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Eating Disorders Mental Health Recovery

Eating Disorder Awareness Week: Insight From Michelle Gross, MA, LMFT

Continuing our week of honoring Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I spoke to Visions’ Michelle Gross, MA, LMFT who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders for over 18 years. Her passion is in treating the eating disorder community both individuals, and their families. Eating Disorder Awareness is something we encourage and support via groups, individualized therapy, and nutritional support. I asked Michelle for some insight into what she tells families with a loved one who is suffering from an eating disorder or disordered eating behaviors. She says,

 

“When assisting a family who have just learned that their loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, I want them to know that eating disorders are a coping mechanism that tend to occur in individuals who suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Eating disorders numb pain (overeating), release feelings (purging), and create a feeling of control (counting calories). Eating disorders, although not always identical in form, tend to run in families. Family members need to know that the way in which they respond to their loved one is critical to the recovery process; however, they are not responsible for the development of the eating disorder itself. Eating disorders are an illness. Eating disorders are not about weight.”

 

Families who are confronted with this issue have to re-learn how to communicate with each other in a non-triggering way. I recently had to have a discussion with someone about their perpetual food talk and how triggering it was. Every meal was punctuated with negative commentary about weight gain, etc. So, eating with this person was becoming treacherous. Michelle Gross has wonderful insight and suggestions for situations just like this:

 

“It is important for family and friends to know how to be supportive. Unfortunately, the best of intentions to assist the eating disordered individual tend to backfire. Telling an anorexic that recently gained weight: ‘You look so much healthier,’ is easily misconstrued as being told one is ‘fat.’  Attempts to make sure an anorexic eats or a bulimic does not purge, create feelings of powerlessness that intensify the desire to feel in control by minimizing calories or purging.  Innocently mentioning one’s own need to lose weight or recently enjoying a vigorous workout, leave the eating disordered individual feeling inadequate and more dissatisfied with herself.  Loved one’s need to learn the ‘language’ spoken by the eating disordered individuals. Eating disorders are competitive.”

 

And what about triggers? Remember, what triggers one person may not trigger another, but some things are similar across the board. Michelle provides some salient advice here. If we begin to understand the psychological mechanisms of the eating disorder, our awareness and ability to support someone who is suffering increases. By opening our eyes, we can be supportive without judging the individual.

 

Michelle tells us that, “Family and friends also need to learn what triggers or intensifies eating disordered thoughts and behaviors.  Shopping for clothes, going to restaurants, exercising to reduce stress, can all intensify the eating disorder.  Eating disorders are reactive. The more one learns how their loved one’s eating triggers them, the more helpful one can be.”

 

Recovery is a family process, and that includes recovery from substance abuse, mental illness, eating disorders, or processing disorders. Treatment must include all facets of the family system. Learning how to do this is a process and a practice; and as Michelle illustrates, it is not one-sided affair:

 

“It is extremely valuable for family members to be part of the treatment.  Family sessions in addition to the individual therapy offers all members the opportunity to learn how to be supportive, to share concerns in a controlled environment, and gives the eating disordered individual an opportunity to express their feelings in an appropriate way vs. through the eating disordered behaviors.”

 

We need to unite as a recovery community, championing Eating Disorder Awareness Week and encouraging others to do the same. We can facilitate supportive environments and spaces for healing so those suffering from an eating disorder can begin to recover and find freedom from the devastating anguish caused by their eating disorders.

Categories
Body Image Eating Disorders Mental Health

Eating Disorders: They Happen to Boys Too

He was 12 and his social circle was made up primarily of girls. It always had been. Sports weren’t of interest, and neither was the usual competitive atmosphere of boyhood. Frankly, William was a boy who’d rather draw, or ride his bike, or bake with his mom. When his girl-friends began the fat-talk, he thought it was ridiculous, but in truth, he began to silently take it all in. He started to look at himself and wonder if maybe he, too, was fat. William, being on the outskirts of male culture, found himself being seduced by the culture of thinness. While his male friends (yes, he had those too) began bulking up from sports and the like, he began to get thinner and thinner. All of a sudden, he found himself controlled by the demon we all know as ED.

Jonas was 14, a football hero in the making, but not nearly as “built” as some of his pals. Determined to get the much sought after V shape idealized by fitness magazines and late-night televisions ads, he started an exercise regimen which soon became obsessive and excessive. It wasn’t an issue of not being thin enough for Jonas. Instead, the issue was being fit enough. Before he knew it, his focus was entirely spent on attaining this idealized body type–one that didn’t quite fit into his genes: Jonas was a short, stocky kid with short, stocky parents. Still, ED wormed its way into Jonas’ life as well, albeit in a different form.

In Brave Girl Eating, Harriet Brown talks about the eating disorder as a demon. She describes the personality change that occurs when the Eating Disorder (ED) is speaking with its loud ferocity. The provocative noise is terrifying in the mind of the one suffering, but sadly, it’s often drowned out by the disease itself. In truth, ED nullifies ones real sense of self and replaces it with an unrealistic desire for perfection and control. One thing that shows up repeatedly with an eating disorder is this desire for perfection, which shows up in school as good grades, in sports as high-scorers, in Girl Scouts as top sellers. Eating disorders are often about gaining control when something in one’s life feels definitively out of control.

We are used to talking about girls when we talk about eating disorders, as though we assume boys are unaffected. But they are, and those numbers are increasing. Unfortunately, eating disorders can carry the stigma of being something women suffer from–This invites a higher probability of men and boys not asking for help. Recently, MSNBC highlighted three young men whose lives had been heavily impacted by eating disorders. One of the young men lost his life after an 8-year battle with anorexia. He just wanted a six-pack.

More than a million boys and men battle an eating disorder every day and “approximately 10% of eating disordered individuals coming to the attention of mental health professionals are male.” (National Eating Disorder Association).  The culture of “thin” is not only negatively impacting girls and women, but it’s begun to surreptitiously spin its nasty web in male culture. Advertizing aimed at women and girls suggests dieting and weight loss while ads geared toward men encourage fitness, weight-lifting, and muscle toning, so it makes sense that the female population is starving themselves or fat-talking their way out of life. But men and boys are suffering too, and they need a safe place to ask for help. Eating disorders are frightening, and not just for those watching the demise of someone they love. Being in it and listening to that voice of doom is terrifying. Getting help shouldn’t be another hurdle to climb.

For more information on Eating Disorders:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders

National Association for Males with Eating Disorders

International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals

Eating Disorders Coalition

Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders

Eating Disorders Resource Center

Fact Sheet (NEDA) What’s Going On With Me?

Study: The Prevalence and Correlates of Eating Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication