I’m never going to get better. I’m the only person in the world who won’t recover.
I said this about my eating disorder, and, later, I said the very same thing about posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In my experience, part of having a mental illness, by definition, means that, at times, we believe we can’t get better.
Needless to say, I lost hope a lot. My family and friends never did, and, in fact, they helped to ignite hope within me, even in the darkest times. These were the times when I was laying flat on the ground, literally, kicked facedown in despair.
Here are some ideas to consider when supporting your loved one in standing back up again:
1. Listen, listen, listen.
As in, put down the smartphone, stop multi-tasking, and truly listen. My older brother listened over the phone while I cried. I didn’t need for him to say much of anything, but rather, I just needed someone to hold space for me to grieve. Often, he simply said, “I know I don’t understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you. I love you.”
2. Stop trying to understand so much. Instead, believe.
“From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it.
From the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”
This quote from my first book, Life Without Ed, has resonated with families as a helpful description of just how confusing mental illness can be. My family has never fully understood my eating disorder, and I have written three books about it! The truth is that my family never needed to grasp every detail of the illness, but instead, they needed to believe my experience. It helped a lot when my mom said, “I believe that you feel like you will never get better. Still, I think you can. I love you.”
3. Yes, be a broken record: “I love you.”
Looking back, I can see that one of my family’s stealth, super-recovery moves was being a broken record with, “I love you.” They said this all of the time. And, while the words might not have always registered with me on an intellectual level, on a deeper emotional and spiritual level, I know that they did.
4. Be a hope holder.
Do whatever it takes to maintain your hope. Even though you might be frustrated with the slow pace of the recovery process (and for good reason), do your best to stay positive and connect with the truth. Loads of research shows that people can heal from eating disorders as well as PTSD. These illnesses are treatable. Encourage your loved one to continue on with treatment even when they have lost faith that anything will help. I have seen many so-called “chronic cases” or even “lost causes” reach recovery. Never take someone’s hope away.
5. Help connect your loved one with those who “get it.”
Nothing built my hope up more than connecting face-to-face with others who had been there. Help your loved one to meet others in recovery, especially those who have come out on the other side. In my eating disorder recovery, I was lucky to attend a local therapy group as well as twelve-step meetings. To find this kind of support for PTSD, I had to get creative: I traveled across the country and lived in a hotel for a few months. (I attended treatment out of state, which is where I finally met others with PTSD.) Connecting with others helped me to see, that with both PTSD and my eating disorder, I wasn’t alone—I wasn’t going crazy. Indeed, I even witnessed people who, through their recoveries, had become stronger and found more fulfilled lives. Think posttraumatic growth. Recently, we created the Life Without Ed® weekend retreat as a way for people to get connected.
6. Connect yourself with those who understand.
Just like those of us who have been there can provide your loved one with unique hope, our family members can inspire you. During family week at The Meadows Ranch, the various patients’ family members get the opportunity to interact with one another. Sometimes, this is the first instance where these families realize that they aren’t alone in their personal struggles. If available, participate in your loved one’s family week. Find local or online support for families.
7. Get additional help for yourself, too.
Supporting someone through a life-threatening mental illness is exhausting and possibly one of the most challenging things you will ever do. Mental illness doesn’t make sense. It’s ruthless, and at times, seems impossible to surmount. As you know, mental illness impacts everyone, not just the patient. Sometimes, the best thing that you can do for your loved one is to get professional help for yourself. Like they say on airplanes, put your oxygen mask on first. Then, you can better support your loved one.
8. Attend a therapy session with your loved one.
If invited, agree to go to a therapy session with your loved one. If you haven’t been invited, express your willingness to attend a session if that might be helpful. Timing matters, so try not to be discouraged or offended if your loved one or their therapist doesn’t think this is a good idea yet.
9. Ask, “What feels supportive to you?”
Your loved one might or might not relate to the ideas mentioned here. So, it is always imperative to ask them what they find helpful and what they don’t. To get an idea of what your loved one relates to most, consider reading recovery books that they’ve found particularly helpful. You might even try an exercise from Life Without Ed: ask your loved one, if they are willing, to highlight specific ideas that they relate to within a recovery book before you read it. Then, when you read the book, noting their highlights, you will have a better idea of which parts resonate with them. It will be like reading a self-help book written just for your family.
10. Learn as much as you can.
Even though you will never fully understand mental illness unless you’ve experienced it yourself, you can still learn and grow. Not to mention, the effort that you put into learning might mean a lot to your loved one. I remember when my mom, pre-Internet days, went to the library to check out books on eating disorders. Even though most of the books were filled with outdated information, just knowing that she made that kind of effort meant a lot to me.
11. Have patience. Your loved one might be doing their best (even if it doesn’t look like it).
As you learn more, you will probably read a lot about the slow nature of recovery and the necessity for patience. Research is even beginning to illuminate that, especially in early recovery, it isn’t so much that your loved one “won’t” take the actions needed to get better, but it is more like they “can’t”—not yet. Eating disorders, as well as PTSD, change the brain. Recovery rewires it. In the beginning, your loved one can’t “just eat” nor “just get over” their trauma. One of the most frustrating parts of my recovery was knowing what to do but not being able to do it. My mind was hijacked.
12. Sometimes, just have fun and don’t talk about mental illness.
Mental illness takes our lives hostage. We forget how to have fun. We forget how to laugh. Anything that you can do to help pull us into life and joy might help. At first, your fun might not seem fun to us at all. But, don’t let that stop you. As the saying goes, “fake it ‘til you make it,” is key.
13. When in doubt, pray.
Sometimes, I think my parents’ prayers were the X factor that kept me going. They prayed every day that I would get better. They encouraged me to lean on God, too. Often, I didn’t know how to do this, because mental illness has a way of knocking out all things spiritual. Regardless, seeing my mom and dad model their reliance on a higher power was beyond helpful.
As this National Recovery Month comes to a close, I want to give a big shout out to families, especially mine. Without their continued love and support, I wouldn’t be here today. Thanks to recovery, I am more fun and connected than ever before. We hear a lot about how mental illness can tear families apart, but we don’t hear enough about how recovery can bring families together—stronger than ever.
A Senior Fellow with The Meadows and advocate for its specialty eating disorders program, The Meadows Ranch, Jenni Schaefer is a bestselling author and sought-after speaker. For more information: www.JenniSchaefer.com