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A loved one has an eating disorder! How can I help?

A loved one has an eating disorder! How can I help?

One thing that’s a constant obstacle that makes people recovering from an eating disorder stumble are triggering comments, either about food, other people’s appearance, that person’s appearance… Most times they are due to an assimilation of the ramping diet culture, or to insensitivity. Others, however, the person who makes them is actually trying to help the person in recovery, but despite their good intentions they achieve just the opposite.

Truth is, in recovery circles we always talk more about the bad comments people make. And that’s because, honestly, the problem isn’t that people say few positive things, but that they say a lot of negative things. In general, people need to shut up more when it comes to food and others’ physical appearance, not to say more. And not just when they know there’s someone in recovery among them, because it isn’t healthy socially either.

But, once this has been clarified, it’s true that sometimes your words can make a positive impact. What can you say to help someone in recovery from an eating disorder?

Food

Praise the food

When we have an ED, food feels like a threat. Calories. Fats. Sugars. Basically, it’s something that makes us fat and we’re used to reject, to consider an enemy. Now we need it to survive, but our mind still rejects it and fills us with fear towards it.

That’s why it’s helpful when others show positive feelings towards food, removing the focus from the quantitative terms that overwhelm us. Say that something is delicious, so good, yummy. That helps to associate food to a happiness we want to have. To see it as something that can be enjoyed, that we shouldn’t be scared of.

Correct those who make bad comments

Learn to detect the comments that arise from the harmful diet culture and dare to correct those who make them. 

  • If someone starts to say exaggeratedly that there’s too much food and they’re going to explode, say that it seems like a normal portion to you.
  • If someone boasts about how they’ve skipped or are going to skip a meal, say that you aren’t.
  • If someone complains they’re going to have to spend hours on the treadmill to burn the food, say that exercise must be done as something that enhances your life, not as punishment.
  • If someone says that everything is so unhealthy, remind them that, in moderation, food shouldn’t be classified as healthy or unhealthy.
  • If someone starts to say that food is tempting them, that they’re ruining their diet and cheating, that they can afford to be a little naughty or bad for one day, or whatever that implies a moral adjective, ask them not to use that kind of language around food.

This not only will help massively someone who’s struggling with an ED, but it will also contribute to create a healthy mindset around food for the whole group, preventing patterns of disordered eating.

Or you could just change the topic of the conversation. What matters is that you don’t allow others to create a toxic environment when you’re present.

Say grace recalling the benefits of food

Eating makes us feel guilty and disgusted with ourselves. We feel weak, as if we had given in, as if we had contaminated ourselves and now we had to pay for our mistake by getting fat. Saying grace before meals was something that helped me counteract these feelings and see food as a gift from God, Who is loving and provident and gives us our daily bread so we can fulfill better our mission in this world.

Say grace, and emphasize these things in your prayer. Convey that food is something to be grateful for, not to ask forgiveness for. An instrument through which we can give glory to God, not through which we offend Him. And something that gives us strength and energy to live and do His will, not something that “makes us fat”.

The person

Those are then some ideas about what to say in social meetings that involve food. But, how to address directly the person you know is in recovery? First of all, there are two important general pieces of advice:

  • Don’t treat her differently: don’t make her feel like a weirdo, don’t make her feel like everyone’s looking at her, watching her or judging everything she does. Or that she’s granted a special treatment as a sick person. She’ll feel like a freak and very pressured. Treat her just like any other person (because, after all, the kind of comments you shouldn’t make in front of her are, I insist, the kind of comments that actually you should never make).
  • Less is more: if you aren’t part of the circle of people who are directly working on helping her, it’s better that you don’t say a lot. I highlight it again: what you don’t say is more important than what you say. If you don’t know the whole process that person is following, her specific circumstances, her thoughts, her coping mechanisms… don’t go out on a limb, the risk isn’t worth it. Moreover, most people don’t want others to know about their problem —even if it’s the elephant in the room—, so it can be very uncomfortable if she notices people know.

However, it’s natural that when you see that someone starts to get better you want to express your joy and make that person know she’s on the right track. And, in fact, you can do that, you can make her smile and give her more self-confidence. These are some tricks for that:

Emphasize the process over results

This is crucial. The person isn’t recovered, but in recovery. And she wants to stop asap, but she mustn’t. The doctors are telling her she needs to keep going, and she wants to trust, but everything inside her is screaming that she has to stop, that she’s already gone too far or is about to overshoot, that unless she stops right now all her nightmares about her body will become real. That’s why if she hears that she already looks good, healthy, beautiful or any similar adjective, in her brain that’s translated as the following: she has already reached the target, and if she gains one more gram she’ll be fat.

In fact, if you analyze the situation rationally, you know she’s not fine yet —unless your idea of health and beauty has also been distorted by the media—. She’s just better than before. Well, express it that way. You’re getting better, or something along those lines. That will encourage her to keep going. “Better” implies the existence of an optimum, something exciting to get to, something for what keeping on fighting is worth it.

Correct others

Most people don’t know what I’ve just explained, and therefore they’re going to make mistakes. You, now that you know, can try to redirect what they say. It’s about taking the adjectives to the comparative grade.

