If you suspect someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, bringing it up with them can be a scary prospect. When someone has an eating disorder, it’s likely that they are in denial of what’s happening, think they have it under control or simply don’t want to talk about it.
Broaching the subject with them could make them upset, angry or defensive. Does this mean you should just hang back and not say anything? Hell no.
When you’re stuck in an eating disorder, the only way out (in my opinion) is with help from others. When you’re in it, you need a hand to pull you out and even push you a little towards help.
I dread to think what could have happened to me if my parents didn’t pull my hand and take me to the doctors.
So it is important to reach out to someone if you think they’re not well, but being gentle, compassionate and understanding is key.
An important point to mention here is this:
They aren’t purposefully trying to upset you or make things difficult. They have a mental illness. They have a voice in their head telling them what to do, what to eat and what to say. This voice harasses them, makes them feel utterly worthless.
Every time the thought of food comes up (which is likely to be often) they are battling a force greater than them.
They want to be happy again. They want to eat with abandon again. But they can’t. And no amount of shouting or telling them to eat is going to help.
Eating disorders are hard to understand. They change people and it can be hard to know what’s coming from the person and what’s coming from the disorder.
If you can make an effort to try and understand and come into the conversation with a genuine desire to help them – this is a positive start.
I’m not going to say everything I suggest here will work, we are all different and experience eating disorders in different ways. But, I did give some thought to how I would have liked to have been approached when I had anorexia and used that as my guide.
Do some preparation
If you don’t know much about eating disorders, read up on them first. This can help you start the process to understanding what may be going through the person’s mind and how they may be affected.
Do bear in mind however that we’re all different and they may not express ‘typical’ symptoms or look a certain way – you can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.
Don’t start the conversation somewhere where there’s food around
It may sound obvious, but don’t bring the conversation up at meal times, and especially not when you’re at a restaurant. Being around food is stressful for someone with an eating disorder so it’s unlikely that they’ll be in a good place to hear what you’re trying to say.
Instead, go somewhere neutral and somewhere where they feel comfortable. Maybe go for a walk outside, because there’s less eye contact, it can be easier for people to open up when walking.
Express your concern in a gentle way
Avoid focusing on physical symptoms here if possible, and explain that you’re concerned because they don’t seem themselves or they seem unhappy. Ask them if there’s anything they want to talk about and maybe ask if they’re having a hard time with food at the moment.
Listen to them without judgement
If they do tell you what’s going on, make sure you really listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t react in anger or question ‘but why don’t you just eat?’ – remember, they are battling with their minds every day, they’re exhausted.
Just listen, ask questions that show you want to try and understand. Focus on their thoughts and feelings, not how much they weigh, what they look like or what they’re physically eating.
Encourage them to get support, but let them retain some sense of control
A lot of this will depend on the age of the person in question and your relationship with them. Encouraging them to get support will be tricky as many people with eating disorders will see it as losing control.
If the eating disorder is anorexia or bulimia, they are likely to fear what getting help and recovery means for their body (i.e. putting on weight).
At this point, try and focus again on their thoughts and feelings. Tell them that professional help can make them feel better in their minds and help them get their life back. Talk about their future and all the amazing things they have to come, and that professional support can help them get there.
Offer a few options for support (such as seeing their doctor, making an appointment with a counsellor, talking to a helpline, joining a support group) and offer help.
Maybe you could go with them to the doctors. Maybe you could sit with them as they search for a counsellor. Allowing them a sense of control in this aspect can help them feel less like they’re losing control.
Avoid guilt-tripping them
It may be tempting to to guilt someone into getting help – telling them you can’t cope, that it’s destroying the family etc. but I honestly wouldn’t recommend it.
Chances are they are already feeling a HUGE amount of guilt, daily. They don’t want other people to worry about them, they don’t feel worthy of attention, love or support.
So if you tell them how much it’s hurting you, it may just make things worse for them. Take care of yourself, seek support yourself and have those moments when you cry and get upset – but try not to let them see this. It’ll only fuel their self-hatred.
Tell them you’re here for them
However the conversation goes, try and end it by saying you’re always here for them if they want to talk. Sometimes the moment you choose isn’t quite right, but knowing that you love them, you care for them and want to understand makes it much more likely for them to open up to in the future.
If they don’t want to talk to you
If they get defensive or angry, know that it’s not them speaking – it’s their eating disorder. It can sense danger and if it suspects you want to kill it, it will fiercely protect itself.
I know it sounds like I’m talking about some parasitic alien that’s using your friend/family member as a host, but to be honest – this is a good way to think about it.
If you get frustrated and angry (which is totally understandable) try and remember – they’re not doing it on purpose. Ease off and pick another time to pick up the topic again. Explain again how you want to understand and be there for them.
If you can sense that they want to talk but don’t feel comfortable telling you what’s going on, ask them if there’s anyone else they would feel comfortable talking to. They may prefer a man or woman, they may want to speak to a different family member.
Think about whether or not there’s anyone you know who they could speak to who may be able to offer some support.
Eating disorders are mutha fuckers. They’re so incredibly hard to deal with as a bystander, but please know that you’re not alone in this – seek support from others going through the same thing, join support groups or speak to your doctor for more advice.
There is light at the end of the tunnel and there is always hope of recovery. Early intervention is so important though, so if you suspect something, don’t avoid the subject or put it off.
Start the conversation, be kind, look to understand and be there for them. They may kick and scream at first, but I promise in the long-run, they’ll thank you for it.
Save for later: