1. Eating disorders are not about food or weight.
Men and women suffering with eating disorders are not engaging in their behaviors simply to lose weight. It may seem that way on the surface, but the cause and maintenance of an eating disorder is complex. Eating disorders are the result of poor coping skills; those inflicted are using the eating disorder as an escape from something much deeper – trauma, mental illness, marital/family problems, etc. They are not diets gone wrong or taken to an extreme; eating disorders are life threatening behaviors that serve a purpose far beyond weight control. For many, eating disorders provide comfort, control, stability, numbness, etc.
2. People do not and cannot “choose” to have an eating disorder.
Yes, dieting can be the finger that pulls the trigger on the development of an eating disorder. And yes, people choose to diet – but not everyone who goes on a diet develops an eating disorder. Dieting alone will not lead to anorexia, bulimia, or any of the other eating disorders. Not only is there a genetic predisposition playing a role, but also situational circumstances as aforementioned… none of which are chosen.
3. Those struggling with an eating disorder can’t “just stop.”
Eating disorders are the most deadly of all psychiatric illnesses. Often, those inflicted suffer for years, even decades. Eating disorders follow a trend of thirds: 1/3 will die, 1/3 will fully recover, and 1/3 will only partially recover – carrying symptoms and behaviors with them throughout their lives. Because of their complexity, eating disorders are extremely difficult to treat. Furthermore, treatment cost is pricey and rarely covered fully by insurance companies. Worse, insurance companies can deem what level of treatment will be covered and for how long – despite the recommendations of medical professionals.
4. Eating disorders are never “just a phase.”
Similarly to the previous, eating disorders don’t magically disappear. Sure, they can go under the radar (as they so often do), but recovering from an eating disorder without proper treatment is extremely rare. Not to say it can’t be done, but the odds of one doing so are unlikely. So when you think your friend or loved one is just having a “bout” of anorexia or bulimia – think again. Eating disorders are much more easily treated when caught early; if they are displaying symptoms that warrant worry – the time to take action is NOW.
5. Going to treatment doesn’t mean they are cured.
Many people with eating disorders need treatment more than once. Continued care is essential for the maintenance of prolonged recovery. It can take several years, countless nutritional and psychiatric appointments, and many falls along the way before one is free from their illness. Relapse is extremely common amongst those recovering from an eating disorder. Don’t assume the problem is fixed simply because someone is home from treatment. They will need your support – here is how you can help:
1. Don’t comment on their body.
Whether they are currently struggling or in recovery, never EVER make comments about their body or weight. If they are struggling and you tell them they’re “too thin” or “too bony” or “so tiny” – these types of comments fuel their eating disorder. This is the observable goal of the eating disorder; to lose weight. These words will not scare them, they will excite them and keep them motivated and moving in the opposite direction. If they are in recovery or at a healthy weight, refrain from comments like: “you look so much better now” or “you look so healthy”. While these comments are most likely sincere and coming from a good place – they will not be interpreted as such. People who have struggled with an eating disorder will simply take these comments as “I’ve gained weight” or the ever so popular “I’m fat now.” The best advice I can give is to refrain from any comments regarding body size or weight. Focus on their character, not their body.
2. Don’t play the food police.
Typically, those in recovery from an eating disorder have a meal plan. It is their responsibility to follow the guidelines of their nutritional team. Do not force food in their face. Do not ask them what they have eaten. Although you are rightfully concerned, this is an area the individual needs to focus on them self. There is often a lot of shame surrounding food when one is recovering from an eating disorder; give it time, give them space, and don’t play the food police.
3. Be there to talk.
The healing involved with eating disorder recovery is intense. Be a listening ear and a crying shoulder when needed. Listen without judgment and without offering unsolicited advice. Acknowledge their feelings and let them know that you are there to support them.
4. Offer to attend a support group with them.
Many towns and cities offer support groups for eating disorders. Eating Disorders Anonymous is but one of the many and focuses on a 12 step approach, similar to AA. Such meetings often encourage members to have a sponsor; that person can be you.
5. Be a healthy example.
Don’t discuss discontent with your body. Don’t “fat shame” strangers or comment on their weight. Don’t share your latest and greatest diet plan. Be mindful when in their presence; if it has potential to be triggering, it probably is. Be a healthy role model for your loved one – if you are going to talk about your body do so positively. Lead by example.