Having a loved one suffer from an eating disorder can feel overwhelming and confusing at times. You want to help but don’t know how. You try to help and say the wrong thing. You can often feel that you are fighting a losing battle. How do you help?
During high school my best friend, Joslyn, suffered from Anorexia. I remember learning very briefly about eating disorders in middle school (basically that they existed) and having a conversation with her about it after school. We could not imagine starving ourselves. Who would do that to themselves? It was such a crazy and foreign thought. We were happy and healthy. A couple of years later I started noticing some of the signs they warned us about in school (i.e. extreme weight loss, purple fingernail beds, etc). Other friends asked me if Joslyn had an eating disorder. I always came back to that conversation and would deny it every time.
When my friend finally told me the truth I was shocked, concerned, confused, and frustrated. I tried to support her over the years of her struggle but most often felt that I was falling short. I just didn’t know how to help her. I decided during this time that I would do everything I could to learn about eating disorders. I took psychology classes, nutrition classes, and I researched eating disorders. All of this knowledge helped me understand how complex eating disorders are. Years later, when Joslyn was in recovery she told me how grateful she was for my support. I told her about my fears of not doing enough to help her. She reassured me that I had given her the best support I could have by not judging her and simply being there as a friend during the rough times.
Recently I asked several people in recovery from eating disorders how they would like people around them to support them in recovery and this is the results:
“Focus on all the amazing things our bodies can DO for us – not so much on what they look like. Love me. Listen to me. Be patient and do not judge me.”
“Listen. Don’t judge. Talk about normal things. ”
“Let them know they are of worth regardless of how they are doing – recovering or not.”
“Do not try to control them! It just makes it worse. “
“Show unconditional love, regardless of where I am in life or recovery. PLEASE let me know you will ALWAYS love and support me, no matter what.”
“Listen to me. Don’t get frustrated and say things like, “just eat.” Have empathy and understand that they are in a battle. “
“Don’t think you can fix me. I have a disease, and you can’t fix it any more than you could perform surgery on me. You can support me, love me, and help me find the professional help I need. “
“Listen. Don’t judge or get frustrated. Eating disorder recovery is a rollercoaster. Be there for me. Let me know that you may not understand what I am going through but you are there to listen and support.”
“Try to learn about eating disorders. Don’t ever say “just eat.” Listen to what your loved one is telling you, and so research. You don’t have to understand, but you can be a great support.”
“Help me to get professional help—don’t try to “fix” me. Express your concern and help me to see how the eating disorder is damaging. Try to be understanding and show that you love me, even when I push away.”
“It’s not something that can change overnight. I can’t just say ‘okay, I’m done not eating.’”
“Tell me it’s okay to feel what I’m feeling.”
“Making me feel guilty or trying to get me to eat by asking me to do it “for you” doesn’t help. It makes me feel worse and manipulated. It’s not something I’m doing to you. “
“Be patient, kind, and loving. Ask me what would help me. Do not talk about weight, body image, or working out.”
“All in all, love the person because they are deeply hurting inside. “
“Keep me distracted, hug me when I cry, and show me that I am okay.”
“Educate yourself. Research on your own. Knowledge and understanding go a long way.”
If you have a loved one suffering from an eating disorder ask them how you can help support them in their recovery. Don’t be afraid to ask the difficult questions and take time to learn more about eating disorders.
Written by: Kathy
Direct Care Manager