In last week's post, I introduced readers to the notion of the "salesman" metaphor, which can help families understand the role of the eating disorder in their loved one's life. Below is the second installment of this post, pulled Why She Feels Fat (co-written with Johanna McShane, PhD).
Although it’s tempting to view him as such, the salesman isn’t a horrible, reprehensible creature. He is a sincere believer in the product he offers. And in fact, in his own way, he is assisting your loved one by helping her cope with her fears, insecurities, and lack of self-confidence. For this reason, while it’s easy to vilify her eating disorder, it’s important not to do so. The relationship between your loved one and her illness is complicated. She really does experience it as a friend. Her main focus is on how much it helps her and how consistent and reliable it is.
It will never let me know. It’s always there for me.
It won’t ever surprise me.
I know how it behaves, and what it wants from me. It has rules and as long as I follow the rules, I get the benefits.
I do what it says. And it does what it promises.
Not surprisingly, your loved one’s relationship with the anorexia or bulimia (the “salesman”) takes a lot of time and energy. As she relies more and more on that relationship to feel good, she will begin to withdraw from her relationships with other people. She may still participate in some activities, but her friendships and connections to family members will become increasingly superficial. Eventually she will no longer have the time, energy, or even the desire to be with people or to be social in any way, spending the majority of her time alone.
This is how the eating disorder turns into her primary, if not sole, relationship. Again, try not to take this personally. It has nothing to do with how much she cares about you. She’s not withdrawing because she’s annoyed with you or doesn’t love you. It’s that the eating disorder demands her complete attention and “loyalty.” For this reason, a key component of recovery is to carefully examine the relationship with the “salesman,” which ultimately will result in strengthening her connections with other people and with her healthy self.