Eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia bring suffering and sorrow to the lives of their victims. But these compulsive and destructive behaviors also tear the heart and soul out of parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, children, grandparents, and other family members who are forced to stand helplessly by as a person they care for deeply slides closer and closer to the edge of the abyss.
Fortunately, the 12-step revolution has brought aid and comfort to those suffering from a variety of disorders and illnesses, including people whose lives have been upended by eating disorders. But while groups such as Al-Anon and Nar-Anon have been created to help family members touched by substance abuse find support in peer settings, this supplementary part of the 12-step movement has not become universally available for families whose lives have been affected by other troublesome conditions, compulsions, and addictions. Family and loved ones of those suffering from an eating disorder have few support options other than personal therapy and online forums.
But there is nothing to stop families affected by problem eating behaviors from taking the initiative to set up support groups on their own. In truth, this is really the only way that anything ever gets done in life, as that old bromide about how “good things come to those who wait” is more myth than fact.
Imagining the Ideal Family Support Group
Family members of eating disorder victims could certainly benefit from organizing support groups. The emotions experienced by parents, spouses, and other close relatives who are trapped in a reality warped by anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating run the gamut from anger to fear to frustration to desperation as they struggle to break through the rationalizations and the distorted perceptions that cause an eating disorder victim to lose contact with reality. And even if they do manage to get through, and the eating disorder victim finally decides to seek help, frequent relapses can undermine even the most determined efforts to change, putting everyone on an emotional roller coaster where hope is constantly being defeated by despair and disappointment.
All of this takes a tremendous psychological toll on the loved ones of the anorexic or bulimic, and having the chance to network with others who are going through the same thing could be of enormous benefit to those who feel like they have nowhere to turn. Certainly, professional therapy could be beneficial to the family members of eating disorder victims, but we should not underestimate the healing and calming effects that peer support can have for people who are enmeshed in such mentally draining circumstances.
But while coping and self-healing would be a constant focus in a well-run 12-step eating disorder family support group, that would not be its only purpose, or even its primary reason for existing. While those who are close to anorexics or bulimics need to take care of themselves, and should make every effort to do so in a group setting, their main focus will remain the same: to do everything in their power to help their daughters, sisters or wives overcome their eating disorders and put their terrible suffering behind them.
While it is vital that family members of eating disorder victims consult with professional therapists as they work to develop intervention strategies, having the opportunity to speak with others who have faced the same situation with their loved ones can be extremely valuable. Who would know better what works and what doesn’t than those who have been through it before, and who have learned by trial and error which approaches have the biggest impact?
So while all in participants in an eating disorder family support group would be given time to express themselves and to talk about their feelings, at least an equal percentage of time in each session would be devoted to interactive discussion, where each attendee would have the opportunity to seek input or offer advice on how to deal effectively and proactively with anorexic or bulimic children/spouses/siblings.
Turning a Great Idea into Reality
Eating disorders are among the most difficult problems that families have to deal with, as those who suffer from anorexia or bulimia frequently live in a deeply entrenched state of denial as they practice unhealthy behaviors that can put their lives at risk. In fact, 20 percent of all anorexics die prematurely from causes related to their condition. Family and friends of sufferers should join together to work for a solution with others who are facing the same life-or-death situations.