Supporting a Loved One Struggling with an Eating Disorder
Updated: Apr 21
On my last blog post I talked about myths and stereotypes surrounding eating disorders and much of the reality behind them. Not only is it important to understand the truth behind them and bust the stigma, but important to know how to approach a conversation if you have a friend or family member dealing with eating disorder symptoms and behaviors. I figured there would be no better way than to share when my friends approached me when I was engaging in very serious eating disorder behaviors.
During my freshman year of college, I was diagnosed with anorexia. I had made very significant changes not only in my behaviors, but my persona as well. I was closed off, anti-social, avoidant of food situations, straight up bitchy, manipulative and secretive. These were big tell-tale signs to my friends, but my eating habits posed as red flags as well. I met two of my closest friends in college during our first semester where they were exposed to my “normal” eating habits and behaviors. (I put “normal” in quotations because everyone’s definition of normal is different!!) So when I began to engage in my eating disorder’s rules and behaviors, they noticed an obvious shift in my personality and a drastic change in my weight.
Having multiple conversations over the years now with my friends about eating disorders, I know now that back during our freshman year, they knew what eating disorders were and the common signs and symptoms that society makes known to everyone, but what they didn’t know was how to approach someone they believed to be going down that path. They knew things were not okay, but not sure how strongly to intervene.
I remember the night so clearly- one of the few nights I remember during that time. Myself and my two friends were sitting in the dorm room doing homework and studying, overall a very chill night. I was eating my dinner or snack when they finally spoke up and started a conversation. First, they approached me with concern stating some of the changes that they had noticed and that my behaviors had become a bit worrisome. They approached the conversation with questions, asking if I was okay, getting enough food in my system, if I felt sick, stressed, etc. Then allowed me to have the floor to say what I wanted and offered a chance to explain myself. I, of course, lied and told them I was fine and just having some stomach issues and school was stressing me out. I completely brushed it off. I (my eating disorder) lied right to their faces as if it were nothing. Eating disorders are determined to not let anything stop them from having you follow their rules and restrictions and ensuring no one finds out, because that would mean you would have to get help and revert the behaviors.
Looking back, my friends approached that night in the best way possible. They began by stating their concerns, showing that they wanted me to know they were there for me and that they cared, instead of going full on attack mode that would have made me defensive and impossible to talk to. They asked questions giving me the opportunity to explain myself or open the door for me to explain what was truly going on. At this point I was already so far deep into my eating disorder I was not about to open up about my thoughts and behaviors I was engaging in.
If my friends began the conversation by saying things like, “Well you’re doing this…” and “you’re not eating this…” or “you’re restricting your calories,” my eating disorder would have immediately written them off and as people not to trust, and I would have closed myself off so much more than I already had.
So it’s important to remember that if you are going to approach a loved one- approach them with compassion and concern. Don’t point fingers or place blame. Give them the chance to have an open conversation and the ability to speak their side if they choose to do so. Give them a safe space to speak, whether that be a college dorm, living room, or your own space in a coffee shop. If they choose not to open up, let them do so and try to approach them again at a later time in a different space while still showing that you care and offer support without judgement.
It can be a really scary thing to see someone go through, especially when you feel helpless. The best you can do is educate yourself and be there for that person even when they push you away. Seek outside resources if you need. Just remember that your loved one is also probably really scared and unsure of what is going on and the amount of damage they are doing. Their thoughts are so disordered and struggling to keep afloat.
Most importantly, remind your family and friends that recovery is possible and there is no shame in receiving help! It’ll be so worth it!
If you need someone to talk to or advice on how to handle tough situations with friends/family, visit the NEDA website at www.nationaleatingdisorders.org or call the hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
*Disclaimer- I am writing based on my own experience and my own knowledge of eating disorders. These are my opinions and are not affiliated with anyone/organization. I do not intend in any way to contradict/invalidate other’s experiences, perception or feelings towards these topics.*