Help! Here comes my 300-pound stepdaughter!

How does one maintain "detachment with love" with a food addict?

Published September 12, 2005 5:23PM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

I am in Al-Anon because there were alcoholics in my life, and it has of course affected me. But more and more, I hear myself talking in group about my husband's daughter, who will be moving soon with her husband and child to the city where we live.

My stepdaughter is a food addict and weighs nearly 300 pounds. At times, she has tried to control her weight with a white-knuckled "This is only temporary" diet, and then gone immediately back to her old eating habits. She doesn't exercise regularly, she is a gourmet cook, and all she talks about is food. And can she talk! I don't know if constant talking is a side effect of her oral fixation, but she can yammer on for hours and not let anyone else get a word in edgewise.

My husband says that when she talks and talks about food, he just ignores her. That's true. So does her husband. Guess who is the only one left to listen and make appropriate noises? For hours on end. I feel as if I am taking on the brunt of her need to talk and talk about food. Cary, it's like talking to an addict about cocaine. I actually feel sleazy discussing recipes! She becomes angry if I try to change the subject.

Usually this is only a problem when we visit each other, but they are moving to our city permanently when her husband gets out of the service. I am afraid that I will be the only one spending quality time with her when she gets here, and I don't know if I am ready to take on what that entails. No blood relative talks to her about her weight problem; they are all in denial. It's almost literally the elephant in the living room.

Not being her mother, I am hardly going to say, "Uh, Dearheart, lose some weight, will ya?" I think she would be offended; I love this woman and don't want to lose the relationship we have built over the years (I am 10 years older than she). She is a very nice person. But she tells my husband that she is depressed because she doesn't think she will live much longer -- her mother was six years older than my stepdaughter is now when she died of ovarian cancer. Her mother also was obese.

In short, she has so many problems, health-wise and psyche-wise, and I can't let them become my problems when she is living nearby. But no one else is willing to help her -- they all just complain to me about her, especially my husband, who is distraught but refuses to talk to his daughter about her weight and her depression. Trying to maintain my Al-Anon "detachment with love" in this situation is so difficult. How do I be supportive without being the lightning rod for this adult stepchild and all of her problems?


Dear Stepmom,

Although the situation seems overwhelming and frightening now, please remember that you have everything you need right at your fingertips. You know how to deal with an addict in the family. Imagine how it would be if you had never been to an Al-Anon meeting! But you have already learned how to defend against the addict's many lures and schemes, threats and seductions, the plotless narratives of self that twist and turn down endless labyrinths of pathos and victimhood, the seemingly adult talk that is actually more like baby talk, the expert button-pushing: You know what to do about all that.

You will have to use your skills not just with her, but with her husband and your own husband, when they complain to you about her. You are going to have to tell them that if they have something to say to her, they need to say it to her. You must refuse to be the conduit, the receptacle. You must use the assertiveness you learn in Al-Anon. And when you feel overwhelmed or confused, you will have the group to go to, where people who are going through just what you are going through can lend you moral support.

So when the time comes, I feel confident that you will have what it takes to do the right thing. Your main problem is that right now the situation exists in the future rather than in the past or the present. So you can't really deal with it at all yet. And so, in this moment, you are filled with dread. Just know that when the times comes, you will have everything you need to get through this.

In fact, you may come to feel that you have been, in a sense, called to deal with this! Oh, sheesh, why you? Why can't somebody else in the family step up to the plate this time? Why must you, the law-abiding, reasonable one, always deal with the wreckage and chaos that the addicts around you create? (I'll bet your friends in Al-Anon have a great time with that one.)

You've heard addicts, I suppose, say that everything happens for a reason. That's a comforting thing to believe, I suppose, but I don't know if I always believe it. Half the time, it seems to me that we just make up a reason so we can get through the day. I don't know that the karmic balance sheet always adds up correctly in our lifetimes. I don't know why some of us turn out to be this and some turn out to be that. Some people just have all the luck, I guess.

But that is why you learn to set your boundaries and enforce them -- because the burdens are distributed unfairly. Because sometimes you just have to say no and shut the door.

Here is one thing you can do, on your own, that may be of help to her but avoids the pitfalls of trying to persuade her to seek help: Go by yourself to some meetings of Overeaters Anonymous, Food Addicts Anonymous, Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous or one of the other recovery programs for overeaters. Spend some time with those folks. This will reassure you that there is indeed hope for people such as your stepdaughter. Whether you try to influence her in that direction is up to you. Such behavior might weaken your detachment and awaken uncomfortable codependent impulses. But at least, as you sit across from her in the kitchen, listening to her prattle on and looking at your watch, you will know in your heart that when it's time for her to seek help, there is help available.

Most of all, as always, continue to do what you have to do to keep yourself sane!

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