I realized the other day that I never provided any follow-up regarding Nat’s health–well, he’s seen a cardiologist and his heart is in good shape. Yay! I talk a fair amount about Nat here on the blog because, as you may have guessed, he’s a big part of my life. He was the person who took me to the ER both times I ended up going to the hospital, and for that reason it wouldn’t be an exaggeration for me to say that he has saved my life. This, however, did not stop me from putting him in the awkward position of having to write (okay, he didn’t have to, but I did ask him and how could he say no, really?) a guest post about what it’s like to be in his shoes when it comes to dealing with an eating disorder.
Here’s what he had to say…
Hello blogosphere! I’m Nat, Emilie’s fiancé. We haven’t been formally introduced, but I’ve heard all about you. A couple of weeks ago Emilie asked me to write a post about living with someone who has an eating disorder. I agreed, but it has been more difficult that I first thought. I love Emilie – which is of course why I asked her to marry me in the first place – and I was afraid that some of the things I would write about might hurt her. Sure, I could have soft-balled this whole post, but this blog and all of you are very important to her. In the end I decided to be as honest as possible and trust that you and she would understand if anything I said caused unintended distress.
I have always loved food. I used to cook with my mother, and although it’s a cliche to say that my mother was a great cook, she really was. She loved to experiment with new cuisines and flavors and gave me that same excited and adventurous palette. I don’t want you to start thinking of me as some kind of food snob, just as someone who loves food the way that some people love classic cars, or comic books. Who cares, you might ask. Well, this helps you to understand where I’m coming from and to imagine some of the difficulties that I’ve had to overcome in dealing with Emilie’s illness.
That’s right, I said illness. An eating disorder is an illness every bit as real and valid as Influenza or Malaria. I’m sure anyone reading this blog already understands this on an intellectual level – you’re all aware of the social stigma that attaches to illnesses like eating disorders or depression. But it bears repeating that just because there isn’t a micro-organism locked in battle with her immune system doesn’t mean that Emilie isn’t suffering from a very real, and very deadly disease.
There’s a difference to understanding something on an intellectual level, though, and really understanding it emotionally. Just because I know that she isn’t choosing to be sick doesn’t mean that I don’t feel that way sometimes. Sometimes, when she’s having trouble eating, I get frustrated and want to tell her to snap out of it and just eat something. I get angry when I know that I can’t send her a text asking her to pick up milk or a salad on her way home because the grocery store is a particular source of anxiety. And when she’s unhappy with her body and curled up on the bed, feeling bad because of what she ate, or because she didn’t exercise my first reaction isn’t always to put an arm around her and offer comfort.
I don’t blame myself for feeling frustrated. Helping to take care of someone who is sick is stressful. That stress sometimes manifests as mean and callous thoughts. I’ve yelled at Emilie, I’ve berated her for not making dinner, sneered at her pain, and dismissed her problems. At least I’ve done those things in my head in moments of extreme frustration. It’s okay to feel those things, but it’s never okay to say them. Yelling at her would be as pointless and counter-productive as yelling at someone with malaria for not just shaking it off and getting on with life.
It may seem simplistic, but really it comes down to refusing to act on what I know is wrong. Part of my anger is feeling helpless – feeling that no matter what I say, it’s not going to make an immediate difference. And ultimately I want to make a difference. I want to help Emilie get better and feel better. So when I get frustrated, I stop and remind myself that she isn’t choosing to be sick. I rely on how I’ve reacted when my better nature has prevailed. Even if I’m grinding my teeth when I put my arms around her, my jaw relaxes when I realize that she is blaming and punishing herself more than even the worst parts of my mind ever could.
And here’s where we come back to that difference between intellectual and emotional understanding. Because I’ve always tried to act on my intellectual understanding, I’ve come to a place of real emotional understanding. I didn’t give in to my impulses, and so I didn’t push Emilie away. Over time she opened up to me about her disease and the way that she struggles against it (heroically, I might add). We’ve struggled together, and I feel closer to her as a result.
I’m not a professional. I don’t have any psychological training. I don’t know how to make Emilie better, but I’m sure that I can make her worse. There is no injection that will cure her. Only time, hard work, and support will allow her to get better. I’m not perfect and I don’t always do, or say the right things, but I try. I try to understand that any inconvenience I experience because of the five minute walk to the grocery store pales in comparison to the anxiety I see on her face when she thinks about going. I’ve come to realize that I can’t say anything to make her instantly better, but I can make her feel like it’s okay to cry and that I love her.
If you have a friend or a loved one who is suffering from an eating disorder, remember that you aren’t a horrible person for feeling angry. Don’t blame yourself if you don’t understand what’s going on at first. It takes time to understand and it takes time to work out how to deal with everything. Give yourself the space to rant in your head, to a friend, or by yourself in a room. But when it comes to acting, step back from those emotions. You have a long and difficult road, but if you indulge your anger, that road will become infinitely longer and harder to traverse. There are no easy solutions, and sometimes that is the hardest thing to deal with. It may be years until the person you love gets better, but there is hope. I’ve seen Emilie make amazing strides, and because I’ve been there, a small part of me sees her strides as my own. We have a long way to go, but I know we’re going to get there – together.