Long term relationships go through many highs and lows. Dealing with an eating disorder whilst juggling a relationship can be the biggest test of your strength. They don’t say “through sickness and in health” for no reason. Trying to understand what a person with an eating disorder is going through can be incredibly difficult; especially when that person isn’t even aware of what is going on themselves. Anorexia, as well as any other mental health illness, can appear very selfish. Although the person is not necessarily selfish, the illness will take control which can lead to them appearing very self centered and blind to others’ thoughts and feelings. There is not much understanding around eating disorders within society that can result in others feeling confused and helpless. Others would tell me, “Why won’t you just eat?” “Can’t you see what you are doing to yourself?” The reality is yes, I am fully aware on how much weight I have lost and how damaging and dangerous it is to my health but, I cannot stop. Some might assume that when someone with anorexia looks in a mirror, they see a fat person staring back at them. I was always aware of how emaciated I looked but that didn’t deter the fact that I still had a strong urge to lose weight. It is an addiction much like all others such as drugs or alcoholism – it is unlikely for a person to just go cold turkey.
Leap of faith
The key is finding support and establishing a close network of people you trust, which will be most effective and significantly improve recovery. Anorexia often makes you feel worthless and unloved so the only thing people choose to rely on is their malicious yet loyal demon controlling your thoughts and actions. Having a strong support network enables you to gain that courage to let go of your demons with the confidence of knowing you have loved ones to fall back on. I always imagined it as my demon suspending me over a cliff edge with only the grasp of one hand. My family and friends would stand on a ledge of rock beneath with their arms raised in the air ready to catch me as I fall. Reassurance, honesty, trust and above all love, is what it takes for you to make that leap.
The battles and strains
I have been in a relationship for coming up to four years with a lovely man called Matt. When I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa in 2017, our world changed. Much like most men (not to stereotype but let’s be honest), Matt is particularly unemotional. We share a joke in which we call him a robot, which is particularly relevant given that he is an engineer. He doesn’t have much understanding in mental health so predictably, this was a huge barrier. Likewise, living together can get very intense in any relationship and he soon found out that he was not only living with me, but also with my eating disorder. His initial reaction to my diagnosis was to get angry. He could not comprehend why I was doing this to myself, assuming obviously that I had full control over my actions. My eating disorder would, and continues to, cause me a lot of distress and I would experience feeling intensely upset, angry and suffer from panic attacks. Consequently, he would be confused and get angry himself. On many occasions it would reach breaking point and we would have screaming matches because neither of us could see the others point of view. I needed my boyfriend to tell me it was all okay because I was equally scared and out of control as my situation was deteriorating.
When I would try and reach out for emotional support, Matt was not able to respond which left me feeling absolutely devastated and angry. The fact is that we were both helpless. His rejection fuelled my eating disorder to grow bigger and bigger and I would assume he didn’t care as he wasn’t giving me the support I needed. His reluctance to support me emotionally was because he was scared – he was terrified because he could see I was killing myself and he couldn’t do anything about it. Anorexia takes away everything in a person’s life: relationships, social life, values, aspirations. He was grieving because he had lost the girlfriend he fell in love with to a vicious disease that was slowly erasing me from life. I had lost sight of the real me and was totally oblivious to how it was affecting Matt. This is a prime example of how selfish anorexia can be.
Notice the little things
Although Matt was not able to give me emotional support, he was incredibly helpful in supporting other areas towards my recovery. He would help me look at menus, help me decide what to have for dinner and notice when I was around conversations that were triggering or distressing for instance calories, diets and exercise. This support went unnoticed as I was so distracted by the eating disorder and always focussed on the things he couldn’t do. Furthermore, as I progressed in treatment I gained the ability to deal with practical things which meant the emotional support became a priority. The little things count and are often ignored when you are preoccupied with a mental health illness but it was his way of saying I’m here for you and I love you. I still experience struggles with food, especially when it comes to social eating and he continues to be at my side when I need help. I am much more appreciative now compared to how I acted before. Admittedly, I am a girl of words – I like people telling me how they feel and that is how I can easily identify that someone loves me. Some people, like Matt for example, show their love through actions though I was yet to discover and accept this.
And I realised…
When Matt went on a boys holiday, the time apart gave me a chance to reflect on our relationship and the struggles we have associated with my illness. I realised a major factor – he stuck around! Through all the fights and battles he didn’t leave or run away even though at the time it may have seemed the easier option. A year on from my diagnosis we are going strong. We still have our arguments, much like many couples, but we know where we both stand in terms of what we can give each other. I recognise what he does for me and fully acknowledge that he’s doing his best and that is all I can possibly ask for. He is a typical case of actions speak louder than words which, I now understand and cherish his gestures. I have accepted the fact that he can’t give me the emotional support in the way I want him to, and on his part, he realises he can’t give that to me and will instead advise me to call my mum or a close friend when he is feeling helpless. I appreciate how far he has come in this journey from the angry and confused man he was a year ago. I believe it is not always healthy for one person, such as a partner, to hold all responsibility for supporting a loved one – I have therapists for that kind of thing. At the end of the day, he is my boyfriend, not my carer. I am still going through a journey of recovery but, as a couple we have come so far and are stronger than we’ve ever been. I have plenty of people who I can go to for various issues and it’s about making your cohort (or as like to call them, my army) as big as possible. For example, my mum is great for emotional support but I wouldn’t necessarily confide in her for planning my meals for instance. Each person can offer you something and it doesn’t matter where or who you seek support from, so long as you find it and appreciate all that they can give.