When you realize that someone you love may be struggling with an eating disorder, you want to understand what they’re going through so you can help. Anorexia, bulimia and BED are complex and confusing illnesses, and recovery will not happen overnight. Still, there is reason to have hope. With dedication to treatment, recovery is attainable. And you can play a critically important role in the recovery process. Your knowledge-based appropriate actions and support can be a tremendous source of strength and comfort to your loved one.
10 Ways You Can Help
1. Educate Yourself About EDs
To begin, you can help your loved one by getting your own emotions under better control. Educate yourself about anorexia, bulimia and BED, and you will almost certainly feel less anxiety and fear. Sometimes the unknown frightens us the most. Your local hospital, library, mental health organization and eating disorder specialists are good sources of information.
2. Understand the Treatment Options
Learn about different modalities of treatment from medical care and medication to therapy and dietary counseling. Educate yourself about the levels of care and different programs too. There is inpatient care, residential care, partial hospitalization and outpatient care and more. Identify those professionals who work with eating disorders and ask pointed questions about the credentials of those who will be working with your loved one. Whenever possible, visit facilities and treatment programs which are under consideration.
3. Seek Professional Help
Don’t try to deal with this problem alone. Of all psychiatric disorders, anorexia and bulimia have the highest mortality rate. On the other hand, early intervention improves the chances of recovery. When dealing with an adolescent or with someone who is in acute medical danger, be prepared to exercise responsibility and authority. Their life may depend on it. In such circumstances, you may not be able to convince them they need treatment, and therefore you may need to act for their safety and well-being.
4. Help Your Loved One Recognize the Problem
Those suffering from an eating disorder cannot begin changing their beliefs and behaviors until they admit they are struggling. When you gently confront your loved one about your observations and concerns, be prepared for strong reactions. They will be embarrassed, will likely deny anything is wrong, and will be terrified of losing the perceived sense of control they believe the illness gives them. They may withdraw out of fear or lash out in anger. Be compassionate yet firm in your resolve. Your loved one may question the need for treatment, claim they can do it on their own or try to instill guilt by claiming you don’t care about them.
The knowledge you have gained from reading and discussing the problem with professionals will help you persist in loving and appropriate ways.
5. Have Meaningful Communication
Since eating disorders are rooted in emotional struggles, solutions are found in emotional healing. In your attempts to help, do not oversimplify by saying “just eat.” This will only alienate the person you are trying to help. Instead, try to see the world through their eyes. In moments of frustration and anger, don’t let your emotion control what you say and do. Express your own thoughts and feelings – especially your loving concern, your desire to help and your good intentions. Feel free to admit to some of your own frailties, weaknesses and short-comings. This gives your loved one permission to do likewise.
One of the hardest things to do is not personalize your loved one’s eating disorder (i.e., “if she loved me she would eat”). If it were that simple most sufferers would eat on their own again. They are out of control and don’t understand what’s happening to them. Nor do they know how to help themselves out of the self-defeating behaviors. Try your best not to shame your loved one into eating.
Try to be objective, calm, and caring. Avoid fixing blame or guilt. Be sensitive, but be firm. Share your observations and concerns in a direct manner with kindness and respect. And when you are at a loss for words, a hug can express many loving thoughts and feelings.
6. Interact In Ways That Do Not Center On the Eating Disorder
Express your love consistently, not just when your loved one is doing well with food or with gaining weight. Identify other ways of expressing your approval and affection that have nothing to do with weight or with the foods being eaten or rejected. Even if they act as if 90 percent of their life is the eating disorder, treat them as a person — not as a behavior or an illness.
Never refer to your loved one as “the anorexic” or “the bulimic” and try not to be drawn into arguments, threats, bribes, guilt or blame concerning weight, eating and food. Just give a consistent “broken record” response affirming your love, concern and hope. Unless they are endangering their life, do not shield them from the natural consequences of their eating disorder.
7. Develop a Support Network
Find people you can talk with openly about your feelings and experiences, your fears and frustrations, and your plan of action. Contact local mental health professionals to learn if there are support groups in your area for friends and family of people with eating disorders. Talking with people whose family members have recovered from an eating disorder can bring hope and encouragement to you during difficult or discouraging times.
8. Be a Good Role Model
Be a good example with food and when discussing food or weight-related issues. This may call for changes in your attitudes, eating habits and activities. Consulting with a dietitian and a therapist may help you determine necessary changes in your own attitudes and behaviors around food and weight. You can set an example without lecturing. Start by eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods. Exercise moderately. Accept your own weight, shape and your right to participate in activities such as swimming and dancing or any activity you might enjoy but have not allowed yourself to participate in due to body dissatisfaction. Do not make negative comments about your own or others’ bodies.
9. Don’t Blame Yourself
There is no single cause for an individual’s eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex illnesses, and this is not your fault. Whatever your mistakes or weaknesses as a parent, spouse or friend, you did not create this eating disorder. We all have weaknesses. We all have been less than perfect or ideal in our roles and relationships. Yet most of us have made good efforts to do our best based on our abilities and knowledge.
Take ownership for your weaknesses and frailties and make genuine efforts to change and improve. More importantly, take stock of your talents, gifts and resources, and get to work providing love, support and open invitations for your loved one to come into a safe relationship with you as they are ready. Don’t let your guilt, insecurity or fear get in the way of being actively involved in your loved one’s life.
10. Take Care of Yourself and Be Patient
If you are exhausted emotionally or physically, you will not be able to provide the emotional support your loved one needs the way you would like to. Those with eating disorders often do not know how to get their needs met and don’t take care of themselves. If you take good care of yourself, you will have more energy in your efforts to help them, and you will be teaching by example something your loved one needs to learn. Set aside time to care for your own social and emotional needs.
There are no quick or easy cures for eating disorders, so pace yourself. Be patient with yourself and with your loved one as he or she recovers. Often it will seem they are taking five steps forward, then three backward. But there is hope and recovery is attainable. Don’t ever give up!