Eating Disorders—What Can Help?
IF YOUR daughter has an eating disorder, she needs to get help. Do not postpone matters under the assumption that the problem will go away on its own. An eating disorder is a complex illness, with physical and emotional components.
Of course, experts have put forth a confusing array of treatments for eating disorders. Some recommend medication. Others endorse psychotherapy. Many say that a combination of both is most effective. Then there is family counseling, which some say is especially vital if the sufferer is still living at home.a
Although experts may differ in their approach, most agree on at least one point: Eating disorders are not just about food. Let us examine some of the deeper issues that typically need to be addressed when someone is being helped to recover from anorexia or bulimia.
A Balanced View of Body Image
“I stopped buying fashion magazines completely when I was about 24,” says one woman. “Comparing myself to the models had a very strong and negative impact.” As already discussed, the media can distort a girl’s concept of beauty. Indeed, one mother of a girl with an eating disorder speaks of “the unrelenting publicity in our newspapers and magazines and television advertising to be thin, thin, thin.” She says: “Both my daughter and I like being slender, but we feel the constant barrage turns it into being the most important thing in life, ahead of everything.” Clearly, recovering from an eating disorder may require adopting new beliefs about what constitutes genuine beauty.
The Bible can help in this regard. The Christian apostle Peter wrote: “Do not let your adornment be that of the external braiding of the hair and of the putting on of gold ornaments or the wearing of outer garments, but let it be the secret person of the heart in the incorruptible apparel of the quiet and mild spirit, which is of great value in the eyes of God.”—1 Peter 3:3, 4.
Peter is saying that we should be more concerned about inner qualities than outer form. Indeed, the Bible assures us: “Not the way man sees is the way God sees, because mere man sees what appears to the eyes; but as for Jehovah, he sees what the heart is.” (1 Samuel 16:7) This is comforting, for while we cannot change certain aspects of our physique, we can always improve the kind of person we are.—Ephesians 4:22-24.
Since eating disorders can thrive in a climate of low self-worth, you may need to reevaluate yourself as a person. True, the Bible tells us not to think more of ourselves than is necessary. (Romans 12:3) But it also tells us that even a single sparrow has value in God’s eyes, adding: “You are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6, 7) So the Bible can help you to develop healthy self-respect. Appreciate your body, and you will take care of it.—Compare Ephesians 5:29.
But what if you truly do need to lose weight? Perhaps a healthy diet and a program of exercise will help. The Bible does state that “bodily training is beneficial,” even if only to a limited degree. (1 Timothy 4:8) But never should you become obsessed with your weight. “Perhaps the wisest course,” concluded a survey on body image, “is to get plenty of exercise—and accept yourself the way you are rather than try to mold yourself into a narrowly defined and arbitrary ideal.” A 33-year-old woman in the United States found this approach to be helpful. “I’ve had one simple rule,” she says. “Work on improving what you can realistically change, and don’t spend time worrying about the rest.”
If you take a positive view of life and supplement this with a healthful diet and a reasonable exercise program, likely any pounds that need to come off will.
Finding “a True Companion”
After studying a number of bulimics, Professor James Pennebaker concluded that to a large degree, their cycle of eating and purging was forcing these women to adopt secret lives. He says: “Virtually every one spontaneously noted the inordinate amount of time and effort required to conceal her eating habits from her close friends and family. They all were living a lie and hated it.”
A major step to recovery, therefore, is to break the silence. Both anorexics and bulimics need to talk about the problem. But to whom? A Bible proverb states: “A true companion is loving all the time, and is a brother that is born for when there is distress.” (Proverbs 17:17) That “true companion” may be a parent or another mature adult. Some have also found it necessary to confide in someone who is experienced in treating eating disorders.
Jehovah’s Witnesses have an additional resource—congregation elders. These men can be “like a hiding place from the wind and a place of concealment from the rainstorm, like streams of water in a waterless country, like the shadow of a heavy crag in an exhausted land.” (Isaiah 32:2) Of course, elders are not doctors, so in addition to their helpful counsel, you may still need medical treatment. Nevertheless, these spiritually qualified men can be a wonderful support to you in your recovery.b—James 5:14, 15.
