Being the partner of someone who has suffered a long-time battle with an eating disorder, I’ve learned a great deal about this debilitating disorder and also about how much effort it takes to heal from one.
I grew up with zero exposure to eating disorders, and for a long time thought that suffering one was just an unfortunate phase someone went through, one that would eventually pass as they grew out of it. Or, I thought that it was maybe just a by-product of insecurity and that once a sufferer began feeling confident in themselves they would once again regain the pleasure of eating good nourishing food and staying at a healthy weight. I had no idea that it was one of the most complex and chronic disorders anyone can suffer, something that can stick with them for a lifetime. I also had no idea that it has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Steph courageously shared about her battle with her eating disorder in a previous article, however in this blog I want to focus more specifically on what sort of experience it has been from my perspective, as a partner of someone suffering from this disorder. I want to do this because whilst the sufferer is the unfortunate victim with the disease, it can and does heavily affect those who love and are there to support the person afflicted. Watching someone you love be tormented by an internal demon and then self destruct by refusing to nourish their body is traumatising to watch and leaves family and partners feeling helpless.
I personally believe eating disorders are still not very well understood and stigmatised, and being misunderstood then creates feelings of shame and guilt in the sufferer, which then blocks their ability to open up about their struggles. As a result, eating disorders are often shrouded with secrecy and constant efforts to convince others into thinking there is nothing wrong and this can make it an extremely difficult, confusing and heavily emotional experience for the partner, family and friends of the victim. I don’t feel there is enough clarity and support out there in the general public, both for the sufferer and for the partner. I had to learn many of my lessons the hard way as no-one was there to guide me or help me understand what to expect with an eating disorder, so hopefully this article helps some people, even if only in a small way.
When I met Steph she was at a healthy weight again after being seriously underweight for many years. At the beginning of the relationship I didn’t suspect a thing as the concept of an eating disorder was so far off my mental radar. However, after being together for a year, I began to notice little signs that something wasn’t quite right. As a result of my probing Steph wrote me a huge and honest letter explaining everything she had been through. She told me how she had been put in hospital many times and had to have liquid calories pumped into her stomach through a gastric nasal tube. How she had seen fellow patients die. How she had tried to commit suicide a number of times because of the extreme mental torture. How this whole ordeal had nearly shattered her family to pieces and forced them to move to a different state in order to seek help from other family members. How she felt possessed by a demon that compelled her to starve and harm herself and made her obsessed with needing to control everything, especially her eating habits.
Naturally this was a lot to take in for me, but it certainly answered a few lingering questions that had been developing in my mind after observing Steph’s eating habits for a while. It didn’t scare me though as my love for her was too strong. As well, I myself was battling a long time sleeping pill addiction and I knew everyone had their challenges, so I was in no position to judge.
I also thought that Steph’s eating disorder was in the past now purely because she looked to be a more normal weight now. However, I was still was a very long way off understanding that an eating disorder can affect the sufferer for a lifetime, and how much mental anguish they can suffer from day to day, meal to meal, without anyone around them really knowing the full extent.
This leads me to the first lesson I learned from this eating disorder, which was to never assume someone is healed simply because of how they look. When Steph had anorexia, her eating disorder could not remain hidden as she was just skin and bones. However, when her weight was restored after many many months of forced hospital visits, it was easier for her eating disorder to go undetected and she suffered in silence. This worked against her in some ways, as people began to assume she was okay and healthy again despite her continued mental anguish and enslavement. She felt ashamed opening up because she no longer “looked like she had an eating disorder” and therefore worthy of help and treatment, and eating disorders are already a very private disorder shrouded in secrecy by those afflicted simply because there is often so much shame attached. That’s the thing – eating disorders manifest differently for every sufferer and thus we can not assume anything, particularly about their level of progress.
Appearances can certainly mask deeper issues that are going on under the surface, and this has never been more prominent than in our modern day. Today, we find ourselves in a world dominated by social media, which is utterly image obsessed, with young girls similar to Steph being bombarded everywhere by expectations of how they should look. This is enhanced even further by Hollywood and mainstream drama-based media and reality shows, whereby young women (and men) are shown that the only way to be accepted, popular, and loved is to be skinny. Social media outlets such as Instagram allow people to photo-shop their images and place all sorts of filters over themselves, making people seem even skinnier and more “flawless”. This insta-model culture only contributes to our society’s unrealistic ideals of beauty and how a human should look. With all these manipulated and contrived images and self projections, how can we ever really know what is going for someone on the inside? How can we access their humanness, their vulnerability?
