Help me Help you.
Is there a person in your life that you feel may be struggling with an eating disorder?
There is no cookie cutter mold for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, but there are sure common signs that are universal: disconnection from loved ones, a lack of interest in social activities, the inability to enjoy a meal without anxiety and discomfort- seclusion, fabrication, manipulation, depression, anxiety… the list goes on. For someone who is constantly battling eating disorder thoughts in their brain, the lack of ability to be present in the moment is palpable. People who suffer from ED think they are fooling those around them, but as you as a loved one know, they only person they are fooling is him/herself.
I know this because I was the one who thought I was fooling everyone. In reality, I was fooling no one but myself.
Many people tried to help me see how sick I was when I was in the midst of my battle with anorexia. My husband would tell me my “food rules” for myself were unhealthy. He would try to make me finish my meals and make me see the error in my ways of giving up carbohydrates and sugar - but my ED told me I was “right”. In the eating disordered brain, ED always wins. My best friends did not want to anger me by speaking up, so they silently supported in the ways they could. They were afraid to confront me because they did not understand what to say to me. A co-worker of mine took the direct route: he said that I was “gross” from being so skinny and told me to “eat a hamburger.” These words are a classic saying that most every anorexic sufferer has heard at least once or twice. Needless to say, these attempts to help me during my time of refusal and denial did not go over well.
A person with an eating disorder is no different from any other human being in that they do not like being told what to do and that they are wrong, sick, manipulated, or bullied into making changes. People who suffer from eating disorders are human and want care, want security, and want to trust the person who is confronting them on such a sensitive and severe matter.
So how can you do this?
1. Be present and build trust.
When someone I did not know well or someone who did not invest in spending time with me would comment on my health, I would immediately do an imaginary eye roll, throw a fake smile their way, and not think twice about the interaction. “What do they know- they don’t know me!” would be my justification. If someone who I loved and/or cared about would make an observation or question my health, even if I would brush off the comment or differ the conversation, the interaction would stick with me. If you are not close to the person you are concerned about, talk with someone who is close to them. Allow someone who is in a trusted, meaningful relationship with that person to voice concerns in a non-threatening conversation.
2. Don’t make accusations, but ask questions.
Think about it- when you are going through something extremely difficult or trying, who do you want to confine in? The person in your life who tells you how you are handling your situation is wrong and chastises you for your stupidity or the person in your life who is willing to listen and allows you to feel your emotions and helps you come to the conclusion yourself? Believe me, most people would choose the latter. The best way to reach someone is to ask questions.
When my husband stopped telling me what to do and started asking me questions, my unwillingness to take a deeper look into my disease and health lessened. Even if the question did not get answered at the moment, it would plant a seed in my brain; I would contemplate it for as long as I needed, and then I would often come back to him when I was ready to talk. Once, in the kitchen as I was packing my lunch for the day, he asked me, “Do you think that sandwich is enough fuel for your body?” Annoyed, I said “Yes”, but when I sat down to eat, I thought about how small the portion was and how it lacked so many nutrients. When I would lace up my shoes to go on a run, he would ask, “Is this a get to run, or a have to run?” Again, annoyed I would answer, “Get to, of course!”, but as my feet pounded the pavement I would truly know in my wise mind that my ED was making me run. The questions made me think; and after a while, my wise mind could no longer deny the truth. Ask your loved one questions and listen when they speak. You will know when you are talking to their “wise mind” (healthy thinking) and when you are talking to ED. I know you are sick of ED- but…
3. Be patient, and don’t give up!
Everyone is on his/her own journey and you cannot make someone be in a place of thinking clearly and being rational when they are simply not there yet. Be patient. It took me 16 years to decide I needed help. That is a long time! The people I love had to endure years of watching me struggle, feeling me pull away, and searching for answers that they could not find. I was not able to help them because I didn’t know how to help myself. Intensive treatment gave me the tools to learn how to help myself, and in turn, taught me how to use my voice to tell my loved ones what I needed from them. Don’t give up. My support system is why I am still alive today. No matter how much I pushed them away, they loved me through it while still respecting their boundaries and feelings. No matter how much they did not understand my disorder, they were willing to participate in my recovery and learn how to help me stay healthy. Even if it meant digging into their own past, their own shortcomings, and their own part in my pain, they were willing. I am forever grateful for their patience and willing to participate in my journey to freedom from ED.
4. Seek professional help
Recovery is a delicate balance; my therapist Dr. Genie Burnett has a perfectly balanced mobile in her office that hangs above her desk. When I came out of treatment, she sat my husband and me down and told us we were like that mobile. We learned a balance with the eating disorder in the mix, and when I got help it ruined the flow of our lives. Although the eating disorder was detrimental, we learned to live in that chaotic space with ED in the driver’s seat. Without my ED, we had to relearn to function healthily together. This is how every family and relationship works when disorder is in the mix. Not only did I need to continue to seek help and accountability to stay on track, my husband had to seek help to get rid of his resentment, fear of me relapsing, and re-creating a healthier balance for our family. It was hard for him to admit he needed help because it was me who was disordered, not him. In the end, he was so grateful for the support he got and the tools he learned by working with a professional in the field as well.
To sum up you can provide support to someone who is struggling by: building trust, asking questions, listening, being patient, not giving up, and seeking help for yourself. All these things will help you help your loved one who is suffering from an eating disorder. They will also help you cope in the process!