Welcome to the Family ED
Six years ago my sister stopped eating. It started after she began experimenting with dieting and seeing some results. First it was just cutting out all junk food, and then the portions of her food kept getting smaller and smaller until she was barely consuming anything in a day. And where was I? In the middle of the chaos that was going on in my home, feeling a mixture of a bunch of emotions that I wasn’t very proud of, and felt unable to express. You can almost think of it as getting a new member of the family. Eventually you start to see the whole family dynamic start to center around this new member, fussing over what they want to eat, where they want to eat, how they are feeling, and what they are doing, which left me feeling like a jealous middle child, watching as my parents fussed over the new member while I felt left on the sidelines.
The eating disorder put me in an awkward position at home. Due to the closeness in age between me and my sister, we often got compared to each other, so the whole time my sister’s eating habits were being closely monitored, so were mine. My mom would freak out if I wasn’t hungry because she thought I was also developing an eating disorder, and my sister would often use me as an excuse to not eat things, or point out my eating habits as a way to diverge the eating police (AKA my parents) away from her and onto me.
Initially I was confused and frustrated with my sister, because it seemed like there was one end to this whole thing, and it was simple: just eat. I didn’t understand how she couldn’t do it, when she could see how much stress she was putting on everyone in our family. I would often argue with her because I could see that this was taking a serious toll on my mom in particular, and I was worried that she was making herself sick from worrying about my sister. This, ironically, only ever ended up in me having arguments with my mother because she just thought I was making the situation worse.
There were also feelings of guilt and jealousy on my end. My sister would often tell me that I was the reason why she had an eating disorder, and it didn’t make me feel any better to have my mom tell me things like to hide the awards I received at my grade 12 graduation because they would make my sister feel worse, or to try to not make myself that noticeable if we were going out as a family, because my sister would feel bad if someone complimented me on how I looked and not her. So for a long time no one in my family would pay me any compliments for fear that my sister would overhear, and I felt as though anything I achieved had to be downplayed to prevent her from feeling badly about herself. And as much as this seemed like a preventative measure to keep things under control for her, and even though I understood why things had to be that way, it still left me feeling like I’d done something wrong, and then I started to resent my own family for fussing so much over my sister while they had to completely disregard me and my feelings.
To be honest, the situation remained like that for a very long time. Things only started to get better once my sister started improving thanks to two trips to inpatient treatment. I feel, at least from my experience, that siblings of someone with an eating disorder often don't get much support, especially through the roughest parts of it all. The focus remains mainly on the individual with the eating disorder, and with very good reason, however if I could have done anything differently I would have liked to seek some sort of counselling to deal with how I was feeling. That didn't seem as important in context of what was going on around me, and I felt as though me having to talk to someone about how I felt ignored would just make me sound like a whiney kid, but that would have been a healthier option then just bottling up the frustration and withdrawing like I did, because that frustration only worsened the relationship I had with some of my family members at the time.
The one thing that did help me resolve some of the feelings I had about the experience was first getting more information about what eating disorders were and trying to better understand them, but most importantly it was rebuilding my relationship with my sister. We didn’t really talk much during the time she was at her worst, mainly because I felt that she didn’t like me much. Having her go through treatment and begin to get better was the best thing for both of us because as she started down her road to recovery, I started to feel like I was finally getting my sister back; the fun loving, awesome person she was before any of this had started and she’s been the most constant form of support for me. Not only that, but our whole family dynamic also started to slowly improve after having her in treatment. Understanding that my sister was not the eating disorder and that it was not her choice to have one is something that took me a while. But now that I do understand that, and can see her true self surface above the disorder, I hope that we never go down that road again. So good riddance ED, here’s hoping we don’t cross paths again anytime soon.
Julia Antonini has a deep interest in the subject of eating disorders and volunteers her time researching in the area of eating disorder prevention and treatment. She is also an Outreach and Education Volunteer here at NEDIC and recently completed her undergraduate degree in psychology and human biology at the University of Toronto.