In late 2015, Steph was sexually assaulted. This trauma triggered an eating disorder relapse and her healing went backwards. She went downhill fast. I myself suffered trauma from this event and felt extreme guilt and hurt that I wasn’t there to help her that night. In the months after the assault, she began suffering from intense spells of anxiety, night terrors, flashbacks and depression. She also began eating less and exercising an extreme amount (a common symptom of eating disorders) and began losing weight. She was not coping.
During this time, we began partying quite a bit to release some of the grief from the trauma, as well as take sleeping pills in order to “escape” our pain each night.
It got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore and one day I began pleading and begging to Steph through tears of desperation to begin opening up about her eating disorder and to seek some help. At this point, she was barely talking to anyone as she had built deep layers of emotional armour to numb and protect herself from the pain she was feeling. This armour also prevented her from even admitting to herself that something was wrong. I became desperate and decided that if we were going to survive as a couple, and if she was going to survive full stop, then every ounce of our energy needed to go towards her healing. I knew that the first step to doing this was that we had to stop pretending that everything was okay, when in reality we were both emotionally scarred and deeply wounded. At this point, Steph received a pretty big wake up call.
This leads me to the second lesson I learned from this eating disorder, and that is the unfortunate reality that unless the person afflicted is ready to seek help, nothing is going to convince their minds otherwise. This also applies to any addiction, but the tough thing with an eating disorder is that the undernourishment, constant calorie restriction and purging can severely distort the mind of the victim. Their mind can become so distorted that may not even believe they have a problem and the body they see in the mirror is very different to what someone else may be seeing. They may even feel like they are being attacked by those reaching out to them to help, even if they do it gently, and this may cause them to retract even further. Many family/carers are not gentle however, and might say something like “stop being silly and just eat”, or “why the hell are you doing this to yourself?”, or “you’re being ridiculous, eating is so pleasurable!”. While the anger and confusion from others can be understandable for they are watching a loved one wither away, it shows a deep lack of understanding and sensitivity for this complex disorder. I am not proud to admit it, but I am talking from experience here as in the early days before I began understanding the disorder better, I was more likely to say statements likes these.
Currently we live across the road from a young woman who is clearly suffering from Anorexia. She runs kilometres and kilometres every day, and is considerably malnourished. There have been times where I’ve seen her running up a super steep hill (extreme exercise is a major symptom of eating disorders) in the hot morning sun and humidity (we live near the tropics), whereby I’m not even sure how she is going to make it to the top without fainting. Only to see her again later that afternoon on another run. It breaks my heart because she is a beautiful young girl with kind eyes, and yet she is being tortured by this disorder. They are the same tortured but kind eyes I see in Steph when she is battling.
On a number of occasions I’ve been close to approaching the young girl and asking her if she needs support, but it is such a difficult thing to know how to approach. Besides, there is a big chance that by doing that I will only cause her to feel more shame and deepen her eating disorder even further. It breaks Steph’s heart seeing this girl as well, for she can clearly see what stage she is in, the deep denial stage. A stage ruled by fear, paranoia, and a distorted mind. In this stage there is little to no desire to seek help, and this can be heart breaking for the people close to the one afflicted, for all they can do is watch them wither away. Steph has said to me in the past that sometimes the only hope is for the person to hit rock bottom and come so close to death that it jolts them back into just enough of a slither of sober clarity that they desire to get better. Many, however, don’t make it through this rock bottom experience alive. It really is such a frighteningly complex disease.
Steph’s family and friends went through this ‘denial’ and ‘refusal to be well’ stage with her. But their hands were tied to an extent, for Steph sabotaged every effort of theirs to re-feed her and reestablish health. Steph’s parents tried everything, but as the saying goes “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. They were helpless for as long as Steph refused to heal. Aware of Steph’s inability to stop the destruction, the doctors had her sectioned by the state. This meant the state were now in control of her treatment because it appeared she would die without their intervention. They forced her into hospital and they put her on a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs. If Steph did not do as they said, doctors would threaten to call the police and take away all of her freedom. Steph spent most of her adolescent years in hospital with the sickest of the sick, monitored and cared for 24/7. She was denied all the things a young teenage girl would normally be doing at this age, such as studying, hanging with friends, going to parties, meeting boys, and spending time with the family. She felt deeply betrayed by her family at the time, but she understands now that they were put into an impossible situation of either force her into a hospital or watch her die. The challenging thing with eating disorders is that therapy can be completely ineffective until weight has been restored, as without any glucose and fat, the brain simply can’t function.
