How to Offer Support to Someone With an Eating Disorder
I’m going to begin this post by stating that I am one lucky girl. I have very supportive family, friends and co-workers that have put up with a lot (too much, really) over the past several years that this eating disorder has been an issue in my life.
One of the most common comments my loved ones make is that “they just don’t understand” and that they do not know what to say or how to help.
To be honest, I don’t want them to understand. If they did, they would suffer from the unrelenting, all-consuming, falsities that the eating disorder once threw at me constantly.
I still have work to do and progress to make before I consider myself completely recovered, but I do know that these thoughts take up a lot less space in my brain than they once did, and now that I am further separated from my disorder, these thoughts make a whole lot less sense to me than they once did.
I could not have made it this far in the process without the support of these patient and loving individuals. I hope that by sharing what worked for my support team and me, I can help other caregivers discern the best way to help their loved ones who are suffering; or, that those in the midst of their disorder can tell their loved ones about these suggestions.
- Include them: I think this is difficult for friends/family as well as counterintuitive. In the midst of the disorder, I frequently isolated myself from my friends. This meant I turned down meal outings, invitations to parties, attending sports events…aka…I was turning down life. But as I began to desire recovery, I knew that I needed to stop isolating. The issue was at this point, a lot of my friends had “given up” on me. Were they wrong in doing that? Absolutely not. I realize that it’s so difficult for friends and family to maintain a relationship with someone while they’re in their eating disorder. But by including your loved one, you give them a chance to take that first step towards recovery. You show them what a normal relationship with food is. And most importantly, you show them that you believe in them. That you think that they can recover and regain that normal life that I promise they so desperately want. As far as how counterintuitive it seems to invite someone that constantly rejects your invitations and is “too busy” to hang out—I know it must be hard to invite someone that never seems to want to be social. But as someone who has been in an ED, it’s lonely. And the “healthier self”, the self that so desperately wants to be normal and to beat the ED, this person is crying out to be included and invited. Eventually, this healthy voice will win. Don’t give up. Give the healthy voice a chance to win. And the best opportunity to do that is by keeping the invitations a-flowing.
- Be patient: Again, this is much easier said than done, for both the individual in the ED and for everyone around them. Trust me, I wish I could have been recovered yesterday. My mother has told me that she has prayed for years for my recovery. I’ve had friends tell me that they had no idea “it would take me this long to recover”, that they expected the process to be completed after a one month stay in residential. Recovery is different for everyone, so it’s completely unrealistic to say when someone will reach recovery. But I implore you to believe your loved one will recover and to stand by them through the process. I could always tell when people were losing their confidence in my ability to recover, and that in turn affected my belief that I could recover. What I can tell you is that recovery is possible, even if it isn’t on the timeline you or your loved one wants. So believe in them. Ride the wave with them. And with time, I promise, they’ll get there.
- Give them tough love: Recovery is not linear. A week of consistent progress may be followed by stagnant periods or slight backsliding. Each time that this happened, my dad would be the person that called me out. Eating disorders have the most power in the dark. When I knew that my recovery had stagnated, my eating disorder did not want to acknowledge it. But with my dad, that was never an option. He talked about it, identified a plan forward, and whether I liked it or not, helped me to execute his plan. Was this hard? Yes. Did it cause tension between my father and me? Most certainly. But it also swung the momentum back into the right direction and kept me on track. Expect push back, but keep pushing forward anyways.
- Tell them you’re proud of them: I’m a huge words of affirmation person; therefore, I became the most enthusiastic about recovery when I was complimented on my efforts. As a high achiever, I have a tendency to be motivated by extrinsic motivators like great scores on exams or positive feedback from work supervisors. At the same time, my friends and family told me that recovery and my health is way more important than any professional success (they’re correct, by the way). But so often, recovery is not accompanied with the concrete positive feedback you can get from a grade on a test or a rating from a supervisor. So turn that around. Provide positive reinforcement when you see it. When I am told by someone that they’re proud of me, I feel strong and empowered. I become motivated to keep going. It makes me want to keep up the progress so that I can be complimented again.
- Acknowledge that recovery is difficult: My recovery mantra is “the best view comes after the hardest climb”. Recovery is a difficult climb, but I am convinced that nothing worth having comes easily. I do not expect my loved ones to empathize with my disordered thoughts, but I wholeheartedly appreciate their sympathy that what I am doing is difficult.
- Speak positively about food: this sets a good example and recognizes food for what it truly is–a delicious, nourishing entity that is meant to be enjoyed with others. This truth becomes lost in the disorder, so by enjoying your food and acknowledging your enjoyment, you help your loved one begin to heal their relationship with food, too. When I was in residential treatment, we “checked in” after every meal. Often, these check-ins were therapeutic, but they usually involved negative statements surrounding food, either by my table mates or myself. One thing I have noticed in doing recovery from my parents’ house is how positive they speak about food. Meals are anticipated and enjoyed and food is never spoken of negatively. This has been extremely healing to me and has been helped me to associate foods that I once would have avoided as delicious 🙂 (e.g., hamburgers, baked potatoes, steak, cookies).
- Listen: You don’t have to have the “perfect response”. You just have to be there. As I previously mentioned, eating disorders are isolating and the thoughts are all-consuming. By listening, you soften the isolation that frequently occurs. “Process groups” regularly occur at residential treatment. These process groups are an opportunity for any individual to say whatever is on their mind. In a non-residential setting, the opportunity to “process” in a no-judgment zone is less accessible. But the individual still needs to process. By listening without judgment, you facilitate this process which helps the individual move on from whatever is currently bothering them.
- Encourage them: This can be in any number of ways and catered to the love language of your loved one. Send a text. Write a letter. Give them a phone call. Take them for ice cream. Pay them a compliment. Any sort of support, no matter how small will not go unnoticed.
- Take care of yourself: Supporting someone with an eating disorder is physically and emotionally draining. Take the time to recharge yourself. Make sure you have time to yourself and are still engaging in your favorite activities, hobbies, and relationships.
I hope this list is helpful. Let me know your thoughts and if I left anything important out 🙂