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Coping With a Dieting Relative When You’re a Recovering Anorexic

Category: Health & Fitness,Lifestyle

I’m seven years older than my sister. I’ve always embraced being a big sister, albeit one who roped her into Spice Girls dance-offs that were both sister parties and excuses to burn calories. I feel lucky that we survived my illness, that I never viewed her as a rival.

For the last year, while my sister’s been losing weight, I’ve been keeping a new kind of journal for me; call it daily gratitude. “Write a list of everything you can think of that would be ruined” if the disordered eating resumed, Dr. Rago suggested. My writing, a fulfilling marriage, a trio of palm trees I can see from the kitchen window, my health — these things stay on the list, alongside relationships with my family.

“You’re in a good place now,” my sister said, when I told her I was writing about this. I realized it was probably still new to her: knowing me in a good place.

Getting to that good place hasn’t been easy. Recovery requires so much: support, persistence and incredible patience. It happens “little by little,” Dr. Rago said, by “learning the best ways to deal with things that we fear, so we no longer fear them.” I practice recovery by approaching my fear, modeling intuitive eating for my sister, something I couldn’t do when we were growing up. I tell her when I get peanut butter frozen yogurt at the Bigg Chill or when I have buttered popcorn for lunch (“Not lunch!” she says).

When she asks what to do at the gym, I don’t give her the advice my eating disorder would have given me. When she buys chips because she’s “being bad,” I say Pringles are delicious. If she’s tired, I tell her to be kind to her body and take time off. Talking to her, I’m also talking to myself, dismantling my old negative attitudes about food.

I listen to myself, shakily proud of my resilience. My sister doesn’t make me yearn for the pallid pleasures of dieting; she reminds me to delight in the messy fullness of living. When I reflect on a younger me, that shadow sister, striving to obliterate herself, I see myself alongside millions of others hurting under the tutelage of an eating disorder. The diaries with calories crawling up the margins, the hours memorizing a Stairmaster’s display, the loneliness and isolation it bred in me that nearly broke our family: If my sister’s path ever steered me back toward those old compulsions, I’d draw lines and re-evaluate myself.

Dr. Rago recommended getting “active about your thoughts and feelings” when confronted with affecting diet talk. “Write them down so you know what you are working with and get support so you don’t have to figure it out all alone. If at all possible, instead of avoiding the talks, use them as an opportunity to stay strong in your own recovery. But if you start getting overwhelmed, it is O.K. to avoid a certain situation or ask people to change the subject.”

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