Steph has told me that whilst the hospitalisation helped restore her weight, it did not trigger any desire for her to begin healing. Forced treatment made her even more angry and defiant, and simply made her seek new ways to hide her disorder so that she could be left alone. She felt desperately lonely and depressed in hospital, and more hopeless about ever getting well. Yet hospital kept her physically alive. It was a cruel and traumatic irony.
One of the leading triggers for her to begin healing was, after being released from hospital (after many back and forth visits), her family informed her that she was no longer welcome to live at the family home. They told her that if she wanted to choose the eating disorder that was fine, it was her decision as an adult now, but they couldn’t allow it into their lives any longer. They essentially gave the ultimatum – its us, or the anorexia (it’s important to note here that, by this stage, Steph was what you would call ‘institutionalised’ – which is where someone has lived within institutions for so long that they forget how to live in the real world). Not knowing how to live properly and having bypassed crucial stages of development, she then found herself as a young woman out in the world by herself, not knowing what on earth to do. Living in a crummy share house, having been forced to drop out of university, unable to get a job, not being able to book any modelling jobs as they all knew she was sick, feeling desperately lonely and at times suicidal, and not even being allowed to stay with her family. At this point, she realised that if she was going to keep living, then she may as well attempt to heal and live properly, as living like this simply wasn’t worth it. This was her rock bottom.
It was then she made her first major move towards healing, which was to reinstate herself, on her own accord, back into hospital for another weight restoring program. Whilst to some her family’s decision to cut her off and not allow her to live at home may seem harsh, it actually was the wake up call she needed. Many well-meaning family members and partners may not have done the same, instead thinking that it is their duty to save them. Yet there comes a point where one must draw the line, and after exhausting nearly every resource they had – both emotionally and financially – Steph’s family had reached that point. In fact, they believed that it got to a point where they were being too tolerant of the disorder, and they needed to make a stand.
When her eating disorder became re-triggered a few years later from the sexual assault, in a similar fashion to Steph’s family I also used the only leverage I had up my sleeve, and that was Steph’s love for me. When I pleaded for her to wake up to the damage she was doing and to seek some help, I was sincerely willing to put our relationship on the line in the case that she wasn’t willing to open up. She could see this and it was enough of a shock to open up a small crack in Steph’s protective emotional armour, and she then agreed to committing to her healing and to begin talking about it with people.
This lead me to discover the third lesson, which was that to find true and lasting healing, one must be completely and utterly committed to the process.
I also received a wake up call in this period. I have always been very career driven and motivated to aspire to big dreams. I played professional sport for 8 years and when I met Steph, whilst I had stopped playing football professionally by that stage, I was still playing sport at a level that demanded a solid commitment. I had also just launched myself into running two health companies. At that point, I still had a debilitating sleeping pill addiction, but I always thought that healing was something that could wait once I had achieved some of the goals I wanted to reached, or had earned a certain amount of money. The suffering Steph was experiencing however began working as a mirror. It helped me see with sober eyes that the girl I loved was suffering, and this also helped me tap into the fact that on a deep level I was suffering too. My sleeping pill addiction wasn’t just some random event that would pass, it was a band-aid for underlying pains and wounds that remained unresolved and unhealed. I also realised that we were simply products of our culture, a deeply wounded culture that excels at hiding it’s wounds through any means possible, and a culture that is deeply afraid of being completely open and vulnerable.
I came to the firm belief that our healing journey had to go above everything else, otherwise our lives would be forever affected by unacknowledged inner wounds and subsequent suffering. I slowed down the work I was doing considerably, and began playing local football, which did not demand the same time commitment as the higher levels. Eventually I even took a full year off everything, to focus solely on healing.
