Truth in Love: Eating Disorder Recovery for the Whole Family

Truth in Love

That was good and bad, I suppose. One the one hand, it hurt. I had a husband and five kids whom I loved and missed dearly. On the other hand, it was in their voices, written notes and hand drawn pictures that I found the inspiration to live. The countdown until discharge was constant. The bridge that would get me there, Family Week, was a respite I had anticipated from the moment I arrived.

After being away from home for weeks, the days leading up to Family Week were exciting and filled with anticipation. The other participants and I made welcome posters for our families. Laughing like school girls preparing for prom, we picked out our clothes, then planned and re-planned our days out.

In the quiet moments, though, I was nervous. Since our children were too young to participate, my husband and I would be a family of two. With the help of therapy and nutrition, I had changed a lot. Three concerns haunted me:

1. Not only had I gained weight, I still had a feeding tube in my nose. What would my husband think?

2. My denial had been shattered. I was really sick. I had hurt myself, but I had also hurt my family. Could my husband and our children forgive me? I had also been hurt. Could I forgive my husband?

3. As much as I wanted to go home, I knew I could not manage recovery on my own. Could our marriage become what I needed it to be? Could my husband love me the way I needed to be loved?

Learning How to Live and Love

When the big day came, I hung the posters and waited out front. As my husband pulled into the parking lot and waved, the gleam in his eye made his emotions clear. Kirk was happy to see me.

Though Family Week would be busy and challenging, our reunion was magical. As he held me in his arms relief washed over me, a baptism, of sorts, into our new lives. My husband still loved me. He kissed me then traced my feeding tube with his finger. I pushed his hand away. My face warmed, the heat rising to my ears. Tears boiled over and trickled down my cheeks. “It’s okay,” he said. “You don’t need to hide anymore.” He held my hands in his. “Besides, it looks kind of good on you.” We laughed until we cried and then we laughed some more. We had a lot to learn. Family Week would help with that.

The first couple of mornings were filled with education. While the residents remained on campus, Kirk and the other family participants spent the mornings learning about eating disorders, communication skills, and recovery. These lessons provided a foundation for understanding and insight, necessary skills for healing beyond The Meadows Ranch. Time for reflection and communicating with my primary therapist helped Kirk gain insight. He, too, played a role in my disease. Though I was the one with anorexia, we both had issues, individually and together, that needed to be addressed in order for me (and for us) to heal. In addition, Kirk found empathy and strength from talking with the other families. He was not alone.

Just like residents were assigned to family groups at The Meadows Ranch, we were split up into small groups at Family Week. A few families worked together with a team of therapist throughout the week. Some of that time was spent doing activities. When words seemed exhausting, Art Therapy gave us the opportunity to feel and put expression to our experience. Years later, we still treasure a mixed media project we created together. It is a precious reminder of heartache and restoration. Zip Lining and Rock Climbing, essential elements from the challenge course, pushed us to our limits, forcing us to trust and encourage each other and the rest of our “family.” We also laughed a lot. Anorexia, the thief that keeps on taking, had stolen our joy. We were taking it back.

Truth in Love

The most difficult part of the week took place behind closed doors with our family group. At the time, we seemed like an odd match for our group. We, two younger parents with little kids, were grouped together with “older” parents of college-aged students. It is only now, writing this, that I wonder if that was by design. It must have been. Much of my own trauma had taken place during my high school and college years. I learned and healed by watching and supporting the two other families share their hurts and heal their hearts.

With the guidance of two therapists, each family took turns being the focus. Kirk and I were scheduled to go last. This was beneficial for us because both of us feel more comfortable after a time of observation. We listened and heard what pain and healthy disclosure sounded like. We watched and learned how to meet sadness and sorrow with compassion. We witnessed forgiveness followed by restoration and realized we need not be afraid. Through it all, we supported the other residents and their families. By helping others we come to understand ourselves more clearly. The message to both of us was clear: eating disorders thrive in isolation; hope and healing are found in a community.

When the day arrived for our “Truth in Love” exchange, I was petrified. Introverted by nature, both my husband and I struggled to communicate. Our sensitive hearts were hidden behind layers of quick wit and sarcasm. Sharing on a deep level while sitting in front of others highlighted every weakness. However, much like yanking off a Band-Aid, it was necessary for recovery.

Kirk and I sat face-to-face and knee-to-knee. With the therapists at our sides for guidance, each of us shared from notes we had prepared. We began with a message of love, the foundation to which we could always return. We proceeded with our goals, the signposts that would guide us through the morning. Those were difficult but safe exchanges, baby steps for the leaps of faith that would come later. Beautiful moments, to be sure, but our knees were knocking (literally) because we knew what was coming. We took a break to regroup.

After a quick dose of encouragement from my therapist and a few moments to breathe, Kirk and I sat down again. My reserved husband sat in front of me, looked me in the eye, and asked forgiveness. Mistake-by-mistake, offense-by-offense, he admitted his faults. His voice stammered but he had never appeared stronger. Line-by-line, I forgave him. My forgiveness was real, but I remained stoic and still, shocked that my husband had done anything that necessitated forgiveness. I, after all, was the one at The Meadows Ranch.

The morning was filled with stops and starts because I was still quick to disengage and dissociate. The therapists proceeded at a slow pace, careful not to overwhelm either of us. I shared my many wrongs, some obvious and some secret, and Kirk forgave me. We chipped away at the wall that dysfunction had built between us. We were choosing to forgive and move forward. Together. Since a traumatic exchange was pivotal in the development of my eating disorder, our therapists had decided that a role play was important to my recovery. With the therapists’ guiding us, we reenacted the event. This time Kirk responded differently and acted as my protector. Although the scene did not play out as smoothly or dramatically as they had likely hoped, I learned and healed a lot. I understood that my husband was willing to risk everything to save me. I knew I was no longer alone. I realized that my family of origin no longer wielded power over me. I could create a future that looked different from my past.

After the intensive family work, our family group talked as a whole about our exchange. It was a valuable time filled with insight and support, a chance to look inside at ourselves and our relationship and an opportunity to learn from our experiences. By discussing what they had witnessed, the other families helped me see things about my behavior that I had missed. The others couples provided insight about our relationship.

Some shared how they had struggled with similar issues. They praised our strengths and challenged us in areas where we needed to grow. The other patients encouraged me. They had witnessed the progress I had made during my stay at Remuda. When we returned to campus, my Family Week group encouraged one another and held each other accountable. Giving and receiving support within the context of healthy relationships, I learned, brings lasting transformation.

The Long View

Though we had both grown a lot during Family Week, there was much work to be done, so before Kirk returned home we met with my primary therapist. This gave us an opportunity to discuss my needs, the importance of aftercare, and our plan for future treatment. An IOP would be necessary as I stepped back into the real world. We would need to continue working individually and as a couple, if I wanted to stay on the road to recovery. Our time with my therapist helped us get a realistic view of the long-term recovery process. I had been sick for a very long time; it would be a long time before I was well. With a concrete plan of action returning home no longer felt so scary. Kirk and I both had hope for our future.

Family Week was an important part of our healing. My husband understood much more about eating disorders, relationships, and recovery. He better understood the severity of my illness, but he also felt more equipped to build a future. Family Week helped us remember what it felt like to love and laugh again, but it also gave us the desire to talk about the hard things.

Family Week gave us a sense of community and family. We no longer felt like “freaks” battling an unknown foe. Family Week remains in our hearts as a time of healing and promise, a retreat to the desert where we caught our breath, gathered our tools, practiced our skills, and built our army. I now see it as a sort of boot camp. The lessons we learned during Family Week continue to teach us and shape our relationship.

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