When Loved Ones Can’t Understand Your Eating Disorder

Trigger warning: eating disorder behaviors mentioned.
Post updated 3/5/21 to reduce triggers and update the writing because I am still a perfectionist. :)


“How can you physically keep stuffing in more and more food?” my dad asked one night. “I mean, I get to the point where enough is enough in one meal.”

My dad and I had agreed to sit down to talk about my eating disorder the summer going into my senior year of college, and it wasn’t off to a great start. At that moment on the couch, in the darkness of one summer evening, I felt I had to explain to my dad exactly what was going on within. Then, then he would “get it.”

The conversation went a little like this:

Me: “When you hold back on food for so long–like my two-year restriction–then your body is going to try to make up for it. It’s going to go for the simplest sugars. That’s why many people crave high-calorie food at the end of the day if they don’t eat enough. Your body wants to find the most calorie-dense form of food so that it can break it down fast and use it. And with an eating disorder–with your body in that desperation mode–you often stuff yourself until you are uncomfortably full, even if it hurts.”

Dad: “But how is that physically possible? When you’re full of food, how can you take any more in? That would feel so uncomfortable.”

Me: “The body will do anything in its power to get the calories, even if it means shutting off your brain to it or overcoming ‘willpower.’ Believe me, your body can do the seemingly impossible to get what it needs–especially when you have forcibly deprived it.”

Dad: *confused silence*

Me: “Do you understand that?”

Dad: “No, not really. Aren’t you full after a meal?”

Me: “I am, most of the time. But some days I feel hungrier than others. That’s when I go back to get another small meal or a snack, according to the meal plan I was given by my dietician. But I try to wait for a while first.”

Dad: “But where does ‘discipline’ and ‘disorder’ get mixed up? I mean does me eating a whole tub of ice cream qualify as a ‘disorder’? Or is it my lack of discipline?”

I could see his point with this last question, but it made me uncomfortable. I realized he did not see my situation as a disorder at all, but perhaps just something to cover up a lack of discipline.

Me: “I wouldn’t see that as a disorder unless you did it almost every night and felt guilty or out of control about it. If you are living in constant fear of food and fear eating all of that and feel like you can do nothing to stop yourself . . . if it holds you back from living a normal life, I feel like that would qualify as a ‘disorder.’”

Confusion and Building Trust

It wasn’t until weeks after this conversation that I realized that the best support I could have from my parents is that they were willing to listen. Their effort to learn about eating disorders through books and speaking to specialists, and acceptance that this was in fact an eating disorder, was even more helpful.

Despite difficult conversations like this, we all grew together in important ways. I spent countless hours venting, crying, and explaining my eating disorder to my parents. I repeated myself more times than I can remember. But the repetition–with someone there to listen–was essential in my recovery. I needed to speak, needed to repeat thoughts and feelings for me to come to my own realizations and make changes. If chose to change, if made the connections, I was much more willing to make better decisions for my body.

My loved ones listened. My dad didn’t always understand, but I appreciated his effort to learn more and speak with me. He didn’t always say the right things, but he was willing to work through it.

3 replies
  1. Brent
    Brent says:

    Your essay shows how difficult it is for a person who doesn’t have the disorder to grasp the worldview of a person who does.

  2. Tamara Steil
    Tamara Steil says:

    Yes! It was so difficult to understand. Your willingness to speak and your patience and persistence with us, your parents, to explain, re-explain, and explain again was always appreciated. I wanted to understand and I reveled in the sea of information you helped me through. And helping us understand helps you communicate to the un-initiated what you have gone through and still deal with and always will. Keep it coming!

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