We ended up travelling all over the world as we dove head-first into our healing. We went to a 9-day ‘off grid’ retreat in the Peruvian high jungle and participated in a native shamanic plant medicine ceremony with an ancient psychedelic healing cactus plant called ‘Huachuma’. This plant medicine is also commonly known as the San Pedro cactus. I also tried out another South American plant medicine medicine known as ‘Ayahuasca’. We found plant medicines to be really beneficial, especially in terms of providing us with higher perspectives of our struggles, but have also since learned that there is a dark side to plant medicines that people would do well to be aware of.
On another occasion, we traveled to the Philippines on a two week retreat to see a world famous psychic healer – this was one of the trippiest experiences of our lives and something that we may write about at a later date. We also found great value in seeing a western psychologist, as well as other healing practitioners such as Kinesiologists, body workers, general practitioner doctors, Chinese medicine doctors, Reiki healers, Naturopaths, and much more.
As you can probably tell by now, we were highly motivated to adopt healing practices from many different cultures around the world, as our suffering had made us very open minded to a variety of modalities. We acknowledge that western medicine certainly has a place, however pumping Steph full of anti depressants and god knows how many other drugs that were recommended just wasn’t an option that satisfied us. Especially as we both were both already heavily addicted to sleeping pills (which are a legal pharmaceutical drug) and therefore were well aware of how dangerously addictive these so called “safe and approved” drugs can be.
We didn’t necessarily seek all of these modalities, they always seemed to find us at the right time. We would first put an intention out into the Universe that we were open to healing a certain part of ourselves, and then in very quick succession we would experience synchronistic events whereby something might pop up on the internet, or a friend may suggest something, or a random inspired idea would pop into our minds.
However as we tried more and more different things, we realised that underneath our sincere efforts was a sole intention that was distorting our focus. This lead me to the fourth lesson of supporting Steph in the healing journey of her eating disorder, and that was that the healing can not come from “out there”, it can only come from within.
Every healing modality we tried, from plant medicines, to kinesiologists, to mainstream medicine, had a positive impact in some way, but we always found ourselves falling right back to old habits not longer after. We were too focused on finding external things that could heal us, and were ignoring our own inner healing powers. We began realising that ultimately what we were on was a spiritual journey, learning to re-connect back with our true soul essence, and to see and live beyond our illusory ego constructs. One of my favourite teachers in the field of addiction and depression is Dr. Gabor Mate, and he says that;
“At the core of every addiction is an emptiness based in abject fear. The addict dreads and abhors the present moment; she bends feverishly only toward the next time, the moment when her brain, infused with her drug of choice, will briefly experience itself as liberated from the burden of the past and the fear of the future—the two elements that make the present intolerable. Many of us resemble the drug addict in our ineffectual efforts to fill in the spiritual black hole, the void at the center, where we have lost touch with our souls, our spirit—with those sources of meaning and value that are not contingent or fleeting. Our consumerist, acquisition-, action-, and image-mad culture only serves to deepen the hole, leaving us emptier than before. The constant, intrusive, and meaningless mind-whirl that characterizes the way so many of us experience our silent moments is, itself, a form of addiction—and it serves the same purpose. “One of the main tasks of the mind is to fight or remove the emotional pain, which is one of the reasons for its incessant activity, but all it can ever achieve is to cover it up temporarily. In fact, the harder the mind struggles to get rid of the pain, the greater the pain.” So writes Eckhart Tolle. Even our 24/7 self-exposure to noise, e-mails, cell phones, TV, Internet chats, media outlets, music downloads, videogames, and nonstop internal and external chatter cannot succeed in drowning out the fearful voices within.”
We learnt that both of us had a deep shadow that contained all of our wounds, negative programming, and our fears and traumas. We realised that because we were so intent on avoiding our inner shadow, we were not living in alignment with our personal truth and we were shielding our true selves to the world. We were instead only revealing the parts of ourselves we wanted the world to see, only our positive parts – our ‘highlights real’. Many people do this unconsciously, they develop personality masks that they hide behind and act in ways that they believe will win them approval and acceptance of others. For example, Steph realised that her default personality mask was the bubbly and carefree girl. Whilst she is naturally very bubbly, she used these traits to hide herself from the world and she spent many years hiding behind this unconscious facade in a bid to hide her depression. I myself have also hidden behind many masks in my time that were all unconsciously designed to hide my true self from the world. The modern world of social media is enhancing this problem. I only have to scroll Instagram for 20 seconds and I can see how much hiding and masking is going on.
