Bulimia – A Sister’s Tale from the Sidelines

By Anonymous

I am not someone with an eating disorder, but I am the sister of one.

Often we hear, or poignantly don’t hear, about the stories of young women battling with their demons to lose weight and control their universe. Their struggle is difficult and one I can only sympathize with. I know what it is to look in the mirror and hate parts of my body, but it has never pushed me to measures that will harm myself. For that, I consider myself lucky.

However, being the older and only sister of someone who consistently hates herself, and hates her body, is also a painful road.

I don’t want this anonymous article to sound like a pity party for someone without a real problem, but I do want to share my story so other women or men will know that there are others who feel the pain of standing to the side with hands tied.

When my sister was little, I was her watchdog, her bodyguard, her advisor and possibly her worst critic. I was loyal, I was motherly, and I was honest. I kept her from family troubles, and I made sure that when things were bad, she was safe.

And then one day, I left. I went off to college and was so tired of having to hold up my sister and my parents that my new freedom did not encourage me to come home very often. I was happy away from my family and I didn’t care who needed me. It was liberating and selfish and necessary.

Unfortunately, my sister’s first line of defense against mean friends, bad parenting and self-doubts was gone within a 24-hour period – giving her no time to adjust. I didn’t have time to return her calls, and I was working out my own problems. So, when a team captain on her cheerleading squad recommended that for she could shed pounds (and my sister was by all accounts, overweight) if she made herself throw up after she eats.

So, my sister’s new habit went undetected for eighteen months by my family – no one was there to watch her closely as I had. This exploration in weight loss had become an animal all on its own and had begun to control her logic. When I came home on rare occasions, my normally big-boned sister was startlingly thin and looking unhealthy. Her face was gaunt, her breathe stank and her personality was on edge. However, everyone said she looked great, and she was finally getting attention from boys. So, I, as the normally gangly older sister didn’t rain on her skinny parade (especially as my freshman 20 was kicking in).

Then it was discovered that she was bulimic.

And I became enraged.

I was mad at all those girls who had ever made fun of her weight (including me). I was mad at the people who had pressured her to be someone she was not (including me). I was mad at every critique she had been given to be more studious (including me), to be more organized (including me), to be more active (including me). Let’s face it, any and every event that could have lead to her illness, I was included.

Is this rationale once again selfish? Perhaps, but it’s the only way I can see it. And maybe it’s better than blaming her.

Her first therapist told us we weren’t allowed to talk to her about “it.” We weren’t allowed to confront her. We weren’t allowed to do what was so normal in our relationship: to scream and get it all out there in the open so we could all move past. We had to do the very unnatural task of just letting it happen without saying a word. And so I closed up. If I couldn’t say what I felt to her without the fear of making it worse for her, I would just shut my mouth.

I have posted this article without a byline because I have been still unable to talk to my sister about this anger I have. I know: it’s a conversation five years in the making. Now that she appears better, I need to tell her that I am sorry. That I blame myself. That once I heard I had failed as her watchdog, bodyguard and president of her fan club, I decided I was no longer worthy of the job. I stopped being her sister and just started being angry. I couldn’t talk to her without getting mad at myself with that anger turning toward her. Her failure was my failure.

To this day, when I come to my parents’ house, I am a guest. I stopped using our once shared bathroom, AKA, the scene of the “crime.” I leave the house after every meal because I don’t want to be home to see her sneak away.

The moral of the story? Maybe this is the first step in my sister getting her sister back. Maybe it is just my rationalization for being selfish and cutting ties with the volatile family dynamic I dislike.

But, maybe this will help other siblings, spouses, parents and friends out there who have also stood by and watched their loved one slowly destroy their bodies. Know you aren’t alone. And that we all have anger, sadness, and feelings of personal contempt for being unable to fix what you hold dear to your heart.

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  1. Molly says

    As someone that can sadly relate to your sister’s struggle…I applaud you. I would say whether you are going to express anger or hurt or guilt (which really, you need to cut that out, because you are not to blame)…express SOMETHING to her. Talk to her about anything you feel need to..just having a sister present (i.e., emotionally available) to come out the other side with…its important.

  2. Amelia Neufeld says

    Do not blame yourself. As much as you think it might be true, there is nothing you could have done to stop her from doing this. These types of struggles come from within and have to be resolved from within. There is always woulda, coulda, shoulda. The best thing you can do right now is be a friend and sister and have that frank conversation with her. Most likely she has no idea (or doesn’t comprehend)that this is affecting other people, people like you who love her.

  3. Mai Linh says

    I highly recommend you both read the book, “Andrea’s Voice.” It is a story told by the mother of a child lost to this horrific illness. Her words are beautiful, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time. This story is sprinkled with entries from Andrea’s diary, with thoughts and poems written by her in the midst of being consumed by the disorder, so you get a nice mix of both points of view.

    Remember that bulimia is a genuine illness, not a weakness. Each time your sister engages in this vicious cycle, she is playing Russian Roulette.

    Other great books for sufferers and supporters alike is “Life without Ed,” by Jenni Schaefer, and her recent sequel, “Goodbye Ed, Hello Me.”

    Gurze Books has a fabulous catalog full of resources. You may visit their website at: http://www.bulimia.com/index.cfm.

    And lastly, that first therapist was full of crap. Like any addiction, the first step to recovery is to overcome denial. Be open with your sister. Do not be afraid to use that bathroom and face the scene of the “crime.” It is not your sister you are fighting with. It is her eating disorder, and always ALWAYS remember to separate them. Your sister is not her eating disorder (aka ED). She is your sister and she clearly needs you more than ever. And, if she is unwilling to receive your support, know that it is ED, not her.

    I wish you and your family all the luck in the world to help your sister regain her sense of self, her joy, her life. And may this be a reality check to all the sisters, mothers, daughters, wives, husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, etc., that our media has instilled an unrealistic, unattainable sense of perfection in each of us and we must remind our loved ones what true beauty is.

  4. Chantel Elder says

    So amazingly written. If your sister reads this and feels half of what I did, I think it could make all the difference in your relationship.

  5. Lesley Miller says

    Thank you for sharing your story, and being so vulnerable about the experience. I’ve watched multiple friends battle eating disorders. As a bystander, I don’t know what to do. Do I call them out so they’ll get help? Change my habits around them? I don’t know the answers, but I sure know that talking about it with other women is a good first start.

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