Anorexia Impacts the Whole Family
One of the most emotionally devastating illnesses that impacts the entire family is when one of it's members suffers from anorexia. Why is this true?
For one, Anorexia Nervosa most often emerges in young people, beginning anywhere from ages 14 through the twenties. In no way does this preclude older people from becoming anorectic. The realization that an adolescent child is afflicted with this disease arouses powerful reactions that can destroy the entire family unit. Family members watch with horror while their young and beautiful child who is only at the start of her life, slowly but surely starves herself to death.
Siblings can become resentful at what they perceive to be their sister or brother's delibrate insistance on losing weight because they believe they are fat. Reasoning, begging and outright displays of anger fall on deaf ears as the self starvation continues unabated.
Parents often engage in self and mutual blame. They experience enormous guilt as each examines all they did wrong to cause their child to have this disorder. In fact, all family relationships become strained and conflicted as everyone walks around feeling angry.
Everyone blames the one who is suffering with this sickness. If you could put an ear to the wall of a family struggling with this you might hear such things as: "Why aren't you eating your food," with the retort of, "I am eating, I'm full and busting." This is followed by everyone arguing, "No, you aren't eating, look at your plate, stop this, you're doing this on purpose, don't you care about us, if you love us, you'll stop doing this, you look like a skeleton." The retort is, "I'm too fat, stop minding my business, this food has too much grease, I want to eat healthy, this is awful food." The fighting continues to no avail.
The fun of the family having dinner together and talking about school, work, and the news, telling jokes and laughing transforms into silence, strain and hopelessness.
Beneath all the anger, blaming and resentmentment is the sinking fear that this loved one might die. Actually, this foreboding fills the day, whether at work or elsewhere.
In reality, no one is to blame when an eating disorder strikes a family. The causes of this type of disorder are complex. They range from genetic predispostion to advertising, peer pressure, the need and wish to be perfect and much more. All these factors and more are part of the process that leads to an Eating Disorder (ED).
All of this is the reason why treatment includes family therapy along with intense treatment by a team that includes psychiatrists for medication, nutritionists to form an eating plan with the patient, and a psychotherapist to help the patient learn to cope with life in a realistic way. Family therapy has multiple purposes. First, it helps relieve the guilt, blame and anger that pervades the family unit. It also helps members discuss how to help their loved one without being controlling and intrusive.
There is hope for recovery for the anorectic patient and the family. Towards this end I want to recommend a wonderful book for those with an eating disorder as well as friends, family and anyone who wants to learn about this:
Life Without Ed
How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too
by Jenni Schaefer with Thom Rutledge, McGraw Hill Books, 2004
Your comments and questions are encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD