Client Letters: How can I support my niece with her eating disorder and drug use when it is so painful to see?

The letter below has had the names and other identifying information changed to protect the individuals involved.


I’m having this struggle and thought I might ask you for a bit of guidance if you don’t mind.

With the passing of time and the ensuing drama around my niece Sarah, who as you know binges and purges throughout the day, her life, breakdown with my other niece, stealing pot cookies from my freezer during a dinner visit here (ate 3 of them unbeknownst to me / even she didn’t know what kind of cookies they were) … she completely slept during our visit

I thought it was the anti-depressants she was newly on at the time.  Amidst these events and the painful reflection of how tumultuous her life is I find myself very reminded of my own very painful earlier years, decades really. My life has finally felt in balance after the struggles of my youth but I see so much of what I went through in her.

What I’m trying to convey is I have I find myself feeling so little interest in seeing her but it pains me to feel I’m abandoning her because I really think she needs help with her food stuff and probably alcohol and maybe drugs.

I used to seek her company out and always make dinner for her at my home but I now only want shorter visits at restaurants because incidences like the stealing and eating of the cookies not knowing if she’s purging the dinner I made has made me stop those dinner invitations.

I don’t know what to do Dawn, last time I saw her … hearing the about her love triangle with her boyfriend (police called) and the cookie incident, I felt so low by the time I left her.

I kind of know that I’m not being good at separating myself from her difficulties with life and depression and what I suffered at her age

But I’m feeling unable to transform this

Sometimes I can click into a different perspective with even a tiny bit of support or guidance

I appreciate you taking some time to read this and hearing anything you might have to offer

I’m fairly sure she hasn’t seen you since her Dad stopped paying for it, sadly

Counselling is what got me through



Dear Sandra,

I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles. I can see why spending time with her has become increasingly unrewarding. My first thought about this situation is “what do you think you would have wanted from your family when you were going through what you see her going through.”? And, “what are your needs around this”?

I am going to suggest that you pull out a pen and paper and write that at the top of the page. Then, write whatever comes to mind. It may just be random ideas but if you spend 5 or 10 mins on the project (more if you feel inspired) you might find some clarity for yourself about next steps.

Relationships tend to end or change when there is a lack of balance. That is, when one person is giving but not receiving the natural response is to discontinue or limit the amount of interaction. I usually recommend that people are upfront about how they are feeling in a kind and loving way. This can help someone like Sarah understand how you are feeling and that you care. You can include that you look forward to having a more balanced relationship one day if that is how you feel.

You can also choose to continue to limit your interactions and avoid her but this may be confusing for her and she may want to fill in the blanks with negative stories or rejection, which tends to exacerbate what people like Sarah are going through.

Sarah knows I am here at a very inexpensive rate if she wants support and I believe we have a good relationship despite her not having had any sessions in a while. I feel I can say that our work together was helpful for her but she may take time to want to make changes. As you seem to have said, it can take people awhile to get to a good place.

Also, letting Sarah know how you feel does not preclude you being supportive and/or wanting her company sometimes. Telling someone that when you see them you often leave worrying about them or feeling you can’t trust them doesn’t mean that you need to cut all ties but it can inform them about the dynamic you are experiencing and that it has lead you to feel better about going out for dinner rather than having her in, or, that you leave feeling worried so you may want to hang out less.

This kind of talk can be perceived as punishment so be clear about what needs you are trying to meet for yourself. It occurs to me that we often suffer when we see a loved one suffering and then can have the urge to avoid them as a result. Of course this comes after we have tried to fix them. This is co-dependence in action so it is good to consider our needs here. Avoiding can achieve not being reminded that you think they may be suffering but accepting that its Sarah’s life and she can abuse herself if she wants is another is approach. Family often struggle with how to support without facilitating negative patterns. Remember that Sarah is accountable for her own actions. She has created her life and although she had a lot of challenges/trauma in her early years she is an adult now and is capable of making the changes she needs to make to reduce her stresses.

I hope this will be helpful.

Warmly, Dawn

This entry was posted in Anorexia, Anxiety, Binge Eating, Bulimia, depression, dieting, eating disorders, Eating Disorders / Food and Body Image, Overeating, Overexercise, Self-Esteem, trauma and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.