How to Support A Loved One With an Eating Disorder
If you know someone with an eating disorder and don’t struggle with eating yourself, you may feel a bit helpless. This guide is for you.
It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week next week, and it’s very likely that you know someone with an eating disorder and/or have one yourself. I am a recovering bulimic whose diagnosis is now indefinitely “EDNOS,” which stands for “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” I’ve struggled with disordered eating for about 20 years, and have accepted that it will be a life-long struggle. Eating doesn’t rule my life anymore, but it will probably never be an easy part of my life, either. But I know how to take care of myself and I know my triggers and patterns. I know what helps me and what hurts me.
I advocate for openness about eating disorders: they’re common and we shouldn’t feel ashamed or forced to hide them. If you know someone with an eating disorder and don’t struggle with eating yourself, you may feel a bit helpless around supporting them. Well, you’re in luck, because I created this handy guide just for you! If you have an eating disorder, I also created this for you to share with your loved ones.
(Note: This is based on my experience and may or may not be useful for others with eating disorders. Take it with a grain of salt, use it as a jumping off point, et cetera.)
1. Don’t comment on their weight.
Not commenting on people’s weight is always a good rule of thumb, but it’s especially pertinent when talking to folks with eating disorders. An innocently intended comment about my weight can send me spiraling for days.
Not mentioning weight means not pointing out if you think someone has gained or lost weight. In college, I finally told my parents I was bulimic, after hiding it throughout middle and high school. It was a relief to unburden myself of my big secret, and I also had an agenda: I wanted my mother to stop commenting on my weight. Every time I visited, my mother immediately and conspicuously looked me up and down, then either excitedly said, “Wow, you’ve lost weight!” or, heartbreakingly, said nothing. I dreaded these evaluations of my body. Sure, she never told me I gained weight, but I knew her silence equaled disappointment. So I asked her to please stop commenting on my weight, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to hear when I’ve lost weight, because in her mind, “that’s a good thing!” To this day, she gives my body a once-over, followed by a “compliment” or silence, and I still hate it. Don’t be like my mom. Mind your own business, do not ever comment on someone’s weight, NO EXCEPTIONS.
2. Don’t offer advice if you’re not asked.
Have you ever been upset about something and just needed to vent? So you poured your heart out to a friend but instead of holding space for you, they bombarded you with solutions? Of course you have; we all have. We’ve probably all been guilty of offering unwanted advice, too. But sometimes we just need to be heard, seen and validated. And unless you’re a therapist specializing in eating disorders, your advice is not likely to be that helpful.
So let your friend know that you are a safe, nonjudgmental person to talk to, and then prove that by listening, affirming and supporting. Keep your advice to yourself unless they specifically ask for it. Holding space without problem-solving is a delicate, important skill and I promise your friend will appreciate you favoring your ears over your mouth.
3. Keep triggers out of your home.
If you have a roommate or live-in partner with an eating disorder, they might require daily acts of support from you at home. For me, I can’t have sugary, junky food around: I’ll be tempted to eat it, and then I’ll start eating it, and then it will be hard to stop, and then I’ll want to purge, and then I’ll hate myself.
My partner knows this, and has been very accommodating in not bringing triggering foods into the house. I’m also aware that he does not have an eating disorder and it’s his kitchen too, so we figure out compromises. My eating disorder does not override his right to eat pizza and ice cream at home. He knows not to offer me my trigger foods, and if possible, he hides them or at least doesn’t draw attention to them. Yes, it is 100 percent on me to make healthy choices, but it helps to limit temptation in my own home. If you’re living with someone with an ED, ask what you can do to help them feel safe in your kitchen. If you have an ED, figure out what you need at home and schedule a time with your roommate(s)/partner(s) to talk about it.
4. Ask them how you can support them.
This is the most important part of this guide. While the above tips are broad enough to hopefully apply to most people, each person’s needs are unique. Be proactive and ask your loved one how you can support them. Bring it up in a non-confrontational, loving way, when you’re both in good moods and have a little time on your hands. You don’t have to overthink it or turn it into a big dramatic moment.
Try something simple like, “Hey love, thanks for trusting me enough to tell me you struggle with an ED. Is there anything I can do to support you on a daily basis or in a time that you’re particularly struggling? Let me know when and if you want. I love you and I’m here for you.” This gives your loved one time to reflect and decide what, if anything, they need from you.
Early on, I had a difficult and important discussion with my partner about my eating disorder. I told him how it has manifested in the past. I told him that I’m gonna struggle with it forever. We even discussed what I would need if I relapsed, and I shared some of my relapse warning signs with him. It wasn’t a fun conversation: I felt self-conscious and “crazy” and high-maintenance, but he was receptive and loving. Now we live together and since we discussed my ED early on, it was easy to tell him how he can support me in our shared home. I know I can trust him if I relapse, and it’s a relief to know I can confide in him if that happens. This conversation will not necessarily be easy, but you will both gain insight and wisdom, and I bet your relationship will be stronger.
I’d love to hear from other folks with eating disorders. How do your partners or friends support you? How do you wish they supported you differently? What makes sense in this guide and what doesn’t? Let me know in the comments or at email@example.com.
Ash Fisher is a comedian, actor and writer. She is not a comedienne, an actress, or a writeress. She runs the hit show “Man Haters” every fourth Thursday in Oakland, CA. Follow her at ashfisherhaha.com, @ashfisherhaha and manhaters.org.
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