Friday, July 13, 2012

ED#13: The Elephant in the Room

I don’t quite know how to share this story because I don’t want to dismiss the experience of others. But I can’t invalidate my own experience to validate someone else’s. Having an eating disorder is painful and intensely difficult. So is having a sister with one.

My sister and I are the same age; we grew up together from day one. It’s had to describe what that is like; we were always together. We played together, had the same friends, took many of the same classes. For a large part of our lives we did literally everything together. We shared clothes, jewelry, books, even crushes. I considered her my closest friend. I looked up to her; she was the confident, friendly, outgoing one. Most our mutual friends were her friends first and I just tagged along. She’s extremely talented; I quit playing the piano and switched to voice lessons because I couldn’t compete with her. She was who I wanted to be in so many ways.

When we were juniors in high school, a mutual friend told me my beautiful, talented, intelligent sister was making herself throw up. I sat in a practice room off the choir room, sobbing, almost screaming, through the hour long class period. I couldn’t believe she was doing that to herself, that she felt she needed to. That night I asked her point blank if she was making herself throw up. She said no. She lied to me; she looked right into my face and lied, and we both knew she was lying. After sharing everything, this lie was the ultimate betrayal. And it began the hardest years of my life.

I was told by a religion teacher she had confided in not to tell my parents, because he was handling it. He seemed to know what he was talking about and had religious authority, so I didn’t say anything to my parents. (To this day I hate that man for believing he had a right to interfere in something he had no training in, and hate myself for giving him that authority.) A few months later my parents caught my sister binging and purging on Easter candy, woke me up and asked if I knew why. I had to admit I knew and hadn't told them. They took her to the hospital and I spent the night sitting up waiting. The next morning I went to school on no sleep and pretended nothing was wrong.

This was the pattern my family followed: we pretended nothing was wrong. It was the elephant in the room. We all loved my sister, wanted her to be healthy and happy, and knew she wasn't. We couldn't fix the problem by talking about it, so we didn't. We heard her throwing up in the bathroom and said nothing. We saw her eating nothing at the dinner table and said nothing. She was baking constantly and eating none of it and we didn’t ask her to stop. She went from the silent treatment to screaming abuse at me and my parents. My parents just took it and did not back me up when I reacted to her attacks. I love her and was deeply hurt by her screaming insults at me out of blue. I love my parents and was furious to hear her blame them for what she was going through.But we lived with this elephant in the room, we never talked about the pain we were in. Even when I demanded we talk about it, we did not. I could not express my feelings of terror, rage, betrayal and pain, so they ate me alive and destroyed the things I loved the most.

I was a theatre nerd in high school (and still am); I acted in school plays and competed in regional competitions. I worked incredibly hard to get to the state drama competitions my junior year. I got through one round of competitions and was one of three to qualify to go to state competitions. In one of my rounds, a girl performed a monologue about having bulimia. It took everything in me to not burst into tears. For the next two rounds, I could not concentrate and my performance was weak. It showed in my scores; after the months of work I had dedicated to something I adored doing, it all fell apart.

My senior year of high school was… difficult. I was depressed, and did everything I could not to be home. I had breakdowns at school, sobbing in classrooms and hallways. My parents felt responsible for my sister’s disorder, even though they knew they had done nothing wrong. They put pressure on me, unintentionally, to prove they were good parents. So as I was trying to escape being home and the elephant in the room, they wanted me to continue to live normally. Our relationship became extremely strained as we all tried to cope in ways that were counter to each other’s processes.

It’s been almost ten years since I spent choir sobbing over my sister. We have both since graduated from college and gotten married. Our relationship is still a bit rough, It has improved, but we still have screaming matches about various subjects, and I still struggle with how she treats my family. I still find evidence that she has been throwing up when I go into the bathroom at my parents, still watch her eat next to nothing, and still see my parents blame themselves for her struggles.

I realize that to some my experience may seem petty. I know my sister had, and still has a difficult time. I know she has tried to get treatment, in some cases unsuccessfully. I also know that her eating disorder caused me and my family extraordinary emotional pain. I know that my relationship with my sister will never be the same. Eating disorders hurt everyone; the ones who struggle with them and the people who love them.


  1. Thank you so much for posting this. I'm so sorry what you guys have been dealing with for so long. I really hope in the future something will improve and you can have a better relationship with everyone. Such a hard burden to carry. Even if you're not the one with bulimia.

  2. There is something different about being the person who loves somebody with an eating disorder. It is also tough to tell these stories when they are not finished and teh eating disorder continues. Thanks for sharing.