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don’t call me crazy: when the anorexia minx comes to stay

An eating disorder can be described as a marathon. And in that image, it isn’t ever just the sufferer that is running. Their community – friends, parents, teachers, siblings – can be asked to step up without training, without warning, or proper footwear. This isn’t the fault of the one who’s fighting. But it is worth recognizing that the fight against such diseases is one where a village has to battle. For those placed in the position of watching a loved one go through a disorder, though, support is out there.

Media coverage of eating disorders has done a great job of putting a face to the pain. Less easy to capture, perhaps, are the worlds of those behind the scenes. Carers and friends can go from loving an easy going young person one day to losing the ‘old them’ in a wave of illness. Without the proper tools, it can be a scary and tense experience. When a situation ‘looks fine’ from the outside, negotiating problems when all seems normal is a tough task. It’s one that can lead to depression, anxiety, guilt and family breakdown in those surrounding an eating disorder sufferer.

June Alexander knows well the way an eating disorder can impact on relationships. She has suffered from anorexia since the 1960s, and writes with clarity and honesty in her books on holistically approaching treatment. As someone who’s negotiated years of illness alongside family and friends, she now advocates a collaborative, family based approach to treatment.

‘When I married a farmer at 20, three of us walked down the aisle – my husband, my eating disorder, and myself,’ she told Lip. What followed for her were years of countless new starts  in which she fought both her anorexia and a growing void with her family, who she says did not understand the illness.

Today June is a grandmother, a writer, and mostly free of her illness. But without the support of others, she ‘floundered about’, taking a long time to break free from the disorder.

‘I moved house more than 20 times,’ she says. ‘I allowed men into my life that were attracted to my illness traits.’ While these days she works as a writer and eating disorder awareness advocate, the path to freedom was full of roadblocks.

For carers today, though, there is more support out there, she says. Mental illnesses, for one, are recognised. By getting armed with current information and finding other support networks, those close to sufferers of eating disorders need not face such a gaping hole of uncertainty.

‘Carers need support too,’ June says. ‘Banish any assumption that you are to blame.’ Guilt and sadness are a common part of the caring experience. ‘But support groups [for carers] can provide compassion and understanding.’

Organisations like Eating Disorders Victoria work hard to provide information and connect people who are fighting mental illnesses, so that they develop an understanding of the disease, and meet people who have fought before. As families in this position know, it’s hard to explain to the outside world what you’re dealing with when others say that your sister, brother or daughter ‘looks fine.’

‘Being a carer can be lonely and isolating,’ June agrees, but with the right perspective and team work, hope can lie ahead.

For young people, the help you give doesn’t have to centre on the eating disorder. Being witness to arguments at dinner time doesn’t mean that siblings and friends have to focus on eating habits or exercise. One perspective sometimes lost in the media is the everyday care that friends and siblings can provide a sufferer.

‘Everyone can help! Siblings can be incredible resources,’ June says, regardless of their age in the situation. ‘Think of ways you can support [your] brother or sister outside meal times – watching a movie, just having a talk.’ The best thing a friend or sibling can do may have nothing to do with food or illness at all. Rather, being kind, supportive or even a distraction can make everyone feel more connected as families battle the illness together.

Eating disorders, and their indiscriminate creeping, can affect a circle of people without warning, regardless of social status or cultural group. It is this fact that makes the reality of the illness tougher, when families of people, young or old, are caught up in the sickness. Luckily there’s a collection of hard working groups out there for people who need the tools to fight. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation and Eating Disorders Victoria are good places to start a search for this help.

Watching someone that you care about lose themselves in unhappiness and obsession over food is a profoundly difficult experience. It takes a group to run that marathon – to help each other out when they tire, to bring as many different skills as possible to the table. The sufferer has the biggest challenge, but with well equipped helpers, they don’t have to go it alone. As June reflects, ‘It can feel as though a [loved one] has been taken over by an anorexic minx. But how you respond to this changes the course the illness takes.’

This National Mental Health Week, take a moment to consider the power of social networks on recovery. For sufferers and carers, take heart that there is help out there, and you don’t have to do this on your own.

For more information:

Lifeline Ph: 13 11 14

(Image credit: 1.)

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