Reaching Out: Support Groups

I am starting a new series in this blog entitled reaching out. Overcoming an eating disorder is hard but it may be impossible to do without any outside support. In fact, it is very important to work on building a support network in order to recovery and to maintain one to prevent relapse.

I found it very difficult to reach out to get support. I felt weak to ask for help and had a misconception of what treatment entailed. I felt I would be a burden if I asked for help, and deeply ashamed for not being able to do this on my own. However, I have learnt that I cannot walk this Earth alone; it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help but an act of courage and self-care.

I’ve only managed to get to three recoverers’ meetings so far, but the support I have found in the self-help groups has proved to be invaluable to me, although I understand that people can have a variety of feelings towards such groups since it depends so much on who attends and how they are ran by the facilitators.

In the UK there are a number of support groups, which can be found using BEAT’s Helpfinder. I found my local support group there.I’ve heard that in the USA there is Eating Disorder’s Anonymous, although I’ve heard that they focus more on a 12-steps approach to recovering from an ED as opposed to just being there for talking about random topics. I know that one blogger, malpaz, is attending the USA EDA support group, so it may be worth directing questions to her, or taking a look to see what she is blogging about as both types of groups seem to have a different ethos.

I attend monthly sessions. I was terrified at first: what if I was the fattest one there? Will I be triggered by other members? What if I’m at a further stage of recovery than the others are? What is no one but me turns up?I had not ever talked openly about my anorexia, and the child services, CAMHS, told me that the competitive nature of EDs prevented group therapy from taking place.

It turned out there were some women who were thinner than me (as they talked of symptoms of being underweight when I was free of those symptoms). There were some who had lived with the illness for much longer than me. Some had been in in-patient for years.But I did not personally feel competitive. I thought to myself: the ‘best’ anorexics are the one’s who die. I thought, she is really suffering and I know what that is like too, so how can I be jealous of someone else’s pure agony and the torment they are living through?

There were the “no number” rules, and other ground rules to keep the conversation on-topic and recovery orientated which was fantastic and meant the environment was very productive and not detrimental to our recovery. There was one occasion where a member broke the rules, and was not rectified immediately, but after e-mailing another facilitator we were reminded of the rules more often and the situation did not reoccur.

At the first, I was not too positive in my attitude. But I met a girl who was living life and working and who was very cheerful and proud of where she had got to. I think her charisma really caught on and taught me that I too can feel proud of where I am and that the world does not need to be covered in black paint.Now, I go to the support groups with an open mind, and try to be positive in what I have achieved.

The second meeting I met another woman, who came again in my third session. It really helped to listen how she copes with some of the stresses of eating. I spoke about the challenges that I am about to face in the next few weeks. She gave me ideas on what I can do to cope and what helps her, and I also had a chance to tell her my plan of action to cope, which cemented in my mind what I can do to help myself. It was really nice to see her come as she was a familiar face — and less awkward to start our conversation too!  It turns out that we have some things and thoughts in common, but also some major differences too (in our lives and families, mostly).

I was also able to talk about my experiences of self-harm, and it was inspiring that there were people out there who were further recovered than I was in that respect.

To be able to talk to someone, and feel understood, feels wonderful. I feel less along, and able to cope and able to ask do you have any ways of coping with xyz?

From those meeting I have a fuller “coping toolbox” and plan to add the following to it:

  • Keeping up with writing a journal of my struggles (I also talked to some of the recoverer’s about how it’s best to keep a journal, and that I am able to take it out where I go too for safety)
  • Trying “distraction” activities after eating a difficult meal (the woman did cross-stitching but I might try drawing in my sketchbook)

I shall look forward to the next meeting. It’s a shame so few people turn up to the meetings, but I’ve yet to be the only one to turn up. I hope to see some familiar faces next time too.

For those of you contemplating going to such support groups, I would encourage your to try finding out more information first, and then to consider giving it a chance. I won’t deny that some have not had good experiences, but you can never tell how things will go if you don’t attend. It might be a great opportunity to reach out and get some extra help. It’s also reassuring to know that, unlike on the support in the NHS, there are no “entry” criteria. It’s not a substitute for professional advise, but anything that can supplement my recovery is worth investing (even if it means travelling out of town by rail and then bus).