In 2017, nightly dinners in the Borgstrom household were laced with tension and conflict.
The family would argue over whether or not their daughter, Emma, would finish her dinner. Or they would refuse to speak to each other altogether — letting their fears hang in the silence.
“Eating disorders aren’t just about the person suffering,” said Emma Borgstrom, a freshman kinesiology major, who struggled with anorexia for six years of her life, beginning at age 12. “It affects so many people.”
A person’s battle with their eating disorder can make them unreachable to family members and friends, registered dietitian nutritionist Crystal Karges wrote in an article for Eating Disorder Hope, an organization that raises awareness and education about eating disorders and recovery.
“Eating disorders often exist as the antithesis to relationships…” Karges wrote in February 2017. “…Typically, as an eating disorder grows stronger within a person, relationships with family members and loved ones become strained and gradually diminish.”
In the throes of her disorder, Borgstrom restricted herself to certain foods and ate different meals than the rest of her family. Borgstrom’s unhealthy relationship with food affected her relationships with loved ones and interfered with her family’s feeling of togetherness.
Loved ones may also experience guilt when trying to help someone through an eating disorder, said Janie Egan, the mental well-being program coordinator at the Wellness Resource Center.
“It’s very difficult when somebody doesn’t want [help] and you’re trying,” said Tracey Borgstrom, Emma Borgstrom’s mother. “I felt like the bad guy.”
Family members and supportive friends can help a loved one experiencing an eating disorder by educating themselves and preparing themselves for negative reactions, according to the National Eating Disorder Association, a nonprofit providing support for people affected by eating disorders. NEDA also recommends strategies like using “I” statements and avoiding the urge to offer oversimplified solutions, like “just eat,” to the person struggling.
Lauren Platz, a junior global studies and economics major, struggled with anorexia from 5th to 8th grade. In the depths of her disorder, she behaved aggressively and selfishly, Platz said.
“You’re constantly in survival mode. You have a shorter temper, you are withdrawn,” she added. “I said a lot of things that I think I didn’t mean.”
Setting boundaries, making compromises and following through with self-care routines — like eating nourishing foods, getting enough sleep and self-reflecting — are ways someone can care for themselves and their loved one, Egan said.
It can be helpful for people in supportive roles to see their own counselor, which some people don’t consider, Egan added.
Emma Borgstrom’s journey through recovery ultimately shaped her as a person and brought her family closer together. She and her mom now co-run a recovery blog called Rooted that focuses on helping people with eating disorders and their loved ones.
“Until someone goes through this with someone, they have no idea what or how difficult of a disease it is,” Tracey Borgstrom said. “If anyone is going through this, I would say don’t judge and just support, and listen.”