July 19, 2019, 9:59 p.m.
In honour of it being national eating disorder week, I thought it would be more appropriate than ever to share my story of being a sibling to someone with an eating disorder. If you know anything about my family, or have ever met my sister, you have probably heard her story many times. My sister is incredibly brave as she openly shares her experience with mental illnesses. She does this through various speeches, articles and public advocacy. However, from the perspective of someone who has witnessed her journey for 5 years now, it is pretty strange to hear her experiences with the disorder wrapped up into 20 minutes of a well-tailored speech, or shortly summarized in a 1 page article. Eating disorders are complex and terrifying - they have the capacity to take over someone’s life that just can’t be expressed in words. You can hear the facts and listen to the stories, but until you or someone you know is struggling with this disorder, you don’t understand how much it changes your life.
I first found out she had anorexia nervosa when I was in grade 9 – had absolutely no idea what that meant. My mom picked me up from school, sat me down and explained this was an eating disorder. If I am being totally honest, I didn’t really see it as a problem at first. I thought it was a stricter version of a diet, and something that could easily be changed. I decided to use the end all source of knowledge, google, to see if I could find out more about this ‘anorexia’. This led me to a psychology today that stated, “Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder manifested when a person refuses to eat an adequate amount of food or is unable to maintain the minimal weight for a person's body mass index (BMI).” Okay, my grade nine self-thought… what the hell does that mean? How can someone just not want to eat? I was incredibly confused - my entire family was. We had no idea how to even begin navigate what was about to be an incredibly difficult part of our lives.
I saw a lot of change happen over the next year or so within my family, but nothing could compare to the changes happening with my sister. Dinner time, which was once perfectly normal, became screaming matches paired with uncontrollable crying. I saw my mom cry for the very first time in my life because she was so lost and scared. I saw my sister, once a social butterfly become distant; she isolated herself from her friends, aggressively fought with our family and things that once made her happy ceased to matter. Not only to mention the physical changes of rapid weight loss, thinning out of hair, red fingertips and being frequently cold on average days. When I was first doing my internet search of what anorexia was, it didn’t warn me how much it was going to change my relationship with her. She was my best friend growing up, and the first years of this battle became seriously detrimental for us. All our conversations were centered around food; one of us was always yelling and both of us were always hurting.
Over time it DID get better, slowly but surely. As my family learned effective coping tools, and Kate got the appropriate help she needed, we started to recover as a family. The recovery was not easy, and there were multiple setbacks and fluctuations. Even today, knowing everything I do – a bad day for her still really effects the whole family. Eating disorders are such an insane concept to try and wrap your head around. For someone like me, I absolutely ADORE food; I have my favorite types and I look forward to a good meal. But to my sister, and all those who are dealing with eating disorders, food is one of the most terrifying things. Everything in your life becomes centered around controlling what, when and where you are going to eat next. What I noticed with my sister, however, is that the eating disorder wasn’t actually about food. Controlling intake and restricting the food she ate was about control. This was a concept I really had a hard time understanding, and it took years for me to completely understand. What I’ve discovered is that food became the one part in her life she felt like she could actually control. Food became a mechanism for dealing with her OCD and anxiety, and when she restricted her food to a dangerously low point it was because she was looking for a sense of peace to combat the crazy thoughts of her mind.
There are days when things aren’t perfect, there are days with set-backs and fear, this disorder is 24/7 and it is really hard to see someone you love go through that. However, there are things that I have discovered over the years that helped me cope as the sibling of someone with this disease.
This one I really cannot stress enough, specifically for someone that is a sibling to someone with an eating disorder. I found myself actively not telling my parents when I was struggling with my own problems because I felt like I was going to be a burden. There was so much going on with my sister all the time that I didn’t want to add any extra stress to their life. It became exhausting trying to keep everything to myself, to the point where I couldn’t handle it anymore. Reach out to someone, anyone, and tell them your stories. Your problems deserve to be heard and acknowledged.
This one is harder to understand, but once you do it can really positively change your relationship. A lot of the time, eating disorders can make a person easily aggravated and change their behavior – when they are this way it’s really easy to just get angry with them. It is in these situations where you have to realize they are battling with their own ‘evil demon’ inside their head. The constant negative thoughts produced by this (as my family calls it – the “ED Voice”) is what is yelling at you – not the person themselves. When I realized that, it became a lot easier for me to deal with bad situations and help her fight through them rather than fight with her.
This is literally one of the easiest and most effective things you can do. A lot of the time you can’t understand what they are going through, and giving advice might not be the most effective thing in the world. When my sister is talking to me, I usually ask her what she wants me to do. Sometimes it just is listening, sometimes it’s validating and even just sitting in silence together. Tailor your support to what they feel will help them to be the most effective.
One of the best ways you can understand what they are going through is to try and learn. Talk to them if they feel comfortable sharing, read books on the disorder; do everything you can to know more about this. Also, if you feel comfortable, open up to your friends and try to tell them what’s going on. There is nothing more upsetting then hearing the phrases ‘she looks so anorexic’, or ‘I just ate I really should just throw up’ being used casually by people around you – because you know how serious those statements actually are. I am fortunate enough to have an amazing network of friends that continuously support me, and that know I am hypersensitive to topics like that. By educating your friends about what an eating disorder is and how it affects you, they become advocates and help you try to eliminate dangerous conversations around dieting and mental health.
To my sister, I love you SO incredibly much. You have been through hell and back and have come through resilient, strong and powerful. You face the toughest battles every day and I couldn’t imagine going through what you do. Keep sharing your story – it truly is amazing.
June 29, 2018, 8:26 p.m.
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