Client Interview: Family Therapy in Eating Disorder Recovery
One of Opal’s hallmarks is our Family + Friends programming and the commitment to including a client’s community (family, friends, roommates, significant others, etc) in the treatment process. Our Family + Friends program consists of many components: family therapy, family + friends dinner with clients and staff, family groups for learning and extending support, and an e-newsletter providing weekly encouragement and information to the people our clients identify as their supporters.
We wanted to share with you a first-hand perspective on how this aspect of our treatment approach can help someone experience recovery, as well as create positive, lasting healing in their relationships. Below are excerpts of an interview we did with a mother and daughter, who have been going through the treatment program at Opal, sharing their experience of Opal’s family programming. Read their honest and inspiring words below…
What are the circumstances that originally brought you to Opal?
Client: I was really depressed and had been for a while. I had been using varied behaviors from …maybe when I was 12-ish. But, I had gotten really, really depressed and I felt like my life wasn’t going anywhere. I was not functioning that well and I was taking maybe one class at a time and living at home and not really doing anything with my time.
What was it like for you two when you found out that family therapy was part of the treatment at Opal?
Client: I think I remember I didn’t totally understand why it was important, but I thought it would be good for us. I really liked our family therapist and liked getting to see her, but then it ended up being really helpful in helping us communicate and work through some of our issues.
Mom: One of our things was me overdoing things for [my daughter]. I would do so much for her that she could do herself. So we were in this bad dynamic of her being too dependent and having me do too much for her, so then she didn’t feel like she could do it herself. She felt powerless, or unable, or disable…
Mom: Yea, helpless. Whatever words you want to use. And I’m just a natural caretaker. That’s kind of what I was taught by my mom, but in this case it was actually detrimental to [my daughter’s] recovery and progress. It kept her in a more child-like, dependent, “sick,” role rather than empowering her to become more independent and healthy and doing things on her own. We worked through a lot of that in family therapy.
How would you say that the work you two did on communication and re-establishing boundaries is connected to your recovery?
Client: Well I feel like when we were able to change patterns in relationship that made me feel like a child, and I was able to feel more empowered and like an adult…I think that helped me feel less depressed and more in control of parts of my life that weren’t food or body related. I think that was really significant.
Mom: Also in the course of family therapy, [my daughter] could say things to me that were hard to talk about, just the two of us. And, you know, I have my own food issues and my own stuff from my upbringing, which I was carrying into our relationship and it was really unhelpful. It was good to be able to establish boundaries around even things I would say, that I wasn’t aware were triggering or upsetting to her. It’s a work in progress, for sure, because I still say things sometimes and I don’t even know that I’m stumbling into that territory…then I get the look from [my daughter] and I’m like, “What?” (Laughs) And then, she’s pretty good, she’ll say, “Mom, that’s triggering,” or, “Please don’t talk about that,” Or something like that.
What has your experience been like in the Tuesday night Opal Family + Friends Program?
Mom: The in-services have been just excellent. The body image ones [discussing] the mindset of someone with an eating disorder – what they’re going through, and how what you say might be interpreted. I realized that I had a lot of my own stuff, so that’s been very helpful.
Client: I’ve found them really helpful because it’s good for the family to get a taste of what we’re doing all day every day here. One of the funny things I think of is talking about what is “not table appropriate at Opal.” My mom was like, “That’s so restrictive!” and I’m like, “Well you do it twice a month! I do it five times a day, five days a week!” I think a lot of family members feel that way.
What have been the biggest benefits and the biggest challenges of doing recovery as a family?
Client: I would say the biggest benefits are that my mom has been a part of it so she knows how to support me and to be there for me, when I’m struggling, in a way that’s effective and helps foster closeness between us. She is able to understand what I’m going through and that also fosters closeness. I think it’s just kind of like a feedback loop that helps our relationship and my recovery. What do you think?
Mom: Yea, and also learning the boundaries and how to support you rather than fixing everything. Helping you to solve problems yourself and encouraging that, not rushing in to try to rescue and make it all better. That’s a huge benefit…and a huge challenge. I have to be like, “Well this is [my daughter’s] journey,” and I have to let go. That’s one of the biggest challenges to let her find her path and what’s working for her and to be OK with that. It’s not necessarily my way and I’m not going to agree with every single thing, but it’s working. I see it working. She was laying on the couch or in bed all the time, not doing anything, hardly making it to class, but that’s about it. And that was really heartbreaking. So to see her living a full life, generally, still showing up [even when it’s been hard] – all these things that you’re doing are just so amazing. A year ago you were so incapacitated, you couldn’t do anything. That’s my goal, I want my kids to be functioning and out there experiencing life. It’s just amazing.
What would you say to a family who was considering family therapy as part of their loved one’s treatment?
Client: It’s hard because I know [other people’s] relationships with their families can be really challenging and in some cases really contribute to their eating disorders. But I think in those cases, it might be the most important to bring their families in – even for just a few sessions – because nobody develops an eating disorder in a vacuum. There are tons of factors that create an eating disorder, and part of it is environment and family and your childhood, I think, for a lot of people. I think it can be one of the most painful but also the most rewarding parts of [recovery].
Mom: I’d probably say to a parent that, to understand where [your child is] coming from and to help them get better, that it’s really important to understand and work on the primary relationships…What you learn from [your family] goes out to the rest of the world and how you develop yourself. So I would say if you really want to help your daughter or son, it would be in their best interest to do the family therapy. It will help them…but it can also have lasting changes in your relationship with your child moving forward.
We are so grateful for the vulnerability and courage of this mother and daughter, who offered to share a piece of their story with our greater Opal community. We at Opal have been honored to walk with many families and friends as they navigate and negotiate how to be effective supporters of one another, not just in the journey of recovery, but in the journey of life. For more information about Opal and our Family + Friends programming, click here.