Want to help your friend but not sure how? Check out this article to get you started!
Finding ways to help our friends can be difficult. Especially when it comes to an eating disorder of any kind. In most instances, we’re not even aware of the right way to help ourselves, never mind someone else. While these suggestions may not be full-proof for all instances, they’ll give you an idea of the right path to take.
What is an eating disorder?
While many of my readers may be aware of what an eating disorder is, I’d like to take a moment to refresh our memories. Traditionally, all eating disorders have been categorised by unhealthy eating habits, excessive levels of exercise, and preoccupation with weight or shape. This is a very generlised categorisation. There are many other ways to determine the presence of an eating disorder and the criteria are always changing. For example, the absence of a menstrual cycle used to be a contributing factor to being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. However, that’s since changed as even individuals of an extremely low weight can experience a menstrual cycle. And of course, there are those that will never have a menstrual cycle (males) and young children who haven’t yet reached puberty. Therefore the absence of a menstrual cycle is no longer used to determine the presence of anorexia nervosa.
10 Ways to help a friend with an eating disorder.
The more you know about something, the better you’re able to understand it. But, as someone with a history of anorexia, take it from me; You’ll never be an expert. Not even those of us with first-hand experience of an eating disorder are experts! We even struggle to understand, let alone manage them. With that being said, you’re better going into battle with a kitchen knife than with nothing at all.
There are various places you can go to seek information on eating disorders including, but not limited to, Beat and The Eating Disorder Association for Northern Ireland. If you’re from outside the UK or you’re based in the south of Ireland there are also Body Whys and The National Association for Eating disorders. Any of these sites have an abundance of resources to help you start to come to terms with your friend’s eating disorder. Take some time to read their resources and don’t be afraid to ask questions. While I’m not an expert nor a medical professional, my inbox is always open to lend a listening ear.
Encourage them to seek professional help if they haven’t done so already.
This can be easier said than done, specifically if your friend is in denial or isn’t interested in getting help. Even when we know that we have a problem it can be scary to take those first steps. All you can do is gently advise and steer them towards help, but you can’t force it on them.
There are many reasons that they may be resistant to help. Stigma, shame, or even the fear of interference are only a few. Speaking from experience, my own resistance was fueled by the eating-disordered voice. There was a distinct fear of treatment because that meant eating and gaining weight, two of the things I was terrified of. In reality, it was much deeper than that, it was the voice projecting its fear of losing control over me that really fueled my avoidance of treatment.
But don’t force them.
As much as you might want them to get help, you can’t force it on them. I can’t stress that point enough! Force only leads to hostility, and may even put a kink in your friendship forever. You can offer to help them find help, accompany them to appointments, etc but if they don’t want to recover it’ll all be in vain. Someone will only recover if they want to and when they’re ready.
Show compassion and care.
Experiencing an eating disorder of any description can leave us feeling drained, disorientated, and intense levels of emotional pain and self-hatred. There’s also the common phenomenon of feeling completely void or numb of all feelings and emotions. Even when the latter persists, there is still a certain level of inner turmoil present and lying in wait. While this can be frustrating for you as their friend, it’s important to continue with compassion as best you can. Telling them that you’re there for them and that you care is the best way to do this without being too invasive.
Be patient! We’re listening, we’re taking it on board but when in the midst of an eating disorder it can all be very overwhelming.
Avoid phrases like ‘Just Eat.’
Eating disorders are complicated, there’s no doubt about that. While people assume they’re all about food, they’re more commonly paired with co-morbid conditions such as body dysmorphia, anxiety, perfectionism and so much more. What you deem as easy can feel like running a marathon for someone with an eating disorder. It’s far more difficult to ignore the thoughts that keep us trapped within the disorder, and sadly there’s no barrier between the logical and disordered parts of our brains.
Instead, try something like this:
I don’t know what’s going on but I want to know more. Can you explain to me how eating makes you feel?
Keep them company.
Whether it’s during meal times, or in general, suffering from an eating disorder can be a very lonely experience. We tend to push people away for fear of being discovered. Even when the disorder is out in the open, the fear continues. It wasn’t until I was midway through my recovery, ready to be discharged, that I realised I had pushed almost everyone out of my life. All for a life-threatening disorder that wanted nothing more than to see me dead. While we may push and push, please push back! It’s easier said than done and having been on both sides of these disorders I understand the frustration. But it can be as simple as supporting someone through mealtimes, helping with distractions afterward or even just being available on the phone.
The important thing to remember is that they don’t want you out of their life, but the eating disorder does. And as difficult as it might be for both parties, it’s in their best interest to fight back against the disorder at all costs.
Try to remain calm, especially when around them.
This was recommended by one of my lovely followers on Twitter and I can’t stress how important it is. When dealing with any mental illness it’s important for you, the outsider, to remain calm. Especially when in the company of the one who’s suffering. While it can be a panic-inducing experience, it’s important to sit back and evaluate where to go from here. Panicking is a natural reaction, especially if you suffer from anxiety. But it’s not going to hold the answer to the problem.
Avoid diet related speech in their company.
While you may not be directly addressing them about your weight or dieting, it can have a lasting impact. It can play on their mind and leave a trial of diet-related influence. Even now I am strictly against diet speak in my company. While I allow my friends to have their conversations, I simply excuse myself or ask that they refrain from talking about calories, etc while with me. They know my stance on diet culture and the majority of them respect that. For those that don’t, I simply take my leave. Rude? Maybe. But discharged or not, relapse is always possible.
Remember, they’re the same people you became friends with.
They are not the disorder! While they may be different than the friend or loved one you remember, it’s the disorder talking and it’s important to remember that. Especially when times get tough. They haven’t chosen this, nor are they in control of it. Much like a physical illness, mental illness is never a choice.
Take care of yourself.
It’s important to look after yourself while looking after someone else. After all, we can’t pour from an empty cup. Don’t let yourself burn out and don’t be ashamed of needing some time away. Consider getting into therapy, or taking up creative hobbies to create an outlet. Above all else, you need to remember to put your health and needs above that of anyone else’s. Self-care is not selfish!
Helplines & Charities.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, 365 days a year on 0808 801 0434, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
If you are based in Northern Ireland and want to help ensure that eating disorder support is available for all, you can take part in the public consultation on the draft budget for the next three years.
You can also get in touch with the Eating Disorder Association for Northern Ireland on 028 9023 5959. Or you can send them an email using this form. I volunteer with this charity and while we are small, our impact is mighty!