Coping With a Dieting Relative When You’re a Recovering Anorexic
“U guys I had this awesome thing for dinner,” my little sister texts our family. “ICE CREAM HEHE.”
After 20 years of dealing with an eating disorder, recovered-me has a response and sick-me has a response, but neither seems right. My siblings, my mom and I chat all day in our “Fam” text thread.
Morning roll call? Check. Terrier on kitchen table? Yep. Food talk? A feast of food talk.
Actually, not just talk. And not just food.
“Did 74 min on tread,” my sister texts. “Exhausted.”
I know. She started 2018 with a goal to lose 20 lingering college pounds, and she’s been in lifestyle-overhaul ever since. Often she calls me post-workout, breathless, gushing endorphins. Other times she sends sports bra selfies. (“Get it,” my mom responds.) She shares meal pics, too, plates of sheet-pan chicken or “healthy” comfort food (turkey hot dogs, cauli-mac and cheese), a latte pink with beet juice, a splurge. (That ice cream she had was Halo Top, which is low in calories and high in protein.)
I was buying blue cheese for burgers last week when she said she was 10 pounds from her target. I picked up the Roquefort and blinked off memories of closing in on a number, those hazy promises that, soon, everything might change.
“That’s amazing,” I said. “I’m proud of you.” She’d gained so much confidence over the last year; she was already feeling more comfortable in her skin, she said. “You know what I mean.” In a way, I did.
It’s a conversation I’d never thought we’d be having, one where my sister trusts me enough to share anxieties about her body and I’m recovered enough to listen. I went on my first diet when she was 5 and I was 12. A few months later she was crying, begging newly anorexic me to eat a canned peach.
Now I meet my sister’s effort with conscious good will. Her candor awes me as much as her ice cream dinner after the years I spent hiding purges and the utter impossibility of my quest, which I hid most from myself. I love her tangible goals. When she hits a plateau, I suggest cutting out alcohol. And when she wonders if talking about this stuff is still O.K. for me, I tell her it is. I’m not triggered. I want to know.
I asked Dr. Maria Rago, president of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, about it. “When you no longer value the eating disorder, you don’t buy into an idea that you should be engaging in weight loss or unhealthy eating patterns,” she said. “You’re in a good place, not tempted to make changes even when others are.”
But for many people with eating disorders, family members can remain stubborn triggers, Dr. Rago said, especially if “competing with this person was a factor in the eating disorder developing in the first place.”
I’m seven years older than my sister. I’ve always embraced being a big sister, albeit one who roped her into Spice Girls dance-offs that were both sister parties and excuses to burn calories. I feel lucky that we survived my illness, that I never viewed her as a rival.
For the last year, while my sister’s been losing weight, I’ve been keeping a new kind of journal for me; call it daily gratitude. “Write a list of everything you can think of that would be ruined” if the disordered eating resumed, Dr. Rago suggested. My writing, a fulfilling marriage, a trio of palm trees I can see from the kitchen window, my health — these things stay on the list, alongside relationships with my family.
“You’re in a good place now,” my sister said, when I told her I was writing about this. I realized it was probably still new to her: knowing me in a good place.
Getting to that good place hasn’t been easy. Recovery requires so much: support, persistence and incredible patience. It happens “little by little,” Dr. Rago said, by “learning the best ways to deal with things that we fear, so we no longer fear them.” I practice recovery by approaching my fear, modeling intuitive eating for my sister, something I couldn’t do when we were growing up. I tell her when I get peanut butter frozen yogurt at the Bigg Chill or when I have buttered popcorn for lunch (“Not lunch!” she says).
When she asks what to do at the gym, I don’t give her the advice my eating disorder would have given me. When she buys chips because she’s “being bad,” I say Pringles are delicious. If she’s tired, I tell her to be kind to her body and take time off. Talking to her, I’m also talking to myself, dismantling my old negative attitudes about food.
I listen to myself, shakily proud of my resilience. My sister doesn’t make me yearn for the pallid pleasures of dieting; she reminds me to delight in the messy fullness of living. When I reflect on a younger me, that shadow sister, striving to obliterate herself, I see myself alongside millions of others hurting under the tutelage of an eating disorder. The diaries with calories crawling up the margins, the hours memorizing a Stairmaster’s display, the loneliness and isolation it bred in me that nearly broke our family: If my sister’s path ever steered me back toward those old compulsions, I’d draw lines and re-evaluate myself.
Dr. Rago recommended getting “active about your thoughts and feelings” when confronted with affecting diet talk. “Write them down so you know what you are working with and get support so you don’t have to figure it out all alone. If at all possible, instead of avoiding the talks, use them as an opportunity to stay strong in your own recovery. But if you start getting overwhelmed, it is O.K. to avoid a certain situation or ask people to change the subject.”
For now, my sister is off to the gym, and I am thumbs-upping her messages. “Today is going to be stairs for ten then elliptical!” Even if I’m untriggered, my approach to group texts is to be present-but-with-boundaries.
I stopped wanting my eating disorder when it started distracting me from my purpose, and I cope by honoring that purpose. I put my phone in a drawer and go to my desk. Write, (eat), write, (eat). When I’m done, all those messages await. Mostly, I skim. The workouts are finished, the protein’s consumed, the ice cream has melted. Our family is happy. Now we can ogle the fox terrier in snow boots.
JoAnna Novak is the author of “I Must Have You,” a novel.