What do I say to my friend or family member with an eating disorder? How can I help? Is it possible for me to fix it?
As a survivor of anorexia and an advocate for body acceptance, I get asked these questions all the time. This makes me sick, since it reminds me that if I had a magic wand to make eating disorders go away forever I would wave until my arm fell off, but it also reminds me that my arm is still here and I keep getting asked for more people.
First things first: I am neither a medical professional nor a licensed therapist. I am merely someone who nearly died because of anorexia, spent even more time suffering a whole bunch, and fought her way through to the other side.
Please engage with professionals who can truly help your loved one. The National Eating Disorders Association has a helpline and a host of resources I urge you to check out.
What I have said to many others is based on my experience as a survivor who lost some friends along the way. I have less to suggest in terms of what to do or say, and more in terms of things to not do or say.
Do offer your unconditional love and support. What I most needed were people to love me, not fix me. Leave the treatment to the professionals and don’t try to be “the enforcer” of healthier habits. The “I’ll save you” path isn’t likely to go far, and it can also make it harder for the person to come to you later if they need help. They may not want to let you down when they are slipping. At least, this is the way I was.
Knowing that you will always be there and love them — no matter what — is a powerful weapon that may ultimately support a recovery process led by the person with the eating disorder and the professional team supporting them.
Don’t engage in “fat talk” — about them, or yourself. Your loved one doesn’t need to hear you tell them that you feel fat, or that you ate something “good” or “bad.” And while you don’t want to be dismissive if they bring up their body or eating or exercise with you (after all, it’s probably dominating their thoughts), you certainly don’t need to play the eating disorder-affirming game of good foods and bad foods, fat clothes and skinny clothes, hot bodies and ugly bodies.
Don’t comment on their appearance. “You look good,” or “you look healthy” were horrible swords thrown at me by well-meaning people. Sometimes I used these comments as reasons to be proud of horrible things I had done to myself. Other times I would use them as proof that I needed to punish myself further. You simply don’t need to comment on their appearance. Stay out of it. Comment on and compliment them for who they are, not what they look like or what they are eating.
Don’t participate in trigger activities. Your loved one may most want to suggest activities that serve their eating disorder, such as exercising, going for a long walk, trying on clothes at the mall, baking a batch of cookies (maybe only for others to eat, a common eating disorder behavior), or going to a buffet to eat. Not lecturing them about these activities would be good, but that doesn’t mean that you need to participate. Find other healthy things to do together.
Do support them getting professional help. If your loved one has an eating disorder, support them in getting professional help. No, you don’t have to be the enforcer, but you can support them by scheduling fun group activities at times when they are not going to therapy, not disparaging therapists or anti-depressants and similar drugs, and the like. Further, if they haven’t taken that first step yet, you can share with them names and telephone numbers of places where they can get help and assure them it’s strong, not weak, to reach out for support.
Good luck and I am so sorry for the experiences that have led you to read this.