Do you know how to cope with a sibling’s eating disorder? How can you also protect yourself?
I’ve never had the experience of being a bystander to this eating disorder. I’ve always been in the thick of it and fixated so much that I’ve forgotten how it must be affecting those around me. Anorexia entered my life when I was a young girl, barely thirteen years old. Ever since then food hasn’t tasted the same. Calories have become lodged in my frontal cortex and every meal, even the quasi-recovered ones, have morphed into a battlefield. It wasn’t until recently that I even considered the fact that it might be affecting my sibling’s wellbeing, as well as my own.
My sister is approximately eighteen months younger than me. She was only entering ‘tween-age’ hood when anorexia first emerged. When I asked her about it years later, she stated that it made her feel forgotten because everything suddenly became about Chloe and the eating disorder. We became estranged due to the barrier erected by anorexia. It’s only recently that our relationship has approached anything close to the ‘sisterhood’ I’ve coveted all my adult life.
It didn’t help that I was toxic to live with. I was aggressive, spiteful, and argumentative, all of which just isn’t my personality. I’m able to admit that the mental illness had full control over how I acted towards myself and others. Even as an adult, I can see some of these mean traits re-emerging and I hate every moment of it.
“I hated who I was with this eating disorder because I was, for lack of a better term, a stone-cold bitch.”
There was a lot of arguing around meal times and exercise when I was growing up. My mother and father did the best they could to keep me eating and away from walking the streets. Of course, I hated it. I was depressed, self-harming, and starving myself on a daily basis. At the time I honestly didn’t want to be here. I couldn’t care if I lived or died. To be my sister growing up in a house like that with me, the gremlin of joy, roaming the halls with a face like thunder. It couldn’t have been easy.
Before writing this post I took the time to text my sister and ask her how it made her feel. I apologised and explained to her that although it wasn’t ‘me’, it doesn’t justify what a bitch I was. It took me over ten years to apologise for it and I would never have done it if I wasn’t in recovery now, but it needed to be done. Let’s call it part of my twelve steps.
How eating disorders can affect another sibling’s wellbeing.
**For the purpose of this post, I am going to assume you are a person with a sibling suffering from an eating disorder.
It can leave you feeling forgotten because all the attention is suddenly on this one person with an awful disorder. You mightn’t necessarily understand what’s going on. Maybe it’s not discussed openly or it might even be ignored entirely. Your sibling might even be in the hospital. Depending on your location this could mean that one or both of your parents are travelling in order to be there for your sibling’s appointments or visiting hours. For some families, parents might be overseas for treatment. Sadly, this means that they won’t be at home as often, and therefore not spend a lot of time with you.
Even if this isn’t the case, an eating disorder can eat up a lot of our parental figure’s attention. Meal times become largely focused on your sibling, and it might seem like everything is being done to appease them. And let’s not forget the arguments. Believe me, there are so many that it can become exhausting for everyone involved. To have to live in a hostile environment like that can be frustrating and no doubt terrifying.
You can even feel the impact if you don’t live at home anymore. While you may not feel the direct strain, the isolation is definitely there. It might feel like you’ve lost your sibling and that they’re actively pushing you away at times.
No matter what it feels like if you live with them or whether they’re inpatient or outpatient, you’re not alone. There are so many others dealing with a sibling’s eating disorder, and there is support available for you should you need it.
10 things you can do to cope with a sibling’s eating disorder.
1. Remind yourself that this isn’t your fault.
Nothing you said or did could have caused the eating disorder. All siblings fight and say things in the heat of the moment, especially things they don’t mean. Just because you called them that vicious name months ago does not result in the development of anorexia. At least not solely on its own.
2. Educate yourself about the disorder.
The more you know about the eating disorder the more you will be able to understand what is going on. Of course, you won’t be able to understand completely unless you have been in your sibling’s shoes. But you will be able to grasp a basic concept of what’s going on, the irrational fear behind it, and, most importantly, that it is a serious illness and not one to be taken lightly.
3. Remind yourself that it’s the eating disorder and NOT your sibling when things start to get ugly.
4. Remind yourself that just because your sibling is acting like this it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.
5. Take the time to talk to people.
Don’t keep everything bottled up inside. If you are feeling upset, and you will, please speak to a close friend who you trust. If you feel that you might benefit from therapy then, by all means, go for it. Just don’t keep it all pent up inside.
6. Try to continue normal life as much as possible.
7. Accept that it might be difficult to talk to your sibling about it.
They may not want to discuss it and may even find it very hard to get their thoughts and feelings. Trust me, as much as I talk about it online, I still find it difficult to speak to work colleagues, my parents, and even, sometimes, my therapist about the whole thing. Sometimes words just can’t describe what exactly is going on, and the words that do sound cheesy and overused. Although you may be curious and ready to talk about it out in the open your sibling may not be.
