A few months ago, I heard a woman, Kym Piekunka, speak about eating disorders. Kym didn’t struggle with an eating disorder herself, nor is she a physician or mental health clinician who had formal training in these conditions. However, as a sibling of someone who battled an eating disorder, Kym was able to offer her perspective of what she experienced as she witnessed her sister, Kacy, battle bulimia and substance abuse until her death at age 30. Kym honored the suffering of her sister and others who struggle with eating disorders, as well as their parents who feel helpless watching their children battle this disorder. What stood out during Kym’s presentation was that she acknowledged and focused on the challenges she endured as a sibling of someone with this condition, and how the experiences of siblings in similar circumstances are often left silent.
While her sister struggled with bulimia and substance abuse, Kym wrestled with her own internal struggles and emotional turmoil surrounding her sister’s illness; she was eager to express what she was going through, but did not have the appropriate outlet. In fact, Kym described visiting her sister’s treatment center with her parents – the clinicians there were interested to hear how the eating disorder was affecting Kacy and their parents, but did not seem to acknowledge Kym’s journey and the fact that her sister’s eating disorder was also consuming Kym’s life.
During her presentation, Kym provided insight into the possible experiences of someone as they witness their sibling wrestle with an eating disorder:
Disrupted Family Dynamics
An eating disorder is often described as a family disease. Family dynamics can both contribute and maintain someone’s eating disorder symptoms, while the presence of an eating disorder in the family can also contribute to family dysfunction. Kym described constant fighting and ruined holidays as a result of her sister’s struggle with bulimia. Moreover, the sibling relationship can become altered or ruptured, as an eating disorder can consume the person who is suffering, changing their personality and priorities.
Minimization of One’s Own Needs
Moreover, when someone has an eating disorder, they may become the focal point of the family as all resources are put into their survival. The needs of other family members may become less of a priority. Thus, a child may feel neglected and simultaneously shameful of having needs when their sibling is suffering. On the other hand, the presence of an eating disorder may not be acknowledged or addressed by the family. Subsequently, another child of the family may feel the need to take on the responsibility of helping their sibling recover. This child may thereby take on a parental role for which they are not prepared and causes them additional distress. Kym described that she took on a codependent role with her sister, putting all of her efforts and energy into making sure her sister would recover.
Watching a sibling battle an eating disorder can bring up a plethora of emotions and experiences – trauma, depression, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, fear, etc. A child may feel anger towards their sibling (or towards their sibling’s eating disorder) for the way it has consumed their life and affected their family. They may feel angry or frustrated that their sibling is still struggling or feel that they may not be trying hard enough to recover. The child without the eating disorder may not understand what the disorder entails and may feel utterly confused and helpless over the whole situation. They may experience grief as they witness their sibling become a completely different person, and may feel as if they no longer have a sibling. They may also experience preemptive grief in fear that their sibling might lose their battle and die. The child, while experiencing psychological distress, may feel to bring up their own struggles as to keep the focus on their sibling’s well-being or not put more pressure on the family. Moreover, the child without the eating disorder may also be struggling with unrelated psychological distress (maybe their own eating disorder!) but may not receive the necessary acknowledgement. Kym described her own depression, constant anger, and use of self-injurious behaviors while her sister was struggling.
Having a sibling or other family member struggling with an eating disorder can be traumatizing. If you are in this circumstance, please remember that what you are experiencing, regardless of your sibling’s process, is valid and that you are deserving of help.
For more information on Kym, her mission, and her advocacy efforts, please visit her website: https://www.kymadvocates.com/#siblingstories
Bahar Moheban, M.A. is a clinical psychology doctoral candidate and registered psychological assistant in Torrance under the supervision of Dr. Nazanin Moali. She provides individual therapy and facilitates a Body Image Group for adults and adolescents with disordered eating, body dissatisfaction, and comorbid disorders. If you are struggling with bulimia nervosa or any other type of disordered eating, contact Bahar for a counseling appointment to repair your relationship with food and body image.