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You're not alone: Support groups you can turn to when life gets tough
Aged just 17, Anna* found herself in an Overeaters Anonymous meeting for the first time. “I cried at my first meeting because everyone was telling their story and I told mine and they could understand,” she said. “It’s just so nice because everyone understood.”
After that first experience in New York, Anna, who now lives in Belgium, went to various treatment centres in the US before travelling through Europe as a language student and professor. The one thing that remained constant throughout her travels was Overeaters Anonymous (OA). “I’ve gone to OA in fifteen countries and some kind of twelve-step programme in thirty-seven countries,” she said. “Here in Brussels, there are only three meetings a week, two in French and one in English. Alcoholics Anonymous has twenty-five meetings a week, but I don’t necessarily think the rate of alcoholism is twenty-five times higher. The need is there, but it’s hard to get people to come to OA.”
OA is a 12-step programme for those who have a complicated relationship with food; this includes compulsive overeating, binge eating, bulimia and anorexia. Anyone who has a desire to stop eating compulsively is welcome. The goal is for participants to achieve “abstinence”, similar to sobriety in AA. Since all body types and disorders are different, OA is a much more personalised programme. “People come up with their own definitions for their abstinence,” says Anna. “Mine is not eating between planned moderate meals, and for twenty years in July I will have eaten only three meals a day, which is pretty amazing.”
Not all professionals accept an eating disorder using the addiction model, she explains. “Overeating is a heck of a lot harder because you have to eat. If addiction is like a tiger, then for alcohol or drugs you put him in a cage and you throw away the key. For eating disorders, you have to take the tiger out for a walk three or four times a day or whatever your food plan is.” The English-speaking OA group meets every Friday evening for readings, reflections and the chance to share experiences. Each participant has a sponsor they can call for support and newcomers are welcome.
*Name has been changed
Counsellor Luisa Mannu works from an apartment with tall windows and high ceilings. “I like to do my appointments here because I want my clients to feel comfortable and I feel like this is welcoming.” The space is warm with candles, plants, books and art. It feels like being in a friend’s house.
Mannu became a counsellor seven years ago, having been an agronomic engineer for more than 20 years. “I was always very happy about my profession, but in 1996 I lost my husband,” she says. “He died from cancer, two years after our wedding. He was thirty-seven. So, that changed my life: I went through a really long and deep and unbearable grief journey.”
She was living in Italy at the time and went to psychiatrists and psychologists for help. She soon realised there weren’t many people in Italy, or Europe as a whole, who were specifically trained in grief counselling. If you lose someone, she says, your options are limited. “Grieving isn’t a disease, it is a journey,” she says. “I had this epiphany. I said ‘Wow this is the thing that will make me happy. I want to help people who are grieving and give them the kind of help I couldn’t have’.”
After training as a creative grief support counsellor and a certified cognitive behavioural life coach, she found her first client via the Q&A page on The Bulletin’s website. “She had lost her husband and was looking for a support group,” Mannu says. “I replied and said ‘I don’t know any support groups in English, but if you want I can help you’.” Though she specialises in grief counselling, Mannu supports people with a variety of issues and has a diverse clientele. She works in French, English and Italian and caters largely to the expat population, helping those transitioning jobs, lifestyles and cultures. She also has experience providing guidance in areas such as family and relationship complications. “With every person I work in a different way,” she says. “My consultations are very interactive, but it’s very personalised. It depends on what you bring here and what you need.”
Expat family support
The Community Help Service (CHS) was founded in 1971 as a resource for the English-speaking expat population in Belgium, offering a telephone helpline and a Mental Health Centre. The helpline “is a listening ear, so whatever trouble you’re having, you can talk to them, and if you need further help, they can refer you to someone else,” says spokesperson Sue Borger. “They take calls from all ages. People who come as expats to Belgium may be having trouble adjusting or suffering from stress. It could be work stress, home stress, some kind of conflict… it could be anything.”
The Mental Health Centre includes psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists trained to serve adults, children, adolescents and families. Staff are trained to address and diagnose autism, ADHD and a variety of problems including depression, anxiety, phobias and panic attacks. Consultations are offered primarily in English, but are also available in French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Greek and Russian. The helpline serves not only those who are in distress but also those looking for general information and services such as lawyers, plumbers or expat social groups. CHS is volunteer-run and is always seeking volunteers and donations.
The Belgian Diabetes Association is a membership organisation providing resources and information on diabetes in French, as well as activities such as cycling and running teams. Coordinator Nicole Pirotte says the aim is to change the way diabetes is perceived. “It’s important because we try to improve the image and the way people feel about diabetic people,” she says. “They have seen some social discrimination. It’s not so easy. Our cycling team is one activity that shows positive aspects and is an opportunity to meet other members and share the diabetes experience.”
The organisation also provides information to nurses, doctors and other health professionals while lobbying to improve diabetes care in Belgium. They usually direct English-speakers to the International Diabetes Federation and Dutch-speakers to Diabetes Liga in Ghent. “People with diabetes need to talk. They have the information they get from doctors, but sometimes they feel a bit lost and we try to provide support,” Pirotte says.
This article first appeared in The Bulletin autumn 2018