Tuesday, 23 January 2018

What to say to someone with an Eating Disorder

Hello lovely people,

Since starting my Eating Disorder Recovery series on my blog, I've been wanting to write a complimentary piece for friends and family of those in recovery. Eating disorders are complex and difficult to understand at the best of times and as a result, even with the best intentions you can end up saying something hurtful or dangerous without even realising it. Today, I'm going to be covering a few Dos and Don'ts and hopefully offer some valuable insights.

DO - Be gentle

If you suspect that someone close to you has an eating disorder, please be gentle in approaching the topic. They will most likely be very defensive about it. It was months into therapy before I acknowledged that I had an eating disorder. Up until that point I had no idea of the extent of the problem or that I was restricting at all. In fact, I only considered my relationship with food to be problematic when I started binging (because it intensified my fear of gaining weight) despite the fact I had been restricting for 2 years beforehand. Disordered eating can often seem normal as it is actively promoted in recipe books, magazines, TV shows etc. and on top of that, when you are in an ED state of mind, it is very hard to see things from an any other perspective. It might be best to focus on something other than food and exercise. You could say something like 'I have noticed that you seem out of sorts lately, I care about you and I want to help'. 

• DON'T - Criticise food/excercise habits

Food and exercise are always going to be tricky topics, for obvious reasons. There is a difference between showing concern and criticising; 'I want to make sure you're getting the fuel you need' is a perfectly acceptable way of showing concern but phrases such as 'You're not eating enough'/'You're eating too much'/'You always exercise too much/too little' 'You eat the wrong kind of foods' 'Why don't you eat normally' can perpetuate shame surrounding food and exercise. Try and bring it back to you - 'I know you're trying your best right now, why don't you have a rest/a snack to recharge your batteries' 'I want you to know that you are worthy of rest/you deserve to eat'. ED behaviours are symptoms of a bigger problem. If you can focus on the core issue, they will eventually heal themselves.

DO - Keep in contact

Eating disorders can be very isolating. If you are close with somebody who is suffering from an eating disorder - text them, ask them how they're doing. if they'd rather not talk about it, let them know that's OK and that you're there to listen if they change their mind. Suggest making plans to do something fun - even if they decline, they will appreciate the effort. Share funny videos with them on Facebook or talk about a common interest. Don't be afraid to talk to them as you normally would - just because they're ill doesn't mean they're not human. Establish where the boundaries are. Often, when you're mentally ill, you feel too ashamed or embarrassed to meet up with people because you think that they with treat you differently or think less of you. If you're not a close family member, maybe they are only comfortable texting you for now. Please don't be offended. This is a scary time for them. Let them know that you're not going to judge them or ditch them just because they're ill.

• DON'T - Freak out

OH MY GOD r u srsly anorexic or something?!?! U cud totally die from dat!?!?!!!

Please don't freak out. Fear mongering is not a good recovery tactic. Don't tell them that their eating disorder is freaking you out. Don't accuse them of bad behaviour. I know that this is a scary and overwhelming time for you but this is not a time to point the finger. If you wouldn't say it to someone with a physical illness (like cancer) don't say it to someone with a mental illness. Nobody chooses to have an eating disorder. It is not attention seeking or an act of vanity (far from it). It is an illness and behind that illness is a person, with thoughts and feelings and wants and needs. They are not an epidemic - treat them with kindness.

• DO - Educate yourself

Learn as much as you can about eating disorders. Try to see things from their point of view. Before I had an eating disorder, I was incredibly ignorant on the topic. Read books about eating disorders, diet culture and body positivity. Find blogs (doing well on that front..hehe..), watch documentaries, YouTube videos etc. I plan on writing an entire blog post on my book recommendations but for now, Life without Ed by Jenni Schaefer is a great place to start. It's suitable for those recovering and also for friends and family. In addition, I would strongly recommend that you avoid watching the Netflix movie 'To the Bone' - it is a dangerous misrepresentation of eating disorders and contains highly triggering scenes (seriously, don't get me started on it....). Understand that there is a lot of misinformation out there, including from medical professionals. Don't take things at face value, research them and look at things critically.

• DON'T - Comment on their appearance

I know that you may be tempted to say 'You look great' 'You look really slim' 'You are the perfect size' 'You're not fat' 'Just gain/lose a bit more weight and then you'll look amazing' but to someone with an eating disorder, comments about appearance can be unhelpful and even dangerous. In addition, they may be suffering from Body Dysmorphia, in which case, their physical appearance will appear distorted when they look in the mirror. When I was at my lowest weight, I remember looking in the mirror and thinking that I was the biggest I had ever been. Even if they aren't suffering from BDD, they will most likely experience extreme negative feelings about their body and harbour the belief that they are ugly. 
Instead of commenting on appearance, shift the focus onto other things. Let them know that their appearance is the least interesting thing about them. Compliment their kindness, their bravery, their determination, their sense of humour. If you do compliment their appearance, try using less triggering phrases like 'you have a beautiful smile'. It is also important to note that a person's outward appearance may completely contradict their mental state; someone could look healthy and happy on the outside while being mentally ill. Therefore, by saying to someone with an eating disorder 'you look great', you may involuntarily undermine the mental distress they are experiencing. 

• DO - Create a safe space

Sweet lord - do not talk about diets, calories, or exercise regimes to them or around them. Do not keep any magazines or flyers or newspapers in the house that contain crap about weight loss or being 'healthy' or joining the gym or cutting out food groups or tummy toning exercises or anything that could potentially be triggering. I realise that this is a tricky task since these topics are absolutely everywhere, but that is even more reason to do it. The world is so full of weight loss b.s., it is important to have a space that is free of those external pressures. Maybe replace those things with something positive like a sacred space? Also, try to avoid putting yourself down in front of them (or at all tbh), if you are modelling self-deprecating behaviours, they will most likely see that as permission to treat themselves badly.

• DON'T - Blame yourself

Please don't. It is not your fault. You could not have single-handedly prevented this from happening. You are not going to get everything right and that's OK. You are only human. As long as you are trying your best, that's all that matters. You will get through this and become stronger and more resilient as a result. It may even strengthen your relationship with the person suffering. Remember to take care of yourself in all this. You are not expected to sacrifice yourself - it won't help anyone, least of all you. 

• DO - Keep an open dialogue

Not sure if something is triggering? ASK. Think you may have upset them? APOLOGISE. Confused about something? TALK ABOUT IT. This might not be the most comfortable subject to talk about at first but by making an effort to keep an open dialogue, you are more likely to notice if something is wrong and be able to help. Don't assume anything, even if you read something in a book, or receive advice from a professional, it's still better to talk about it with the person who has the eating disorder. It will get easier, the more you talk about it. It's a healthy habit to get into and one that will be hugely beneficial to all parties.

This list is by no means exhaustive and obviously, I can only speak from personal experience. Everybody's experience is going to be different and it is important to respect that.

Quote from namakte on Tumblr via bodiposipanda on instagram

I hope that this post has been helpful, let me know your thoughts. 

Find my other eating disorder recovery posts here!

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Until the next time,

Niamh xxx

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