Tips for Helping Someone with an Eating Disorder
I think one of my favorite questions I've ever gotten is how to help someone with an eating disorder. I feel like when I was going through mine, I wish I could have had some sort of guide to give those around me because while I know now that they all meant well, things could have also been handled better. Eating disorders are sticky and horrible and there's no easy way to help or talk to somebody with one, but I want to share some do's and don't's I've compiled in my brain from both my experience and talking to others who have had similar experiences.
I also want to note that many of these tips are based on MY personal experience, which means they are based around talking to someone who got dangerously small. I know that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and not all of these tips will apply to every scenario. I almost changed "Eating Disorder" to "Anorexia" but I kept it because a lot of these tips can be applied when talking to anyone with any ED. Even if it's not "stereotypical anorexia." I'll put a star in front of the tips that are geared more towards my experience with anorexia.
1. Make sure you are the right person to be confronting someone with an ED. If you're not the right person, try to get in contact with the right person. I think one of the most meaningful conversations I had that made me actually even realize I had a problem the first time was when my best friend since age 7 told me she was worried about me.
2. Concern, not accusation. In the conversation mentioned above, my friend was in no way accusatory. She said nothing along the lines of "I think you have an eating disorder." The words she chose to use were strategic I could tell, but they were such a good way to get a little bit of concern finally into my messed up head. She said something like "Are you okay? I've been really worried about you and I know a lot of other people have been too." “I” statements, not “you” statements.
3. Know your limits as someone who is not a part of this person’s professional care team. For example, if you are a friend, stay as a friend. Do not try to “be the fixer.”
*4. Don't force food down their throat. Just don't. For example: at dinner one night at home when I was recovering, there was a leftover piece of chicken. My parents made me have it, and while I know they meant so well looking back, it made me skip the (higher calorie) night snack I had been planning to otherwise eat to kind of "spite" them. Because eating disorders make no sense. This goes along with #3.
5. Avoid any sort of diet-y talk or behavior. Even if the one suffering has an ED that did not stem from body image/ diet culture, the restrictive talk and behaviors can be extremely triggering. It's hard enough mentally to be eating so much more than everyone around you when you're in the process of weight restoration.
*6. Building on #5, avoid comments like "I wish I had that problem," or "I wish I had to gain weight." I can't tell you how many times I got comments like this one when I was weight restoring both times. You DO NOT WISH you had an eating disorder. And hearing things like this made me feel like people didn't take my problems seriously, and made me feel like they thought it was just an easy fix.
7. If you are someone who has been there, you have a power and a bond that you can use for good. Pretty much everyone I have talked to who has had an ED agrees that we have almost a sixth sense for being able to recognize when someone has one. Reaching out is sometimes all it takes to kick someone into recovery. I know I wish I had had someone who had been there when I was sick, to tell me that yes, I can live without my demons and it will be okay. It will be more than okay because I will actually be able to live.
There's obviously a lot more that goes into the technicalities of recovery, like seeking out a professional team and finding the right therapist (highly highly recommended) , but hopefully these tips can help to navigate initiating a conversation and continuing to talk in a way that is supportive and not triggering or offensive. Hopefully these tips can help the ED victim feel safe to talk, voice concerns, and not be judged by those close to them.