I struggle with eating disorders. My brother-in-law does not believe that mental disorders and problems are any different from physical problems. We had quite a discussion over Christmas and things have been very uncomfortable between us ever since.
His daughter has a learning disability and his wife (my sister) is deaf in one ear. He told me that they know these things about themselves and filter their everyday experiences through this knowledge and compensate accordingly (my sister turns her head to the right when someone is speaking to her, his daughter sits up front in school and uses a tutor). He tells me that I need to do the same thing and there really is no such thing as a “mental disorder.” His idea is that when I go to eat I should know that I have a problem and compensate by taking 2-3 times what I think would be an appropriate serving and eat that. I tried to explain to him that my mind won’t let me eat that much and if I did I would freak out! He yelled at me and said I was making it all up to get attention.
How do I solve this? He has since sent me an e-mail saying whenever I attend family functions I end up making everyone upset, so I have kept my distance. Now he is mad at me because my LACK of participation hurts everyone’s feelings. I am SOOOOO confused on every level of this situation and don’t quite know what to do. Any advice???
Mental problems are different from physical problems in some ways. They are often more difficult to diagnose and to treat and they are much easier to deny. In other ways, however, physical problems are similar to mental problems. They both impair functioning and it’s true that the individual with the problem can learn to compensate for those challenges.
Your brother-in-law seems to have expressed his opinion in an adversarial manner, which is never helpful. What I really don’t understand, though, is how he is supposedly able to speak for the whole family (saying you are making everyone uncomfortable) OR why you feel a need to listen to him. My guess is that there are other family members that you can talk to and get their feelings regarding the situation.
All of this however begs the question. If you have an eating disorder, what your family thinks of things is the least of your worries. Getting some help and progressing, even if it is small steps to begin with, is more important than what family or friends think. It would be helpful to not get distracted by others’ input and instead focus on what needs to be done by you, for yourself.
I agree that your brother-in-law’s approach was, to say the least, ineffective. Yelling at you, telling you that you’re making everyone uncomfortable, and then telling you off for staying away from family events—not helpful.
However, a few things to consider:
- Why are you giving your brother-in-law the power to separate you from the rest of your family? For you to stay away from family functions probably is hurtful to your parents and at least some of your other family members.
- Everyone has weaknesses, challenges, and/or hang-ups of one kind or another. We can sometimes fall into the trap of letting that “label” define and limit us. Many years ago, before I ever went back to graduate school and started counseling, I knew a reading specialist who was asked if he was able to help dyslexics. His answer: “Sure. Dyslexics need to read, too.” That answer impressed me greatly. I see the importance of resisting the tendency to consider that being bipolar, or depressed, or anorexic means we can’t learn to manage those challenges and improve our functioning. That’s not to dismiss the very real difficulties involved, but “Sure. Anorexics need to—and can learn to—handle family get-togethers, too.”
- There are ways to address our challenges. Eating disorders do not just go away on their own and we can’t ignore them or force them out of our lives. It sounds like your brother-in-law may be vastly over-simplifying the situation. You can’t just sit at the front of the class or turn your right ear to people and fit right in. However, there are clinics, there are counselors, or—if cost is an issue—there are books that can help us. Another no-cost option that I would highly recommend is finding and attending an Addiction Recovery Program group. ARP groups are sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and are available all over Utah and in more and more areas outside Utah. You can find groups on the lds.org website. Check out this LINK for information about the ARP program and how to get involved. The twelve steps approach can successfully be applied to eating disorders.