Sometimes I think it’s hard for us to verbalize what an eating disorder is like. This article was given to me in treatment and I think it really spells out how to understand what it’s like coming from our point of view. This short excerpt gives a brief explanation of the role an eating disorder plays in a loved one’s life. When I read this, I thought, “wow.. this explains exactly what I can’t say!”
Hope it gives you a glimpse!
Helping Families Understand Eating Disorders: The “Salesman” Metaphor
Loved ones often find eating disorders difficult to understand and accept. There is nothing more difficult than watching a loved one struggle with illness, particularly an illness that takes control of the mind as well as the body and causes extreme disturbances in an individual’s behaviors and feelings. Often times, the use of metaphor can help treatment professionals explain the eating disorder and communicate the role of the illness in their loved one’s life. Below is an excerpt from Why She Feels Fat, a book that I co-wrote with Johanna McShane, PhD, which explores the “salesman” metaphor.
Your loved one sees danger in many places. Life is neither fun nor safe, and her fears can be paralyzing. She is afraid of losing control of her emotions and of getting hurt in relationships. She is afraid and exhausted by her own thoughts. Something has to happen…and then it does. She discovers the safety and predictability of a relationship with food.
To conceptualize this process and why your loved one doesn’t resist its onset, we find it helpful to imagine the eating disorders as a “salesman.” Although having an eating disorder is a personal and internal experience, visualizing it as a separate entity can be useful for the purposes of clarity and understanding.
Imagine this salesman recognizes that your loved one is in desperate need of a way to cope with her life. This particular type of salesman happens to have a “product” that bolsters feelings of confidence, power and invulnerability. He knows he has just what she’s looking for and offers her a deal she can’t resist.
In return for minor changes in her behavior, such as eating less fat or no sugar, or exercising an hour everyday, he’ll help her feel terrific. She doesn’t think he’s asking too much of her, so she unwittingly accepts. In the early stages of the agreement, you might not notice any changes; it may appear that your loved one is just trying to eat in a healthy way or lose a little weight. In fact, at this point, she herself might not feel different, believing she’s only making minor adjustments to her lifestyle.
Soon though, the salesman returns to demand more: If she wants to continue to receive the benefits he offers, she must make increasingly dramatic changes to her food and/or exercise behaviors. And each time he returns, she agrees to whatever he commands her to do. The result is that the eating disorder becomes more and more entrenched in her life and begins to exact a greater and greater toll. Over time, her dependence upon the food and exercise-related behaviors escalates to a point where she becomes exceedingly resistant to letting them go, largely because she believes she can’t without suffering dire consequences.
“It’s the only thing I can trust. It helps me deal with all my [stuff]. It has never let me down, it has never lied to me. I mean, what else could you ask for?”
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.