EDRSC Guide: Identifying Support Animals

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By: Liam Fowler

The term Edi refers to a loved one suffering from disordered eating. The metaphor for this guide was developed in the New Maudsley Method: A manual for skill-based learning in caring for a loved one with an eating disorder (Treasure, et al., 2007).

Think of this as an opportunity to embody a species of carer based on your emotional and behavioral responses in supporting a loved one (Edi) with disordered eating! While you might not always act appropriate, the goal isn’t perfection. In the process of recovery is the process of support – we’re all learning!

It’s also important to remember that there are many ways to offer support, directly and indirectly in ways that honor both you and your loved one’s mental health. If you don’t feel yourself to be in a place where you can offer support directly, that’s okay—there are other ways to help your loved one, such as connecting them with resources or another person who has more capacity to support them directly.

This guide uses animal metaphors to distinguish the three common types of emotional and behavioral responses that arise in the role of a carer (a position of close proximity to the effects of disordered eating). As emphasized in The New Maudsley Method: Skills-based learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder, “Eating disorder symptoms have a profound impact on those close to [Edi] as well as the sufferer…. [Edi’s] behaviour may prompt a whole host of reactions – anger, frustration, despair, tears, panic, anxiety or even ignorance” (Treasure, et al., 2007). This guide is designed to help us embody a “species response” for our behaviors and our emotions that will allow us to instinctually provide the best care we can (as we intend to in coming from a place of love, but may find we don’t always do). 

Types of Carers: Behaviors

The examples below are directing behaviors a carer may get drawn into when reacting to disordered eating symptoms.

Kangaroo Care = Over-Protective

This occurs when Edi’s fragile physical state draws a carer in to protect them completely, to keep them safe, as if in a pouch. Kangaroo carers will accommodate all demands, whether they are rational or driven by the eating disorder. 

Takeaway: Over-protective care for Edi may make it hard for them to learn how to deal with triggers and other challenging circumstances on their own, and even possibly encourage the ED behaviors when demands are driven by the eating disorder. This can be exhausting for the carer, who would be shouldering a lot of responsibility for their loved one.

The Rhinoceros Response = Stampeding

A carer can become stressed or exhausted by Edi’s seeming unwillingness to try the seemingly simple solution – changing their eating habits. Rhino carers attempt to persuade and convince Edi to change by argument, as if logic will change the eating disorder behaviors and beliefs.

Takeaway: The downside of this approach is that Edi may spend all their energy in self-protection, arguing back with eating disorder logic, rehearsing all the distorted ED thinking – and digging a deeper hole to hide in. Furthermore, this can cause distress for Edi, as eating disorder thoughts and beliefs can be deeply entrenched and the “simple” solution to the caretaker is often something incredibly difficult for Edi. This kind of behavior is somewhat dismissive and misunderstanding of the ED experience. Eating disorders are coping mechanisms — if someone is persuading you or even convinces you to change, the lack of control experienced can lead to another maladaptive coping mechanism while not addressing the underlying issues. Forcing leads to unsafe situations and a possibly more severe eating disorder thought and behaviors when it’s not done through progressive safety and adaptation to food, but through persuasiveness. Even if Edi follows along with this pushing from the carer, confidence in the belief that Edi can do this without assistance will not be developed.

The Dolphin Dance = Swimming With

A dolphin nudges Edi into safety. Think of it like Edi being out at sea, with the eating disorder as their life belt. They will be unwilling to give up the perceived safety of the life belt whilst they feel that the world is stressful, dangerous, and unaccepting. A dolphin may at times swim ahead, leading the way and guiding Edi. At other times, they may swim alongside, coaching and giving encouragement. Importantly at times when Edi is making positive progress, a dolphin carer quietly swims behind and allows them to feel liberated in floating alone.

Types of Carers: Behaviors

Species of Carers: Emotions

Another dimension of the carer/loved one relationship that requires balance is the emotional response.

The Ostrich Approach = Head in the Sand

Some may find it difficult to cope with the distress and upset of challenging/confronting ED behaviours. Instead, they try to avoid thinking or talking about the problems at all. This situation is distressing and uncomfortable for everyone: the carer who is feeling overwhelmed, and the Edi who is not receiving support. 

The Jellyfish = Self-Blame

Often stemming from false interpretations of the illness, a carer may hold the belief that this illness means they have failed as a support. When carers feel helpless and have this reaction, their own mental health is often affected.

The St. Bernard = A Person’s Best Friend

A St Bernard responds consistently; unfailing, reliable and dependable in all circumstances. A St Bernard is cool, calm, and collected, and offer support and help in finding resources and other paths to care for recovery. They do not panic and provide companionship, warmth and nurture. They are dedicated to the welfare and safety of their loved ones. This is the most productive emotional response, and will require much time and attention on the part of the carer. 

Types of Carers: Emotions

Review

3 Behaviors

  1. Kangaroo: Overprotective. Too accommodating and/or controlling.
  2. Rhinoceros: Frustrated, angry or pushy.
  3. Dolphin: Guiding and coaching. Encouraging but subtle. 

3 Emotions

  • Ostrich: Prefers avoidance of their loved one’s struggles.
  • Jellyfish: Too emotional and self-blaming..
  • St. Bernard: Calm, warm and nurturing. 

Reflection 

Beware of ‘charging in for change’, like a Rhinoceros, or trying to provide total protection by sheltering Edi in a Kangaroo’s ‘pouch’. Be careful of having your emotional responses on display like a Jellyfish, or ignoring symptoms like an Ostrich with its head in the sand. 

Behaviorally, try to get beside the sufferer and help guide them in the right direction, like a Dolphin swimming alongside and helping to navigate a ship-wreck survivor through stormy seas. Emotionally, think of yourself as a St Bernard, calmly tracking out to provide warmth and nurture to your loved one! 

*Note that some styles of care are not always accessible or possible for people to embody. The Dolphin and St. Bernard are excellent goals, however, so aiming for these types of care is helpful!

References

Treasure, J., Smith, G., and Crane, A. (2007). Skills-based Learning for Caring for a Loved One with an Eating Disorder. 1st Edition. Published by Routledge: 27 Church Road, Hove, East Sussex BN3 2FA.

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