In no way does any family want to get the gift of an eating disorder. Nor does any family deserve to get the gift of an eating disorder.
But that is quite beside the point.
The point is that we have an eating disorder in our family. The question is not “what did we do to deserve this?” but “what do we do now?”
The eating disorder is here. It’s alive, and it can teach us so much about ourselves, our families, and our world, if we only listen.
“What is life trying to teach you right now? Is this an opportunity to open your heart, to open your mind? Is there any way that this seeming curse might actually be a blessing?”
Kristin Neff, Ph.D. Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
The eating disorder may be within just one of our family members, but it dwells with the whole family. We all play a role in the eating disorder’s life, and we can all take an active role in thanking the eating disorder for its existence and helping it take leave of our family forever.
Each family is a system. While each member is an individual, we work together as an ecosystem. Each family ecosystem offers a unique environment for its inhabitants. Most family ecosystems work pretty well. But no family is perfect. We all struggle at times.
We all discover unwanted parasites that must be eradicated. Parasites are eliminated when we actively pay attention to them, understand their greatest weakness, and take away the food that feeds them.
Eating disorders lose strength when we fortify our family system with more belonging, caring, acceptance and meaning. The food that feeds them is loneliness, isolation, and a sense of hopelessness.
“No family is perfect. The best we can hope for is a family that is functional most of the time, makes allowances for some dysfunction, and when things break down, finds a way to mend them.”
David Richo, Ph.D. How to be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving
When we, as a family, get an eating disorder, it is a gift if we can see the opportunity for growth in each of us. The eating disorder can become our guide to a deeper connection with our individual needs and our need for growth as a family.
Eating disorders expose unmet needs for greater acceptance, appreciation and attunement. It is not an exposure of a lack of love, because many times eating disorders afflict loving families. Indeed, it is not a lack of inherent love, but practicing love may help the eating disorder recede.
And this is a wonderful gift because we all benefit from learning to give and receive more love in our lives. The gift of an eating disorder is that we all benefit from the work required to help it go away.
“It is not a question of parental love but of the parent’s ability to be present emotionally in such a way that (the child) feels understood, accepted and mirrored. Attunement is the real language of love.”
Gabor Maté, M.D. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
When our child has an eating disorder, we have the opportunity to pause and assess our family structure. We can take the time to notice what is working for us, and what is not. The greatest gift we give our children is our own introspection about how we can take a tough situation and use it to move into a new, better way of being. Luckily, this gift benefits our own personal life, as well. We all thrive when we notice that we have the capacity to build a better life experience for ourselves and others.
Many times an eating disorder is a surprise gift, but when we look at it, we notice that it has some pretty deep roots. Perhaps as our children grew and our lives became busier, we started feeling less connected to each other as a family. Perhaps divorces, deaths in the family, illnesses and career stalls have distracted us from building the strong family that we always imagined.
It’s OK though. We have so much to learn, and so much to give to ourselves and our children, and the blessing of the eating disorder is that it forces us to sit up and pay attention. To think deeply, not about what we have done wrong, but what we can do right moving forward.
“Shaking one’s fist at something doesn’t change it. Only love gets fists to open. Only love leads to a conjuring of kinship within reach of the actual lives we live.”
Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship
We live in a complex world. Our attention is constantly pulled in different directions. An eating disorder allows us to take a breath and notice what we really care about, what really matters, and who we choose to be in this world.
We cannot choose the world in which we live. We cannot immediately change the societal norms of fatphobia and increasing rates of anxiety and depression. We cannot change the fact that we live in a distracted environment. But the blessing of an eating disorder is that we notice that can choose our priorities.
We notice that we have amazing power to change the way we give love to others and experience love ourselves. We notice that the gift of an eating disorder is the gift of paying attention, of making changes, of becoming healthier. And though it is truly awful, it is so very worth it.
“My life is not quite what I expected. Things are not turning out as I’d planned. But that doesn’t mean things are going wrong or that they can’t work out in time.”
Rachel Macy Stafford, www.handsfreemama.com
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.