8. Spend time away from home.
Enjoy going out with your friends, or even take yourself on a quiet nature walk. Just make sure to get some space. This will give you time to recharge your own battery.
If you already live away from home then you’re pretty much set.
9. Consider getting a therapist.
I briefly touched on this earlier but if you feel that you could benefit from a therapist then, by all means, go for it. There is only so much you, your friends, or your guardians can discuss. A therapist will be trained to work with the thoughts and feelings you give to them and will help you work through these in an appropriate way. And there will be lots of feelings, thoughts, etc surrounding your sibling’s eating disorder – that’s normal!
10. Don’t become fixated on your own body and weight.
This can be difficult, especially for younger women in the house. Do not let the eating disorder infect you the way it has infected your sibling. If you are having concerns about your body image or you feel yourself getting pulled in, then it’s time to step back and speak to someone about it before it gets any worse.
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment 🙂
This is a really interesting post. Looking at your story from other people’s perspective and thinking about how it’s affected those close to you takes a lot of courage ????
This is brilliant. My little brother found it particularly difficult as he is my only sibling. Especially when he had to see me in hospital so many times. Great post.
Really great post! Good advice!
I was having a conversation somewhat similar to this with my brothers wife a couple of weeks ago – they started dating about a year before I first ended up in a psych ward and I said to her that for years I thought she didn’t like me until I realised that she struggled with anxiety as well and she opened up to me about how difficult it was coping with me going into hospital and the strain that put my brother under.
I’m the youngest sibling and it was so strange for me when I hit my early 20s and realising WOW my brother was dealing with being the only point of contact in the whole family for his very unwell little sister at this age and there is no way I feel mature enough to cope with that!
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I will defo be reading your post on anxiety. x
This is a great post, and it’s good to read about from the other perspective of a sibling finding ways to cope with their brother or sister who may be going through a mental illness. I wrote something similar on my blog where I spoke about living with someone who has anxiety, it’s important to highlight what siblings/partners/family/friends go through too when they’re constantly around someone who has a mental health problem. This has been very helpful to read, I don’t have a family member who is going through a eating disorder, but like you mentioned, it’s important to educate yourself on these things. Thank you for sharing <3
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I can tell you that telling my sister that I was sorry was hard but completely necessary.
It’s wonderful to hear that you apologized to your sister.
I’m an only child, but this post will be so helpful for siblings and family members who have a loved one with a eating disorder.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting 😀
Wow this was really eye opening!! Thank you so much for sharing and being real xoxo
Well written and honest post. I had a partner that struggled with an eat disorder, and I was too fucked with my own mental health problems to know how to handle it at the time, even though I also had an eating disorder. So I can relate to your situation
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment love. It means a lot to me to have your support.
I wish my parents did the same (I have a post coming out about that too for parents day, but I digress…) and I honestly think it would have made things a lot easier. My mother was a ostrich, or at least that’s what my therapist at the time said, meaning that she buried her head in the sand about the whole thing. My father, on the other hand, was the silent on looker (I can’t remember what animals he was on the chart) and rarely said anything. He only barely talks about it now, instead choosing to challenge me when I’m upset and tells me to ‘grow up and stop crying’. *Que eye roll* – He’s a trained counsellor, like serious!?
Annnnyyywhoooo – Thank you for reading and commenting. Sorry I went off on one there!
Very thoughtful of you to create a post of this kind! This is such an important topic – that should be talked about more often. In situations like these, it’s so important to have supportive sibilings and family members. I wish more people would educate themselves, not only in eating disorders but on mental illnesses as well. Thank you for sharing these tips that I’ll always keep in mind.
GABBY | http://www.gabbyabigaill.com
I understand you taking responsibility for it, we haven’t had that here, but we all know deep down and never hold grudges. Her younger siblings I feel felt the worst of it all, as they didn’t have adult awareness of being able to separate the person from the illness. But nothing has severed their bond x
Something we do is deny it as long as possible because the sooner we admit it, the sooner we have to get treatment. It’s amazing that you stuck by her though, you were/are truly a wonderful and loyal friend!
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment 🙂
I don’t remember a lot from my teenage battle with anorexia and mental illness, but I remember the hostility. I think back and cringe at how horrible a human being I was the foul things I would say to my mother and father, and the way I treated my sister. It was so, so wicked. I have to remind myself that it was the disorder, I’m not really that bad a person, but I still need to take responsibility for it. You know?
Awesome post. I can only imagine how tough this is for the whole family. My best friend back in middle/high school was anorexic. The thing I feel most terrible about is not truly seeing it when it was starting. I was the closest to her and other friends would come up to me and ask, is she okay, she’s gotten so thin. I’d say, yeah she’s fine. And then she had to start seeing doctors to figure out what’s going on, running tests etc., and they came to the conclusion it was anorexia, and she just denied that for a long time. I supported her and believed her. Thankfully she was hospitalized and that was the start of her recovery. She’s doing very well today. 🙂
This is an amazing post and I can imagine it will help a LOT of people! And you’ve been so honest. I don’t have any siblings, so not anything I can relate to. But I suffer with mental illness and I wish my parents educated themselves more in the beginning x
This is a great post. Very honest as always x
I think a lot of the points you’ve made could transfer to so many people who have siblings with a range of mental health or illness of any kind.
