1. Don’t take our social avoidance personally.
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, vacations you’ve taken, Friday night outs, and the awkward first dates. Now, think about food and the role it plays in each of these scenarious.
Did you celebrate with cake? Was food the highlight of the trip? What share plates did you order for the table on a Friday night? Did you share popcorn on the first date – butter or no butter? It isn’t until you have an unhealthy relationship with food that you realize it’s power in forging social connections. If you feel like we’re avoiding you, we’re not. The intense fear and anxiety we feel around food has disconnected us from the people and places we love.
2. All weight-related comments have the potential to be triggering.
Eating disorders are a psychological, not a physical, illness; however, our weight is the topic of most conversations. I’m not surprised that this has been the focus – it is 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.
On most days, my eating disorder treated someone saying, “You look too thin,” as a compliment rather than a concern. Throughout my recovery, my eating disorder interpreted ”You look healthy” as ”You’re fat.”
Please, stop talking to us about our weight – it is not 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 conversations. Instead, shift your focus to the behavioural symptoms. NEDA has provided a summary of the behavioural and psychological signs of Anorexia Nervosa here.
3. When sharing your concerns, focus on the behavioural symptoms of our eating disorder.
“Why don’t you just eat something?” This might be the most infuriating question we are asked. These questions feed into the intense shame that we already feel. There are biological, genetic, and socio-cultural factors that contribute to our inability to just eat something. If we could, we would. You wouldn’t tell someone who broke their leg to just run on it, would you? Personally, I responded best to concerned observations from my loved ones. For example, ‘“’ve noticed you haven’t been eating. Is there anything you want to talk about? I am always here to listen.”
Don’t get discouraged when we consistently shut you down – denial and resistance are our eating disorder’s best friend. Continue to approach us with your concerns, but do it from a place of love and compassion.
4. Celebrate our victories — both big and small.
Be patient with our journey. This eating disorder did not manifest overnight from a desire to be thin — it is so much more complex than that. No single cause of an eating disorder has been identified. Instead, it is a combination of genetic vulnerabilities, psychological factors, and sociocultural influences. Don’t threaten or rush our process; instead, celebrate our victories (and I don’t mean our weight gain}. Celebrate 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. Celebrate our ability to be present and listen. Celebrate our stillness, our newfound ability to rest. Celebrate 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. We do, however, need your support as we do it. Perhaps the next time we go out for dinner, say, “I missed spending time with you, I am so happy we are doing this.” We need your acknowledgment every time we challenge the eating disorder; it’s a loud voice we cannot silence on our own.
5. Guilt won’t speed up our recovery process.
We carry a heavy burden, filled with shame and guilt. We aren’t in a position to counsel you. By projecting your feelings onto us, our shame and guilt are only worsened.
Acknowledge the battle that we have with our mind every single day. Tell us we’re strong, brave and courageous. Use inclusive words such as ‘we.’ They make that lonely place feel not so lonely anymore.
6. Don’t forget these three words.
If you don’t know what to say or how to say it, “I love you” is more powerful than you think. Write it, type it, speak it – over and over again. And when we don’t respond, tell us again. Our silence is an indicator that we need to hear it that much more. Provide us with the one thing our eating disorder deprives us of most — not food, but love.