), because these drive the chemicals that produce pleasant or unwelcome emotions. Review also other needs that want your attention. Common examples are:
- We long for a good night’s sleep, for ‘me-time’, for a peaceful place where we can be restored. We are so depleted we imagine nothing less than a year’s holiday away from the family could possibly heal us. Many parents report that psychiatric medication helps at this stage.
- We need hope. To know that this hell will pass. To trust that life will support us, come what may.
- We are missing connection dreadfully: closeness with our child, harmony with our family, the understanding and compassion of friends.
- If we sense that therapists are pushing us out, failing to make use of our competences or judging us, we suffer. The converse is that when we are treated with compassion and respect and allowed to do what we’re good at, we get re-charged.
- We are starved of the injection of wellbeing that comes from pleasurable or stimulating activities.
I invite you to review what matters to you – to your body, your mind and your soul. You cannot meet all needs but if you take care of those you can, you’ll be more effective and courageous. For me, a crucial act of responsibility was to address my sense of isolation. I acknowledged that humans thrive on connection and I let go of an old attachment to self-sufficiency. With some reluctance, I made better use of friends and worked hard to find my perfect therapist.
Respond To Your Unmet Needs With Compassion
Some of your needs can be met with practical support. If so, make requests and be specific. Humans generally like to contribute to others. There is such a thing as ‘Helper’s high’, so give your friends and family the gift of supporting you. Don’t burden others with the job of being a mind-reader. If you long for a hug more than for advice, then ask for a hug. If you give people the genuine freedom to say ‘No’ then you gain the freedom to ask.
Many of your needs genuinely cannot be met at present, so you might think it’s pointless and painful to give them your attention. Most of us have got through our earlier lives by gritting our teeth and ‘getting on with it’. This strategy tends to break down when we encounter the marathon challenge of an eating disorder. We need an upskill. A more sustainable response is to greet unmet needs with compassion from yourself (self-compassion) or from someone else. For both routine tensions and big fears, try this simple template for empathy: “I’m sorry, and I love you”. Kindness is a huge human need. When your inner being receives compassion, it tends to grow instead of shrinking back on itself.
By applying self-compassion you will naturally increase the compassionate connection with your child, so it’s a win-win. Compassion activates the parasympathetic nervous system (or ‘care and repair’) which stops the production of stress hormones and releases feel-good, protective chemicals. Compassion moves you from the fight-flight-freeze state (which only cares about protecting you from a threat – real or imagined) to a state where you can be effective, loving, intelligent, hopeful, courageous and where you may even flourish.
If you’d like to experience this shift, try the following guided compassion meditation. I designed it to change your state while also letting you experience the main principles from research on compassion. I also created shorter meditations for those who are familiar with the process.
Become An Expert On Resilience And Ditch Caregiver Burnout
Compassion is the foundation of many wise ways to grow our resilience and not let adversity deplete us. Because at times I was scared by my own level of suffering, I researched the most useful tools from the fields of psychology and from wisdom traditions. They are gathered for you in my book and my online resources. They include ways to communicate more effectively, as well as mindfulness, acceptance, trust, and gratitude. There is also use of the body and of imagery. Additionally, you can learn skillful responses to fearful thoughts, shame, and guilt.
How can I talk of thriving, you may ask? There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth, so that you emerge from hardships better resourced than you started with. The converse is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which sadly affects some parents. If you are one of them, take heart: there are validated treatments.
The existence of PTSD among parents who have supported their ill child confirms my experience that we are regularly experiencing traumas, large and small. With the numerous tools that exist and a kind respect for your human needs, you can prevent these traumas from building up in your nervous system, and help them resolve instead.
Even while your child is unwell and sadness is a given, you can have multiple moments of wellbeing and joy. Every stimulus that brings a smile to your face tops you up emotionally and physiologically.
Does being joyful at this time sounds selfish or insensitive? I invite you to think bigger. Your wellbeing reassures your child: you’re a stable force they can count on. They can also feel less guilty about ‘what they are doing to you’. And you are modeling powerful life-skills which are not widely taught. You might think of yourself as a lighthouse, sending out light, guiding boats safely to shore. Even while you suffer, nurture your own life force, your capacity to radiate wellness, love and hope.
For most of us, wellbeing – especially in tough times – comes from connection. Connection with humans, animals, nature, beauty and those unnameable things that are bigger than us. Warm water and delicious scents are part of this, so when people drive you crazy with their talk of bubble baths, consider they might, just about, be on to something.
About the Author:
This article was written by Eva Musby, a respected author on eating disorders, whose daughter suffered from anorexia.
‘Anorexia and other eating disorders: how to help your child eat well and be well. Practical solutions, compassionate communication tools and emotional support for parents of children and teenagers’ by Eva Musby.
Some parents have difficulties with eating and body issues themselves, and yet manage to support their child. This article from Amazonia-love may help you.
For more on self-compassion, consult the many resources of Dr. Kristin Neff.
For more on needs, learn about Nonviolent Communication from my book or from cnvc.org.
Written – 2018