In over 10 years of working with eating disorders, I can clearly state this fact: I have never seen one case of an eating disorder that could be attributed solely to the family.
But this is a very hard thing for many to believe. Parents and other family members often come to Alsana with deep feelings of shame, guilt, and sadness around the idea that they are the cause of their loved ones eating disorder. This is just not true. Many things go into a person needing an eating disorder in their life. It is very much a case of the adage “genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.”
We want families to take this knowledge to heart, because one of the unintended aspects of a parent’s overt painful self-blame and guilt is the affect it has on the client being able to express their own feelings. Clients can sense a parent’s (or other family members) guilt and shame, so in order to avoid causing any hurt they will self-edit, and a large amount of very important information doesn’t get communicated in the process. It is all about perspective, and communication.
I have the utmost compassion and respect for family members who drive into Alsana for Family Week, because it is hard work, it isn’t easy. It is intense. But they do come, and as difficult as it can be, the education, insights, and personal growth that happens makes a huge difference in the recovery of a loved one, as well as in the positive communication process of the family as a whole. Everyone learns to be more realistic about the eating disorder recovery process.
Another aspect of Family Week that makes an impression on family members is the opportunity to meet and talk with Alsana alumni who are successfully in recovery from an eating disorder. I like to encourage alumni to come back and share their own experiences, particularly on the importance of improving communication with oneself, one’s family, and with society. Effectively sharing what is being felt, and needed, takes the guesswork out of communication.
Alsana’s philosophy is to include the family in as much of the treatment process as possible. We also provide information and time for personal processing along the way. This starts from the very first part of treatment. Each family meets with a family therapist, so that their perspective and understanding of the eating disorder is represented. Often family members don’t realize that their own personal issues and complications affect the healing process. We work with the family to reestablish and realign in a way that is supportive to the person with an eating disorder, but is an improvement in family communication, too.
During the holiday season, most families gather together to spend time with loved ones. This can often be the families first experience practicing skills learned during Alsana Family Week. As we near the middle of the holiday season, I encourage Alsana clients and family members to make self-care the overall theme. Everyone goes into the holidays with stress and expectations—many of them unrealistic. Take time to connect with yourself, to identify your personal needs, and any important boundaries. Clients in treatment can convey their concerns about coming home for the holidays in a letter or e-mail, to set the stage. And families can utilize their understanding of new ways to communicate (and that they aren’t to blame!) to provide the best environment to foster positive recovery from the eating disorder.