Eating disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in our world. Unfortunately, they are also very misunderstood. Just like bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, and others, eating disorders have certain stigmas attached to them, resulting in minimal support and increased instability for those affected.
Eating disorders, to the uneducated population, are just “a way to get skinny” or “to get attention.” For those uneducated people, I ask you this: If you had cancer, should I tell you to “just get over it?”
While the rest of the world continuously mislabels eating disorders. I implore you: If you have a loved one with an eating disorder, please have patience and provide the love that the majority of the world can not give.
If you have a loved one with an eating disorder, whether it’s a significant other, son or daughter, friend or parent, there are a few things to keep in mind.
1. An eating disorder is an illness, not a choice.
We can’t turn off our anxiety as we please. If we are having a hard day, just remember that we are struggling and we may need a little more support than usual. Don’t try to “snap us out of it.” I guarantee it won’t work. Please, don’t blame us, either. I can’t begin to calculate the amount of times I have been blamed for my illness.
2. Trigger PHRASES exist.
Try to refrain from phrases such as “You are perfect the way you are right now” or “You look good right now.” As confusing as this request may be, it is just as confusing for a person with an eating disorder to hear those compliments. Why? Because in our heads, those comments really mean “You look great right now, DON’T GAIN WEIGHT” or “You could still be better.” Eating disorders are tricky. Try using phrases such as “That is just your eating disorder talking. It’s not you,” or “You are beautiful no matter what.” If you removed the “right now” from the statements above, even that could be enough.
A simple “I love you” can be all we need.
3. If we say we are fine despite red flags, we are most likely not fine.
Like I’ve said, eating disorders are tricky. Loved ones tend to miss or shrug off the warning signs that indicate a struggle. Push us. Tell us when we aren’t acting like ourselves. My mom told me that when I was in my disorder, a light went out. I lost my spark, light, and the personality that made me who I am. Whether we want to hear it or not doesn’t matter.
If you can tell that we aren’t eating, or that our mood is lower than usual, or that our anxiety is higher, push us to realize it. We like to deny when we aren’t doing well. We like to think that our problems aren’t E.D. related when, in reality, they most likely are. While we like a push, we don’t appreciate the passive aggressive behavior either. Be upfront, be caring, everything will be okay.
4. Empathize, don’t relate.
You do not have an eating disorder if you are "So busy you forget to eat,” or you “Can’t seem to keep weight on.” These alone are not indicators of an eating disorder. I have heard significant others say these things to me before and it scares me. It drives me nuts when I open up and say that I have a disorder and the only response is “I am sooooo skinny! I can’t seem to gain weight.” Or “I think I have one too because sometimes I just don’t feel like eating.” It makes me crazy and it makes me feel like no one will ever TRULY get it. Don’t fall into that category. Empathize, but please don’t try to tell us you understand our pain. You will never truly get it until you are in our position. Just be there for us. That’s all we ask.
5. Sex is not easy for us.
Sorry for putting that out there, mom and dad, but it’s true. This does not mean that we do not want to have sex. When in love and ready to express that, of course sex is NOT something to avoid.
When struggling with an eating disorder, however, intimacy is probably one of the scariest things that we have to deal with while in a relationship. That can change once we have become comfortable with that person. Personally, I deal with body dysmorphia along with anorexia, so intimacy is not an easy thing. We constantly view ourselves as “fat” or as someone who our boyfriend or girlfriend will not be impressed with. Just be patient with us, remind us that we are beautiful, and just remember that we are trying. But don’t be hypersensitive to us. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I am not okay with what is happening, I will say so. But if I say that I am okay with what is happening, please believe me.
6. Watch those triggers!
I can not express this enough. This is probably the most important one! While our society focuses on weight, diet, style etc., it is important not to do it yourself while around someone who is struggling. It’s inevitable that we will be exposed to this kind of language, along with the access to diet pills, weight loss books, etc., but we ask that you don’t chime in and contribute to the problem. Even though I am considered recovered, I still get triggered from time to time. It’s important to acknowledge the triggers and to simply not expose us to them. Try to provide a safe environment. Let the rest of the world suck.
6. Recovery doesn’t happen over night.
Dear loved ones - I feel you. I feel the frustration and impatience that you must feel all the time. This is not an easy thing to deal with, especially when you are on the outside looking in. When you love someone who is sick, supporting them feels like a full time job. Some people want to take this on, but a lot of people don’t. I acknowledge you for the support and love you provide. It takes a certain kind of person to have that much patience and love in their hearts and I thank you so much for this.
7. Get educated.
Educate yourself! Read about eating disorders, speak to the treatment team, speak to us directly, try to understand as much as possible. Speak to other loved ones who were there for recovery. The more you know about what we are dealing with, the easier it will become.
8. Remember that recovery is possible and, in most cases, inevitable.
It WILL happen. Hang in there. This is just as hard on you as it is on us. You, too, are validated and appreciated. It’s important to remember that we aren’t the only ones fighting. You, too, are fighting. You are supported and loved. We have your back just as you have ours.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out. You might just save a life.