Men who have a loved one struggling with eating disorders report feeling impotent in the presence of an illness they describe as irrational, unpredictable, cunning, powerful, stubborn, clever, baffling, devious, unfair and unjust. They struggle to understand and articulate how the eating disorder crisis affects their own lives. They are angry and grieving over how the illness’s arrival altered relationships with their loved ones and hijacked their families.
These male loved ones (MLOs) want to know how (and if) it is possible to make their loved ones get better — as well as how (and if) it is possible for a MLO to keep his sanity in the process. They want to master the logical arguments that will convince their loved ones to give up the eating disorder. Their most frequent refrain is: “Tell me what to do.”
We men like to solve problems; this is a wonderful trait. We (quite rationally) want a plan that will lead to solutions. When confronting eating disorders, there actually are helpful things we can do, but we can’t expect those things to “fix” this problem.
After all, there is no silver bullet cure for eating disorders or surefire way to eliminate their impact on concerned bystanders. As eating disorders expert Margo Maine, PhD says about this unreasonable illness, “Logic doesn’t work; love does.”
The most effective responses to the dilemmas of living with eating disorders aren’t always obvious. In fact, they are quite counter-intuitive — no surprise, given the paradox and illogic of eating disorders themselves.
At the top of my list for MLOs are self-care, loving detachment and radical acceptance. When I introduce these concepts, many MLOs object: “What are you talking about? I need to hover over my loved one to protect them and focus on defeating the eating disorder! What good could it possibly do to go off and do ‘self-care,’ or to accept and detach from the problem? I don’t even know what ‘self-care’ means!”
For starters, self-care is not self-indulgent, self-centered or selfish. Instead, it is essential human nourishment fed by simple, rejuvenating activities like taking a walk, dining out with a friend, meditating, reading, shooting hoops, shooting skeet, or shooting the breeze. Yes, it means temporarily removing ourselves from the person with the eating disorder, but (paradoxically) this is a good thing.
Here’s why: The eating disorder self works hard to pull the person’s loved ones into its distorted way of perceiving and thinking about the world. It thrives on drawing us into arguments, arguments we simply can’t win. It loves having us rise to the bait of reacting in kind to its melodramatic, intense, and ultimately abusive behavior.
The challenge for MLOs is to stop reacting (e.g., attempting to argue with, punish or shout down the eating disorder) and start responding — with calm words and actions which keep the focus where it belongs: on the authentic self of the person we love.
Therapists, physicians and dietitians who refer men for coaching report that nearly every one of the men is more involved in the identified client’s treatment than they were before the coaching began. The MLOs are bringing the client to appointments, asking questions, emailing the treatment providers, etc. The providers also report that the clients themselves notice a positive difference in how their MLOs are responding to the eating disorder.
I want to be clear: this approach won’t cure an eating disorder or guarantee that anyone (other than an MLO himself) will change their behavior. But, as one husband put it, there are payoffs:
“It’s an opportunity to learn, to grow, to become closer to your loved one. Even if she isn’t involved in this particular activity, you’re gonna gain an understanding. You discover you’re not alone. It makes it a lot easier to talk about. And as soon as it’s easier to talk about, things are gonna be getting better.”
I currently do a 4-week group or 1-day workshop four to five times a year in the San Francisco Bay area, but am also eager to bring the workshop to other parts of the country. I’m always happy to bring the MLO coaching to treatment centers anywhere around the country—where I can also provide evidence-based training to help professionals (therapists, dietitians, etc.) become more effective at mobilizing and utilizing their clients’ MLOs as treatment and recovery resources.
In addition, I provide on-on-one coaching for MLOs, using internet video such as Skype. You can find out more at www.joekelly.org/coaching or email me at joe (at) joekelly (dot) org.