It sounds so like our household, thankfully through the other side, but I remember these dark days and arguments well
Thank you for sharing your story with me love. You don’t have to do this alone, even if you don’t feel like confiding in your sister there is always help available elsewhere. I do implore you to speak with your family though, you might find more support than you realise. It’s never easy to know when or how to tell someone that you’re suffering. It’s something I find very awkward when I meet new people. I’m not embarrassed, it’s just how to do you bring up the fact that you’re scared/hesitant around food? I can’t not tell people because, frankly, it’s obvious with me at the moment, but there is stil lthe question of how.
I wish you all the best. If you ever need advice please feel free to email me or tweet me.
Thank you so much for this article. I really needed it. My sister is 16 months younger than me, so we have a similar situation to yours, but my ED is very recent. It developed whilst I was at Uni and she still does not know about it (literally – I lock myself in the bathroom with the shower on to hide anxiety attacks from her now that we’re both home from Uni for Easter). I’m scared to tell her because, like your article mentions, I’m scared of her feeling sidelined. At the same time, she has terrible anxiety to do with family and health, so I don’t think disclosing my ED to her will help her out much. It’s a very stressful situation and I’ve been thinking so SO much about when and how to tell her (or even if I should!) and this is the first blog post I’ve seen that is on this specific issue. Thank you also for the links you have provided. You have given me great support here. Sending you best wishes for April. 🙂
There are some groups available for the families and carers of ED sufferers. Where I’m from the groups run alongside the sufferer’s groups once a month, but never more often unless you are in treatment with a facility. To be accepted for those facilities you have to have a certain BMI though so not all families will have the privilege.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read and comment. I’ve only recently been able to step back from my illnesses, I’m trying to be more mindful of both myself and life around me. 🙂
This was a really great post and I think really mature and empathetic (I don’t mean to sound patronising saying that, I just mean that mental illnesses, whatever they are, can be really serious, and to be able to step back and think about how it might affect someone else is super cool). I do not have a sibling with an eating disorder, but my sisters and I have all struggled with some degree of mental health problem at different points, and it kind of puts it in a different perspective, which is really interesting to think about. And I love that it’s not a ‘I hate myself for being such a burden’ perspective – i.e. the illness talking – it’s really practical and really thoughtful 🙂
Beautifully written and wonderful self-analysis.
I know that they have ANoN groups and such to help the families of addictions, I wonder if the same groups or similar groups serve the families of those with eating disorders? Would it need to be a specific group or are these the problems anyone confronts in a dysfunctional home of a home struggling to deal with trauma?
Interesting. Nice post.
It’s hard because as a sufferer I don’t even understand it most days, so if i can give any sort of help to those on the outside I’ll try my utmost! Thank you for reading!
Thank you for taking the time to read and comment 🙂 I truly didn’t give a hoot about anyone else when I was going through anorexia in my teens – now it’s all I seem to do!
Thank you for taking the time to read. It means so much 🙂 x
I feel I would be the same if raising kids. I saw my mother very concerned with her weight throughout my childhood and I think, to an extent, that had an impact on me. I will have a post for parents and eating disorders coming up in May if it interests you 🙂
Thank you for reading. My sister and I are closer now, brought together more by family illnesses than anything else. x
Thank you for taking the time to read x
This is such a helpful post. Family genuinely wants to help, but often has no idea how to act/react. Reading through this will provide a better idea of what exactly their loved one is dealing with each day, and how they can be supportive.
This post was truly eye opening. When you have an eating disorder you are so fixated on the demon inside you that sometimes you forget about the people closest to you! Your post has some wonderful advice!
Excellent advice & I truly admire your strength girl ❤️
Wow, great post. I had friends affected by eating disorders growing up and now as the mum to two girls I am very conscious of trying to help then develop healthy body images. This post gave me a lot.of think about in terms of how one’s image can affect the other. Thanks for sharing your story.
I love your honesty. Hopefully you and your sister are growing closer in your recovery and can make new beautiful memories together.
Wonderful eye openning post. I didn’t live with my sister when she became anorexic however I know how it deeply affected my parents and their relationship. Its so difficult for all involved.
Thank you for sharing with us.
Thank you for reading and taking the time to leave a comment. It means a lot. x
Thank you for reading Abbey xx
Excellent advice. My sister had an eating disorder growing up but hid it perfectly. We found out later. No sibling IS the disorder; they HAVE the disorder. She has since cured herself and moved on.
Thanks for this post. It’s both a beautiful and emotional one