So, you know someone with an eating disorder and you want to support them. Great! As a person who’s experienced an eating disorder, I can tell you what’s helpful – and all the things that are not helpful.
It may seem a bit off topic, but let’s start by thinking about relationships. As humans, our primary purpose in this world is to connect.
Relationships, both personal and professional, stem from a connection. Think about the celebrations you’ve attended, the vacations you’ve taken, the Friday night gatherings, and the awkward first dates.
Now, think about the role food played in all of those occasions. Did you celebrate with cake? Was food the highlight of the trip? What restaurant is your favorite on a Friday night? Did you share popcorn on that first movie date – butter or no butter?
It isn’t until you have an unhealthy relationship with food that you realize it’s power in social connection. At the worst times of my eating disorder, I avoided every social setting in which food may appear.
As you probably guessed, almost every social activity involves food.
Eventually, I avoided nearly every chance I had to socialize and lived in isolation. I was alone – and my eating disorder loved it. Yep, social avoidance: a key behavioral symptom of eating disorders that isn’t talked about enough.
What’s the real issue here?
You see, eating disorders are a psychological, not a physical, illness. Our weight is the topic of most conversations.
“You’re really skinny” or “you look unhealthy”, I had these weight-related conversations countless of times. and I’m not surprised that weight tends to be the focus. It’s one of the biggest misconceptions of eating disorders.
Changes in body weight, shape, or size are common physical symptoms of eating disorders, but they are not a necessary condition.
It wasn’t until I was severely underweight that my family and friends began to voice their concerns. It took months of restriction and over-exercising to reach that weight; I was suffering, in silence, for several months prior.
1. Avoid ALL weight related comments
On most days, my eating disorder treated “you look too thin” as a compliment rather than a concern.
Throughout my recovery, my eating disorder interpreted “you look healthy” as “you look fat.” So please, stop talking to us about our weight. Our appearance isn’t always a reflection of how we feel.
All weight-related conversations have the potential to be triggering.
As a supporter, I encourage you to disengage and refrain from all weight-related comments. Instead, shift your focus to the behavioral changes in the person you love.
2. Focus on “concerned observations”
Personally, I responded best to concerned observations from my loved ones. For example, “Braelyn I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating. Is there anything you want to talk about? I am always here to listen.”
Don’t be discouraged if we shut you down repeatedly – denial and resistance are our eating disorder’s best friend.
So, continue to approach us with your concerns. But do it from a place of love and compassion.
Our eating disorder is manipulative, unloving, and critical – provide that voice of love and support that we desperately need.
3. Celebrate with us
This eating disorder probably didn’t manifest from a simple desire to be thin – it’s so much more complex than that.
No single cause of an eating disorder has been identified – it is a combination of genetic vulnerabilities, psychological factors, and sociocultural influences.
So, don’t threaten or rush our process. Instead, celebrate our victories – and I don’t mean our weight gain. I mean, our ability to be spontaneous.
Celebrate our last-minute decisions to join you out for dinner or to order take-out. Celebrate our decision not to go to the gym. Or our ability to be present and listen.
Celebrate our stillness – our newfound ability to rest. Rejoice with us in our ease as we grocery shop. Celebrate our decision to eat the birthday cake.
To clarify, when I say “celebrate” – I don’t mean verbally.
We don’t need you to say “I am so proud of you for eating that piece of cake.” We don’t need you to remind us every time we are doing something our eating disorder tells us not to.
However, we need your support as we do it. Perhaps the next time we go out for dinner, say “I’ve missed going out to dinner together. I’m so happy we are doing this!”
Keeping the praise focused away from specific food-related actions and more on the social or relational aspect can be really helpful.
4. Just say, “I love you”
If you don’t know what to say or how to say it, those three words are more powerful than you think.
Write it, type it, speak it – over and over again.
We may not say it back, but don’t let that stop you Our eating disorder has convinced us we’re not worthy of love.
We feel like a burden. Sadly we’re convinced that it is our fault and that we are to blame. Please, relieve us of these thoughts.
And finally – thank you
And to the supporters who took the time to read this – thank you. I’m grateful for your willingness to learn more about our illness. And to my wonderful network of supporters, thank you.
To the friends and family who sat in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, the counselors, and the treatment center – thank you. To every individual who asked questions, got curious and educated themselves on the severity of the illness – thank you.
And to the survivors who were vulnerable and shared their journey with me, thank you. To my little sister: thank you for inspiring me to be the best role model I could be. And to my incredible circle of friends and family who fought this illness with me – thank you for helping me see the strength I could not see in myself.