The problem with this is that by suppressing our trues selves we also suppress our inner pain, and we do not allow those whom we trust in to help us heal. We also suppress our spirit, which is aching to reveal its true self and gifts to the world, and to express its unbridled creativity. When we ignore our spirit, and only identify with the ego instead, we leave a gaping hole of pain and despair deep within us. The body is always trying to communicate to us how to come back to spirit through feelings and emotions, but most of the time we we avoid and dissociate from these feelings.
In short, after helping Steph through her suffering, and experiencing much of it myself, I now firmly believe that suffering can be our greatest catalyst for spiritual awakening, which is something we speak about in more depth in our previous article – Humanity’s Primary Cultural Wound’. Suffering works as an alarm clock, shocking us out of our ego-based slumbers, bringing us back to what it means to be human. I also see suffering as a sign that our spiritual immune system is working properly, and that it is in the process of rejecting the toxic ego-centric, disembodied, material and consumer obsessed western culture most of us are raised in.
Unfortunately, many of us have been led to believe that suffering means that there is something wrong with us, and we then try to adjust ourselves accordingly. But as Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
In learning to trust our bodies again, it becomes apparent that all the healing we need is within, we just need to surrender to the process. However, rather than sit with our emotions and allow them to process and integrate properly, we have become experts at distracting and numbing ourselves. There are a million and one things to do this with these days, such as drugs, alcohol, social media, porn, food, gossiping and being obsessed with one’s career and making money. This is where embodiment practices are crucial, which is something we elaborate on much more deeply in our free eBook titled ‘8 Daily Habits to Support Embodiment‘. In short however, some embodiment practices we have found hugely beneficial are meditation, Yoga, Qigong, deep breathing, nature hikes/immersion, as well as Philip Shepherd’s ‘embodied present exercises’. Embodiment practices allow us to sit with all of the unpleasant and previously overwhelming emotions and sensations in the body, and properly process, ground and integrate them in order to bring us into a state of inner wholeness.
Another thing that can distract us from our own healing ironically is being overly focused on helping others heal. This leads me to the fifth and final lesson I learned whilst helping Steph heal her eating disorder, which is that you can only help others heal by healing yourself.
I put this lesson last because it was the lesson I took the longest to learn. When we committed to our healing process I was beginning to realise my own inner pain, but I was still majorly focused on Steph and what I didn’t realise yet is that I was using this as a way to avoid my own inner shadow. I was still deeply addicted to sleeping pills and partying way too much. The difference was that I could hide mine much better. I still ate exceptionally well and exercised regularly, and I was playing football at a good standard, as well as running multiple business’s, so to the average observer I would have seemed fine. Yet I wasn’t. I was suffering and I had many unacknowledged wounds, traumas and fears that I was suppressing. The difference was that my issues weren’t as intense or obvious as Steph’s eating disorder symptoms were, and therefore were easier to mask. A huge breakthrough came for me when it struck me deeply that until I was willing to be open and vulnerable about the issues I was facing within, then I could not expect Steph to do the same. Any expectations I placed on her, until I was sincere about my own healing, were nothing more than avoidance strategies and shadow projections, and this is something that Steph’s amazing gentle and feminine qualities helped me realise.
After this very sobering and humbling realisation I began to place all of my focus into leading by example. I ceased putting pressure on Steph (this took a bit of practice) and adopted the new realisation that her soul was here to learn specific lessons, as was mine. Who am I to say that her eating disorder was not a perfect part of the divine plan that was already laid out for her in this lifetime, to help her learn certain lessons and gain certain insights as part of her soul journey? Who’s to say that my addictions and struggles were not part of the perfect divine plan of my life? One thing that supports this belief is that the more we have surrendered to our suffering, the more our lives and spiritual journeys have been catapulted to new heights. We would both confidently say that due to the amazing lessons we’ve learned, we would not change a single thing.
The problems truly arise when we resist, when we think that we have a better plan for our lives, and we try to wrestle things to align with our petty little ego desires. We have now adopted the views that all we can do as partners is to lead by example and to provide a safe space for each other to open up with trust and vulnerability. As well, we have to keep reminding ourselves that whilst we are doing the inner work and are pulling out all of the weeds, we must also remember to water the roses. This means to remember all of our amazing traits, to acknowledge our strength and resilience and to have faith in ourselves. It also means to have fun, and to remember how precious this gift of life is and to live it to its fullest.