This post is written by guest blogger Stephen Hitt
I’ll never forget the day my girlfriend opened up to me about her struggle with Bulimia. I thought I knew her pretty well. On the outside, she was always outgoing, confident, and funny. Although she would never like to talk about it, I understood that deep down she struggled with anxiety and insecurity. I knew all these things, and yet, her admission shocked me. I kept my composure as she explained that she had won a treatment grant, and was finally going to get help fighting a disorder that had controlled her life for as long as she could remember. She had been ashamed to talk about it for so long, and didn’t even believe there was hope for her anymore.
I never told her, but when I was finally at home that night, alone in my room, I began to sob uncontrollably. I couldn’t believe that the person I loved the most had been destroying her own body and spirit. It broke my heart; all I could think was “How can I make you see what I see in you? How can I make you understand how loved you are?”
At the same time, I felt terrified and alone. Even before she began treatment, I was under no illusion that it would a quick cure-all. Once she decided to take action against ED, there would be no going back. She would be struggling, and I would be a part of her fight.
She used to worry that she was too much for me to handle, and that pretty soon I would get tired of being with someone who had “issues.” She was never a burden to me. I was scared only because I felt like I could do nothing to help her. She was fighting her own mind, dealing with triggers I didn’t understand, and holding to beliefs about herself that I could never change. In the past year, I’ve made many mistakes trying to help her. I want to say or do anything to stop her from engaging in eating disorder. I’m never angry at her. I’m furious at a disorder that takes her joy, lies to her about who she is, and doesn’t allow her to love herself the way she deserves.
By now I’ve learned a lot about what it means to support someone who is struggling with an eating disorder. It isn’t hard to love her. I loved her before I knew about her ED, and I love her just as much now. The difficulty comes in knowing how to love. In any healthy relationship, we share in both the triumphs and failures of our partner. When they fall, we are there with them, helping them to get back up on their feet. A guy or girl who suffers from an eating disorder is stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of guilt and shame. When my girlfriend is struggling, I can’t help but feel like I must motivate her to change the outward behavior. I want to say “You can’t do this to your body. You ought to take better care of yourself. You are hurting yourself.” But this is more hurtful than helpful to her. Even though it’s motivated by love, it adds an enormous amount of guilt and shame, along with pressure to avoid disappointment. These feelings only feed ED, and keep her from feeling free to be open about her struggle.
Instead of telling her what she ought to do, I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is see myself as her ally in recovery. I encourage her to be open about her struggle. I remind her that I love her, and regardless of how well she is doing with ED, I’m not going to leave her to fight alone. I tell her how proud I am of how far she’s come, and remind her that I believe in her recovery today, even if she doesn’t. We do talk about the logistics too, but I make sure she knows that I’m only asking to help, and I understand how hard it is to struggle with the disorder. When she makes a mistake, we talk about what she did well during the day, and what she thinks she’ll do differently tomorrow to facilitate recovery better. Lately, the only thing I pester her about is staying open and communicating where she is with her recovery.
As much as we care about the person we love, we can never change them. We can only stand by as an ally and a resource, loving and supporting as best we can. Recovery is ongoing. There’s no quick fix, no easy solution, no over-the-counter remedy. But there is hope for change, and the best thing we can do is remind the person we love that we are proud of how far they’ve come and that we believe in their recovery even when they don’t believe in themselves.