I was 12-years old when my mum first gave me a book about self-confidence and self-image. I remember just quickly glancing through it, and not giving it that much of attention – I felt like none of it really applied to me, all the advice on how to gain self-confidence and how your body image isn’t reliable on how amazing you are as a person. None of it seemed to concern me: I was happy, healthy, and very much content in my body.
Now, about 10 years later, things couldn’t be more different. I’ve never sunk so low in my life, never felt uglier, never felt fatter – I’ve hurt myself for eating a piece of pizza, I’ve cried myself to sleep over eating 3 squares of dark chocolate, and can’t help to wonder what went wrong. I am very much in the right path to recovery, and I look completely healthy. I’m managing a healthy weight for my body, and even though I sometimes don’t like that weight, I know rationally that it’s something I need to do. I’m getting better and stronger every day, and doing extremely well with recovery, but unfortunately, it’s still a long way to go. I am in that weird space between sick and recovered, first feeling fine, and the next day feeling worse – and can’t help but to wonder how it’s affecting my (romantic) relationships. As eating disorders, unfortunately, are extremely common (There are estimated more than 725,000 people in the UK alone affected by eating disorders), it’s extremely important to inform and educate people about them. So, here’s my words of advice to anybody who is in a relationship with somebody with an eating disorder.
1. Our hate towards ourselves doesn’t mean we love you less
We know. It’s not easy. It’s not easy to see someone you love to act like we do sometimes, but please, do not get frustrated with us. If we let you get close enough to us, and let you see our fragile, broken side – it’s a big deal, believe me.
2. Just because we seem ‘fine’, doesn’t mean we are now suddenly recovered
One day, we might happily eat everything that’s being put in front of us, and seem completely fine, and then have a mental breakdown the next day. Don’t rush into conclusions, don’t assume that recovery happens overnight, because it doesn’t. It’s a long, difficult journey, and if you really want to help, educate yourself about eating disorders, and talk to us about how we feel. Relapses are a normal part of recovery, but do get familiar with the warning signs , and be there for us in case it happens.
3. Don’t force us to eat
It might seem like a good idea to shove food in front of us, and make us eat it, so that maybe we would realise that eating is vital for our bodies, but this will only make our anxieties worse. If we want to eat, we will. If we don’t want to eat, but we are being forced to, we might feel extremely anxious, and do things like purge, exercise vigorously or stop eating once and for all. You can express your concern towards us, and maybe help us with the practical side of eating (portion control, cooking etc.), and just listen to us.
5. Don’t judge the way we eat
I’ve gone on a mainly vegan diet, which my partner doesn’t really understand – “How can you recover, when you are so obsessed with reading the labels to see if there’s whey powder in these biscuits?”, “Just have a bite, it’s only a bit of cheese”, “Why can’t you eat meat?” – and this makes me feel extremely frustrated. For the first time in my life, I am in control of food, and the food isn’t controlling me, and I still get judged for it. After I’ve started to recover from my eating disorder, I’ve started to pay extra attention to healthy eating, and being kind to my body, and still get judged for it by the people I love. It’s extremely important to let us be in control of our eating (just as long as we are doing it healthily, of course) and not give it any dirty looks or weird comments. It goes the other way round too – if we suddenly consume more food than normally, let us do so.
6. Understand the mindset of an eating disorder
It’s not rational. It’s not logical. We are just as lost with it as you are. We know it’s hard work, but if it’s hard work for you, just imagine what we go through every single day. The best way to help us is to understand us, and we cannot ask anything more than that. Do your research, understand the facts and be aware.
7. Notice the warning signs
I already mentioned this in section 2, but it is so vitally important that I want to bring it up again. As anyone with an eating disorder knows, we will go to ridiculously great lengths to hide our disorders – we truly are the masters of concealment. We will do anything to hide the dieting, purging and bingeing, and our sick minds can make us do very irrational things. We might be completely aware of what we are doing, and knowingly drive ourselves into relapse, or we might even be afraid to ask for help. This is where you come along.
“But, how can I help?”
Don’t give up on us, and let us know that you will be there for us. You cannot force us to change, or make our recovery move along any faster, but you can make us feel safe and loved. It is extremely exhausting to recover from an eating disorder, and it may take up to several years, and we need support in order to survive. There are lots of everyday things that you can do in order to help us, that don’t take much of your time either. Let us know your concern about our health, and rather than focusing on the bad, focus on the good. Don’t remind us about the breakdown we had after eating popcorn at the cinema, but remind us how much you enjoyed seeing the film with us instead. Do not make comments about our weight loss/weight gain, but do tell us how good that new top suits us. Don’t guilt us about our illness; we know we need to eat, we know our bodies need food, we know food is not poison, so instead of saying “Can you just please eat?”, express your worry in a more neutral way (for example: “I’m worried because you refuse to eat dinner”). And lastly, remember that we aren’t doing all of this on purpose: We aren’t trying to be difficult, and if we just could, we would choose to have a healthy mind. Don’t give up on us.