Monday, April 30, 2012

When Family Just Doesn't Understand

Originally posted June 27, 2011

Today we are privileged to hear from the talented and wonderful Dr. Ashley Solomon. She is the mastermind behind Nourishing the Soul. I have really enjoyed reading her thoughts and my association with her since starting this blog. Dr. Solomon is a therapist who specializes in treating eating disorders, body image, trauma, and serious mental disorder. And without further ado here are her thoughts for us today. Enjoy!
The daughter lifts her gaze and with eyes swollen from tears looks at her mother, having just revealed her year-long struggle with her eating disorder. The mother, rocked inside, but in a controlled and loving way, wraps her arms around the one who will always be her little girl. She murmurs gently that she will help in any way she can.
Music rises and lights fade. Made-for-television special goes to commercial.
As most of who live in a world outside of one constructed in Hollywood know, sharing our deepest secrets and enlisting the support of others doesn’t always come quite so easy. And when we’re talking about parents… well, things can be downright painful.
It’s often said that first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. Well, the second step is seeking support outside of yourself. Whether we’re struggling with depression, stress, addiction, a trauma, or eating issues, we need the support of others to help facilitate our journey to a more healthy life. The fact is, not only do we not need to go it alone, but we shouldn’t.
The importance of social support in recovery is well-established both by research and anecdotally. Various studies show that being bolstered through the tough times can speed up recovery from a host of illnesses. In fact, researchers in one study found that patients who had experienced a heart attack who received high levels of support from family and friends had less chest pain, a better quality of life, better mental and physical functioning, and fewer symptoms of depression compared with those who received little support.
When it comes to mental and emotional difficulties, however, garnering support can at times be difficult. Unfortunately, while our culture is moving slowly to a more comprehensive understanding of mental illness, stigma remains (despite the fact that over 44 million people experience a mental disorder each year in the U.S.).
When parents learn that their child – even their adult child – has a problem, they can sometimes react with hostility and defensiveness rather than the compassion that we would hope to see from them. While this can be incredibly painful to experience first-hand, it can sometimes be helpful to put these reactions in context.
For centuries, parents, and especially mothers, have been put at the center of the ring of blame for their child’s maladies. Despite a wealth of evidence indicating that mothers do not cause eating disorders, for example, stereotypes hold fast that leave many mothers feeling that their child’s life-threatening condition was caused by their short-comings. Because this is too difficult – unbearable even – to believe, some parents react with defensiveness and anger. It’s a way of protecting themselves from the enormity of the pain.
Regardless of the reasons, however, it can be devastating to not have one’s family on board when one is ready to tackle the issues and make major life changes. It can be extraordinarily helpful to participate in family therapy with an experienced clinician who, from his or her safe and objective seat, can help creatively bring a family to a shared understanding.
Unfortunately, some families will simply never be able to to be there in the way that we might hope. In those cases, it’s vital that we recruit additional support, while also grieving the fact that we may not have the families we’ve always wanted.
Finding support may mean taking an uncomfortable step and making ourselves vulnerable to allowing others in. It may also mean being open to support from unexpected places, such as coworkers, members of your spiritual community, neighbors, and even online. It may involve finding a mentor. It’s important to remember that just because we may not be blessed with families who understand us doesn’t mean that we are left to be misunderstood.