How do you support someone who has an eating disorder? How do you stand by as someone you care about slowly destroys themselves?
That’s a tricky one. I’ve watched as friends have done this. I’ve cried. I’ve cried so much over the thought of losing friends to this disease. Cried because I can’t fix them. Cried because they seem so lost, so trapped, so controlled by the illness. It breaks my heart. No words describe the level of pain, despair and hopelessness one can feel in that situation.
I’m very aware that my own behaviour, at the moment, can cause that same pain, despair and hopelessness for all that care about me. I am grateful I have so many people that love and care, yet it also fills me with guilt. I don’t feel that I am worthy of that at all. When in the depths of my eating disorder every single little, deep seated fear I’ve ever had comes to the surface. I become 100% convinced that I am unlovable, unworthy, horrible and so much more.
These fears fuel the eating disorder. They give it energy and momentum that it wouldn’t otherwise have. Every single comment (from anyone), every advertisement, anything is twisted into fuelling the disorder. Someone says to focus on an end point, a goal I want to achieve. They meant in terms of recovery and being well. ED twists it to be about reaching a goal weight or dying.
I’ve strayed from my original point though.How do you support someone with an eating disorder? How can those who love and care about me support me?
Honestly? By loving and caring. I know no one can fix me, cure me, make everything okay. It doesn’t work like that. Getting better is something I have to do myself… but not necessarily on my own. I don’t think someone can recover on their own. Yes, they need to do the work to get better, but to do that in isolation would be incredibly hard.
Sometimes I need reassurance. In the past I’ve cried and screamed over food, eating it, and so much more. What’s most useful when I’m sobbing about how much I’ve eaten, how horrible I feel and how I’ve ruined everything is reassurance. Gentle, loving reassurance. Yelling at me about how I’m wrong and irrational doesn’t help. It gives the ED so much more ammunition and leads to, oh so many, arguments.
In supporting others in the past I’ve stuck to the facts. Referred back to what I know the person’s dietitian, GP, psychologist etc. have said. I stick to facts. Body’s need food. Food is fuel. If you’ve been starving and binge – it does feel really uncomfortable and frightening, but it will be okay.
In saying that, when I’m panicking about how much I’ve consumed, there is very little anyone can say to comfort me. Reminders that it will be okay do help ever so slightly. Distractions are useful. It really is a matter of sitting it out. Eventually the intense, overwhelming feelings and thoughts do settle.
One of the most unhelpful things I’ve experienced is the blame game. Over the years I’ve been blamed for becoming ill, for not recovering, for hurting people, for being selfish. I think many, many comments are made out of fear, love and concern. When I’m in a logical space I do understand where the comments have come from. However, regardless of the space I am in, these comments are so unhelpful. They are crushing, destroying, soul breaking.
That might sound overly dramatic but consider this: Someone with an eating disorder, myself included, is already filled with self-loathing, self-hatred and generally appalling self-esteem. Adding blame to someone who is already suffering is just cruel. Family and friends are very much entitled to their thoughts and feelings, it’s just that, it is not appropriate to share some of these with the sufferer. It isn’t useful. It doesn’t help.
All I suggest is that you think about how your comment will be of use and how it may be interpreted by the sufferer. If a negative outcome is a possibility – just leave it for now. Bite your tongue, pop your thoughts and feelings aside for a moment. These can be expressed to someone other than the sufferer. Find someone to vent to. Someone who can listen to you yell and scream your frustration. Your burning urge to shake some sense into the sufferer.
The bottom line – gentle, loving and patient reassurance does help. Blaming, accusing and inducing guilt do not help.