Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be challenging. I know for me, it sometimes seems awkward, and I totally overthink the things I’m saying and what I’m doing. But being a solid support system to a loved one who’s battling an eating disorder can make all the difference in their recovery, and their everyday life. Here are some things they want you to know:
They May Not Be Underweight
Not everyone who has an eating disorder is thin. I know that up until I had friends who struggled with eating disorders, I always pictured anorexia to be skin and bones. That’s not always the case though. In addition to that, as your loved ones are recovering from an eating disorder, the weight will come back, but the issues that they’re still working through are more than skin deep.
They Tend to Avoid Social Gatherings That Center Around Food
People with eating disorders will often show up to a party, or come to dinner, after the meal has been served. This is because while eating together and doing things over food might sound like a fun Friday night, eating is stressful for them.
They Tend to Isolate Themselves
Food is everywhere. And because eating can be so stressful, those who have eating disorders will often isolate themselves and avoid social gatherings—especially the ones with food. Even though they sometimes isolate themselves, they still want to be included. You can help by being aware of this, and being intentional about planning outings that are food-free.
They Don’t Need You to “Fix” Them
They don’t need fixing, they need people who are going to care for them. It’s important that you don’t take on the job of “solving” their problems for them. Your job is to be their friend, to care for and love them—not make sure that they’re eating enough food.
They Want You to Know It’s Not Just About Food
Telling someone you love to “just eat” is not going to solve what’s going on in their head. Eating disorders are complex, and there are a lot of underlying issues that go beyond just food.
They Want to Talk About Things That Don’t Have to Do With Food or Their Eating Disorder
I’ve heard it so many times, “I am not my eating disorder. I have an eating disorder.” Just because your loved one has an eating disorder doesn’t mean that they can’t (or don’t want to) talk about things other than that. In most cases it makes them feel uncomfortable to be the center of attention, and to be talking about something that they’re embarrassed of and can’t control. They have lives. They do activities. They watch TV and they hang out with people. So have conversations about their life, not about what food they ate that day, or how they’re “handling” things.
They Have Good Days and Bad Days
Like anything that people struggle with, there are good days and bad days. Overcoming an eating disorder is a long and bumpy process. Understand that not every day will be easy. That doesn’t mean that your friend is not getting better, or returning to their ways. It just means that they’re having a bad day. Be there to support them in their ups and downs, and don’t speculate the “reason” or judge their progress.
They Need You to Set Boundaries for Yourself
We are all natural caretakers. When we hear someone we love needs help, we want to jump right into action and be everything they could possibly need. But you can’t. You can’t possibly be on call 24/7 to monitor their food or their moods and emotions. Truthfully they don’t want you to be. They appreciate your love and support, but this is their journey, and they are fighting this on their own—with you by their side. Communicate well and often about your relationship, boundaries and what you can be doing to better support them. It’s not your battle to fight for them, as much as we wish we could. Don’t be a helicopter friend, just be a good one and that will be more than enough.
They Want You to Know That Eating Disorders Kill
Not only do they kill happiness and friendships, eating disorders kill people. Men and women. Eating Disorders Online reports that one in five people diagnosed with anorexia will die from the disorder. People with anorexia are 50 percent more likely to choose suicide than people without an eating disorder. Be aware of this statistic, and watch for signs of self-harm or suicide. If you notice something, alert someone that can help right away.
Eating disorders are challenging. They’re complex, and often misunderstood. By better understanding your loved one’s struggles and challenges, you can be the love and support they need while working through their thoughts and recovery process!