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NEDA Week 2012: Sharing Your Story With a Partner (or Friend)

Posted Feb 28 2012 6:07pm

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First things first: so glad you liked the vanilla almond cookies !! A lot of you have asked me if you could substitute something for almond milk pulp (which, for the record, is what’s leftover from straining when you make almond milk at home). Regular almond flour mixed with almond milk is my best guess, so just play with proportions and see what works!

As many of you probably know, this is National Eating Disorder Awareness week. In spite of the fact that I extend constant awareness to those whose lives are touched by eating disorders, I try to be particularly aware of them (and everyone who has recovered) during these seven days. Historically, NEDA week is a time for heartfelt posts here at CR: in 2010, I wrote what may be my favorite post ever, “ Embracing Our Appetites ,” and last year, I wrote about rebuilding a sense of distinctiveness after an ED . The topic seemed to resonate with many of you.

In the last two weeks, I have by some strange coincidence gotten at least 5 emails from women who have recently decided to share their eating disorder stories with their romantic partners. Their emails got me thinking about how recovered/recovering people can communicate their experience, but it also got me thinking about EDs and intimacy in general. I’ve written very little about this, because I’m sure that the terrain is different from couple to couple, but I’m also so curious to hear from the CR community on this (admittedly giant) topic.

I’ve had relationships during, between, and after the periods of my life that I consider disordered. I was too young to be dating at all when I had my first bout of disordered eating, but I relapsed in college, while I was involved with someone. Not surprisingly, I was too deep in denial to even admit that I had a problem, let alone confide in him, but he was aware of the fact that I didn’t have a normal relationship with food. It wasn’t until my next, more serious relationship, which began when I was in a more stable place, that I became capable of talking about my history, though I still wasn’t capable of using the words “eating disorder.”

Some relationships trigger or enable EDs. Some help to heal them. And if they help to heal them, it can be for a variety of reasons. For me, the experience of romantic relationships after my recovery was helpful in many ways: it forced me to be more spontaneous, less married to my routines and schedule. It forced me to dine out more, which was still an enormous challenge for me at the time. It pulled me out of my tendency to isolate myself, and obsess over my body; it helped me to be less cerebral, and more sensual.

Most of all, relationships taught me to share my body with somebody else. My eating disorder made me tremendously possessive of my physical self. I wanted to sit around analyzing every rumble of indigestion; I wanted to take note of precisely how I felt after everything I ate, and I wanted to punish myself if I felt too full. I didn’t want to be touched; I didn’t want to be looked at. In many ways, I think that this possessiveness and desire to shut out physical intimacy was an extension of the “control” urge that so many women and men with EDs experience. My body was mine, all mine, and no one else was allowed to experience it with me.

Of course, physical intimacy blurs the distinction between your body and somebody else’s. And when I was ready to experience this—entrusting my body to another person—it helped me to get over a lot of the hyper-vigilance. This, more than anything else, stands out as the contribution that intimacy made to my recovery. I’m sure that other women have other experiences of intimacy as a healing force, and I’d love to hear about how and why certain relationships have helped them to move forward.

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If I were to offer some advice to women or men who wanted to open up to their partners about their EDs, it would be these five tips:

1) Share your story in your own words. Most people have plenty of preconceived notions of what eating disorders are and why they happen. They evoke a lot of fear in some people, and others are very dismissive of them. Your partner, no matter how empathetic, will surely have at least a few stereotypes about eating disorders lodged in his or her brain. So be sure to describe your experience in precise and personal language; if a part of your story defies the mainstream understanding of eating disorders, then go ahead and say something like “I know everyone thinks eating disorders happen for  ____________ reason, but in my case, I think the real cause was ____________.” This will help your partner to understand precisely what happened to you.

2) Share only as much as is comfortable. Given that ED histories tend to follow us around in life—if not in our behaviors, then at least in our bank of memories and life-shaping experiences—I think that it’s wise to share your story with a serious partner. That said, you can share according to your comfort level. Just because you’ve decided to say something, that doesn’t mean you have to say everything. You can make choices based upon your comfort level, and you can disclose more details over the course of time.

3) Make sure your partner understands that it is not his or her job to “fix” what happened. In my experience, people often assume that, because eating disorders are so often aimed at weight loss, the best way to aid in someone else’s recovery is to offer that person a lot of positive feedback about his or her body. This is obviously very thoughtful and kind, but I think it can also become a little tiring (or even anxiety-laden) for the person giving the compliments! Try to explain to your partner that eating disorders aren’t just about aesthetics; oftentimes, they actually have little to do with wanting to be attractive. So, while admiring remarks can be very helpful, your partner shouldn’t be expected to take your entire physical self-esteem on his or her shoulders. Positive feedback is appreciated, but it should never be an obligation.

4) Tell your partner how he or she can help you stay accountable. No matter how long you’ve been recovered, there’s a good chance that certain kinds of thought patterns or habits slip into your life that are reminiscent of your ED. This is normal, and not shameful at all; the trick is simply to recognize and resist those tendencies. Your partner can help you. Tell him or her what kinds of things you find triggering, and how those triggers are likely to be expressed. Create an awareness about small things that he or she might do to help you stay confident and strong. For example, you might say something like this: “sometimes, restaurants or situations where I can’t control what I’m eating make me anxious. If you see me getting anxious, remind me that it’s just one meal, and one meal is not a big deal.” This kind of precision is really helpful, and your partner may actually feel honored and proud to be included in your continued health.

5) Assure your partner that you are determined to become or remain healthy. I think the worst fear of anyone who’s about to tell a partner that they’ve had an ED is the fear of judgment or panic. I hope I don’t have to tell you all that no devoted partner should either judge you or freak out simply because you share your history; if anything, the fact that you’re capable of talking about it probably means you’re committed to wellness. That said, it’s normal for a partner to feel some anxiety or discomfort. Try to assure him or her that you’re bringing the issue up specifically because you feel devoted to good health, and that you chose to share because you wanted him/her to understand where you come from. It’s as simple as that.

A lot of people have asked me if there are books I’d recommend sharing. To be honest, while there are a lot of books about EDs that I have found very personally helpful/significant— Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, for example, or Aimee Liu’s Gaining—I’m not sure I’d want to share them with a partner. Those books are full of searing detail, and they might actually scare someone who has little or no experience with these issues. So I’m actually turning that question over to my readers: any book recommendations, folks?

Hope you all find these tips helpful. Of course they’re intended for romantic partnerships, but I think that they’re applicable to all kinds of relationships–family members, friends, and so on. And I hope we’ll all use this week as a chance to give special love and support to anyone we might know who struggles with food, in ways big or small. We don’t need NEDA week to be mindful of EDs, but it’s a nice reminder.

xo

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