Your greatest confidant, however, can be your Creator. The psalmist wrote: “Throw your burden upon Jehovah himself, and he himself will sustain you. Never will he allow the righteous one to totter.” (Psalm 55:22) Yes, Jehovah God has an interest in his earthly children. So never neglect praying to him about your deepest anxieties. Peter admonishes us: “Throw all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you.”—1 Peter 5:7.
When Hospitalization Is Necessary
Hospitalization is not a cure in itself. However, if a girl has become malnourished from severe anorexia, it may be necessary for her to receive specialized care. Admittedly, it is not easy for a parent to take this step. Consider Emily, whose daughter had to be hospitalized after life became, as Emily puts it, “intolerable for her and for us.” She adds: “Putting her, crying, into the hospital was the hardest thing I have ever gone through, the worst day I have ever had.” It was similar with Elaine, who also had to hospitalize a daughter. “I think the worst moment that I can remember,” she says, “is when she was in the hospital and refused to eat and they had to tube-feed her. I felt that they had broken her will.”
Hospitalization may not be a pleasant thought, but in some cases it may be necessary. For a number of those with eating disorders, it paves the way for recovery. Emily says of her daughter: “She did need to be hospitalized. It was the hospitalization that did help her to start to get better.”
Living Without Eating Disorders
As part of recovery, the anorexic or bulimic needs to learn to live without an eating disorder. This can be difficult. Kim, for example, estimates that in her anorexic phase, she lost 40 pounds [18 kg] in ten months. Yet, regaining 35  of those pounds [kg] took her nine years! “With great difficulty,” Kim says, “I slowly learned to eat normally again, without counting every calorie, measuring my food, eating only ‘safe’ foods, panicking if I did not know the ingredients in a casserole or dessert, or dining only at restaurants with salad bars.”
But recovery for Kim entailed something more. “I learned to recognize and express my feelings with words rather than through actions or food behaviors,” she says. “Becoming aware of new ways to face and resolve conflicts with others opened doors to closer relationships with friends and family.”
Clearly, recovering from an eating disorder is challenging, but ultimately it is worth the effort. That is what Jean, quoted in the first article in this series, believes. “Returning to disordered eating,” she says, “would be like going back into a padded cell after living free for a while.”
a Awake! does not endorse any particular treatment. Christians should make their own decision, being sure that any treatment they pursue does not conflict with Bible principles. Others should not be critical or judgmental of such decisions.
b For more information about how to assist anorexics and bulimics, see the article “Helping Those With Eating Disorders,” in the February 22, 1992, issue of Awake!, and the series “Eating Disorders—What Can Be Done?,” in the December 22, 1990, issue.
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Laying the Groundwork for Recovery
WHAT should you do if you suspect that your daughter has an eating disorder? Obviously, you cannot ignore the situation. But how do you broach the subject? “Asking her directly sometimes works, but just as often ends with the feeling of having run into a brick wall,” observes author Michael Riera.
For this reason, a softer approach may prove to be more effective. “When you speak with your daughter,” recommends Riera, “she needs to understand and feel that you are not accusing her of any wrongdoing. If you can create this environment, many adolescents will be fairly honest with you, even somewhat relieved. Some parents have had success with writing letters to their teenager voicing their concern and support. Then, when they have the conversation, the groundwork has already been laid.”
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A Challenge for Parents
HAVING a child with an eating disorder presents a number of challenges for parents. “You’ve got to be made of iron or stone,” says one father. “You’re seeing your own child being destroyed in front of you.”
If you have a child with an eating disorder, it is only to be expected that at times you will feel frustrated at her stubborn behavior. But be patient. Never stop showing love. Emily, whose daughter suffered from anorexia, admits that this was not always easy. Nevertheless, she says: “I tried to always keep touching; I tried to hug her; I tried to kiss her. . . . I thought if I stop being warm to her and stop showing love for her, we’ll never find our way back.”
One of the best ways to help your child recover from an eating disorder is to communicate with her. In doing so, you may need to do more listening than talking. And resist the urge to interrupt her with statements like, “That’s not true” or, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Indeed, do not ‘stop up your ear from the complaining cry of the lowly one.’ (Proverbs 21:13) When there is open communication, a youth will have somewhere to turn during times of distress and may be less likely to resort to unhealthy eating practices.
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It takes patience, understanding, and a lot of love to help those with eating disorders