And, as with food, educate those who speak influenced by diet culture and start to complain about their bodies, to say they need to lose weight when it isn’t true, to talk about their extreme diets, or in general show an unhealthy attitude or self-hatred. Eating disorders are competitive, and taking into account that it’s likely that the person already perceives others at a healthy weight as thinner than her, she’ll understand that she also needs to lose weight and she’ll feel miserable for the efforts she’s making to go against the flow: to gain weight in a society that only promotes losing it.

Compliment her body, but with things that aren’t weight/size related

Make an effort to go beyond the obvious, because you can see it as a good thing but it’s painful for the person. Take a look at other details recovery brings: the light in her eyes, the health or tone of the skin, the volume or softness of the hair, etc. Perhaps she hasn’t even noticed that things because she’s obsessed with her weight. 

Bring up as well invisible but physical qualities such as the energy to do an activity, the strength to carry something heavy, etc. All of this will help her to value her body in a new way.

And what if she tells me she has an eating disorder?

Notice the question is not: how do I make her tell me / admit it to me? Don’t corner her. Even if she’s your friend. Don’t assume that if she doesn’t tell you it’s because she doesn’t trust you or doesn’t love you enough. She wants you to have a role in her life, of course she does, but perhaps is not the one you think you should have. Don’t underestimate what you can do from a place of discreet support, doing everything we’ve talked about until now, and just being there.

Ask

But if she does tell you, ask. To start with, ask her what she wants you to do with that information, what role she wants you to have. Ask her also what help she’s getting, and encourage her to get more professional help if she doesn’t have it yet.

And ask her about her eating disorder. When we’re asked from a place of care and respect, we like to answer. We like people to show interest and we like being able to offer real information, that may differ a lot from some common misconceptions. Ask instead of taking your own possible prejudices from granted. And be open to accept her answers when they’re not what you’re expecting.

There are several kinds of eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, orthorexia, etc.) and each of them carries its own stigma. On the contrary, you should listen with a compassionate heart, without looking at the person differently because of what she’s telling you. Don’t put on labels, look at the person, not at the demon that’s attacking her. Learn what was pushing her to her sickly behaviors, what her specific triggers are, if she prefers to be encouraged to challenge herself or to be left alone, if physical contact comforts her or overwhelms her…

Comfort and reassure

If you become a more important support for that person’s recovery, what she’s going to need from you most are these two things. And they imply answering many questions that start with: “But are you sure that…?”. That is, things that her rational mind knows, or that she’s been told to believe, but the ED screams are lies, which makes her doubt and totter.

For example:

  • But are you sure that I’m doing the right thing?: Encourage her, explain to her that recovery is the right thing, that you’re happy she’s chosen to undertake it and she should be proud of her progress.
  • But are you sure that’s not going to make me fat?: Insist that food is healing her and giving her life, remind her that whatever she eats will be good for her body, that she needs it, and in addition that no, that a fear food she dares to eat at a certain moment won’t make her fat overnight.
  • But are you sure I’m not fine yet?: Push her to keep going, give her the hope of a best (remember, she’s in the “better”), mentally, spiritually, physically.
  • But are you sure that girl isn’t thinner than me?: This helped me a lot. When I was taking a walk with my mother and I was triggered by seeing girls I thought had great bodies, but made me think I was getting away from that because I was already fatter than them, I just asked her. External reaffirmation helped me accept that my vision was distorted, and that in fact I wasn’t getting away from the body I wanted, but getting closer. Of course, I was so embarrassed to ask her, I felt annoying, and like she was going to think I was vain and superficial. You need to understand it’s not like that, make her feel comfortable speaking about her body.

Repeat the same things over and over again

This relates to what I’ve just said: please, be patient with the person in recovery, don’t get mad at her when you see her fall time after time into the same stuff, when she keeps insisting on the same topics. Don’t think she isn’t listening to you. Take into account that she hears your words once, but she’s hearing the opposite in her mind constantly, all day long, together with excruciating feelings. Repeat to her why recovery is good, why eating doesn’t make her weak, that she shouldn’t think about the future, that God is with her… Not a lot of things, just the few of them that work and you see give her peace.

Many times they’ll be things she has said herself in her moments of light, or things she tells you that those who’re treating her have said to her, or that she has read in a blog. Make a mental list of those things so you can repeat them to her when darkness makes her forget them. If you don’t know yet what to say exactly, I advise you to read stories and blogs of people who have gone through recovery (mine or others’) and, as I’ve said before, to ask questions with an open mind.

In short

In short, the most important steps to help someone you know who’s recovering from an eating disorder would be the following:

  1. Be there.
  2. Avoid making triggering comments.
  3. Correct others when they make them.
  4. If the person wants to count on you more directly to help her, ask questions, listen to her struggles without judging and be very patient.

I hope these guidelines can be useful for you to help someone who’s suffering and, at the same time, to create a more friendly environment for anyone who might be going through difficult times with food and their body.

If you know someone suffering from an ED and you don’t know what to do, please don’t hesitate to contact me through this website or instagram.

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