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Siblings and Eating Disorder Recovery (Part 2)

Tips from Siblings, for Siblings

It can be confusing, sad, scary, and frustrating to live with a sibling who has an eating disorder. You may not know how to talk to them, or how to take care of yourself during the stressful stages of their treatment and recovery. Consider the following tips from individuals who have successfully navigated the eating disorder recovery journey with their siblings.

Find your authentic role.

When Charlotte’s older sister developed an eating disorder, their dynamic changed entirely. She was no longer Charlotte’s playmate or role model. Charlotte never knew when her sister would lash out, or what to do when she disappeared into sadness. Charlotte, who had always been reserved in nature, decided it was easiest to detach for a time from her sister. While she still loved her sister and wished her well, it best served Charlotte’s own well-being to remain at a distance from her during the healing process.

Sarah, by contrast, assumed the role of joker when her older sister was diagnosed with anorexia. Sarah had always enjoyed performing, singing, and dancing, and it felt helpful to offer some lightness in that dark time. Sarah recalls: “My sister liked it because I would make her laugh, when she otherwise felt trapped in a vacuum of anger.” Sarah took on the task of introducing warmth, while simultaneously acknowledging the direness of the situation.

When an eating disorder enters a family dynamic, reflect on what role feels most natural to you. As a sibling, you do not need to “fix” your brother or sister–just be yourself.

Practice acceptance.

Denial and avoidance are natural responses to witnessing suffering. Charlotte remembers that she “sometimes didn’t want to deal with the fact that my sister did not see things as I did, and didn’t function normally.” But she came to understand that resisting reality exacerbated her own pain. She decided to try coming to terms with her sister’s disorder, to accept that “there were things my sister just could not see or do normally. She functioned in ways I did not function.” She also practiced accepting her frustration with the eating disorder by reminding herself that she still loved and wanted to support her sister: “It didn’t make me hate her.”

Speak your truth.

Communication is key to coping. However, it is not easy! It may feel alienating to try to explain the complexities of eating disorder to people who have never experienced it themselves. And it can be particularly challenging to articulate how an eating disorder complicates the relationship between siblings.

In the decade it took for Charlotte’s sister to reach recovery, Charlotte occasionally talked about what was going on with her closest friends. However, they didn’t have any frame of reference about the correlation between food, body, emotions, and family dynamics. At times this proved challenging, but ultimately Charlotte found it useful to do the work of translating the confusing situation to others. It required her to devise metaphors that helped her make greater meaning of her lived experience.

Try talking about the situation with someone in your life you feel safe with, like a peer, teacher, guidance counselor, or fellow family member. It can help to ask for them to just listen–unless you’re ready for feedback or questions. Be patient with yourself, and remember it may take several tries before it feels like you are communicating clearly.

Allow yourself to feel all the feelings.

An eating disorder triggers a wide range of emotions in everyone exposed to it. When watching your sibling suffer, it makes sense to feel shame, guilt, confusion, anger, hopelessness, sadness, fear, intrigue, and/or irritation–and sometimes even multiple emotions at the same time! Sarah remembers: “I was angry, and at the same time, I was sad for my sister.”

It is important to allow all feelings to arise. Ignoring or swallowing them only delays dealing with them, it does not eradicate the need to feel them. It may also seem wrong to allow yourself to be struggling, when you are not the “sick one.” But an eating disorder is a familial issue, so of course it affects you! Ask yourself: “What am I feeling? How is this situation affecting me? What do I need?” Then turn to a safe person to share your feelings and receive support in caring for your needs.

Get support and education.

As a sibling of someone with an eating disorder, you are psychologically and emotionally impacted by witnessing their behaviors and being a part of dysfunctional family interactions. Many siblings find it helpful to see a therapist themselves. You may feel sidelined or silenced when the attention is focused on the child with the eating disorder, and therapy offers an opportunity for you to use your voice and become empowered. Sarah wishes that she had pursued therapy when her sister was at the height of her struggles, for it may have “helped me validate that I’m in this house too. We’re different people, obviously, but we have the same parents and are responding to the same things.”

It can also be helpful to learn more about eating disorders. As an adult, Sarah came to “understand the psychology behind my sister’s behaviors–food was the way she communicated anger, by directing it at herself.” She wishes she had known this when she was an adolescent, because “it could have helped me if I understood what was behind the things I was seeing, to know that it’s not actually a good solution. I would have loved to have had someone help me understand what she was going through.”

If you feel curious, seek support and information to explore your own experience of your sibling’s eating disorder and the disorder itself. It is hard to to engage with a problem unless you have some understanding of it. With insight, you can better choose how to respond and take care of yourself.

Be a part of the conversation.

Your parents may grapple with how much is appropriate to tell you about what your sibling is going through. Yet you are likely well aware that something is wrong–perhaps you see your sibling being shuttled to appointments, getting upset around food, or their body changing. Some siblings have found it helpful to receive acknowledgment that something is indeed off. Though she was just nine when her sister was diagnosed, Charlotte’s her parents always made an effort to include her in “an ongoing conversation about what was happening.” They explained that her sister was sick and needed to see doctors and receive treatment.

Tune into how much you actually want to know. It’s okay to protect yourself from the situation to some degree, but it may also help you to participate in the family’s healing. Ultimately, it’s up to you and your family to determine how much feels helpful to discuss, and when.

Celebrate Progress.

As your sibling progresses along the path to recovery, it is valuable for everyone in the family to celebrate small victories. Sarah felt touched and inspired as she observed her sister begin to heal: “I watched her get her life back together in significant ways, through her own strength and awakening of agency.” Sarah rejoiced as she realized that her sister is “not beholden to food anymore; I can tell by the way she eats when I’m around her.” Although they do not talk about it regularly, they both acknowledge the impact the eating disorder had and the growth they both achieved.

Once your sibling restores health, consider speaking about the eating disorder experience with them in a balanced and loving way. When Charlotte’s sister was grounded in recovery, she and Charlotte found it refreshing and validating to share their unique experiences candidly with one another. Honest conversation, with some degree of emotional distance, allowed them both to feel heard and to offer appreciation to one another.

To learn about strategies and support for siblings in families affected by an eating disorder, read Siblings and Eating Disorder Recovery, Part 1: Growing Up with an Eating Disorder.

For additional information on siblings and eating disorders, check out: http://www.anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk/family-and-friends/siblings
If you or a member of your family might be struggling with an eating disorder, contact EDRS to learn more about possible sources of support.