Eating Disorders: How to Help & Support a Sufferer (and not make things worse!)
First, if you are reading this, thank God for you!! You, unfortunately have someone in your life who's battling this demon (or think may be) and are doing your best to support them. But, let me just take a moment to give you credit for going through this. Whether you are a mom, a friend, a sister, aunt, grandma, boyfriend--THIS IS AN INCREDIBLY HARD THING FOR YOU TO GO THROUGH. A person you love is starving themeseves. HOLY CRAP. All the attention is and will go to the person in the hot seat, naturally, and you may be left feeling in need of support, too.
You. Are. Freaking. Amazing.
...and strong, and capable, and most importantly, it's not your fault. Despite this awful disease, they love you. You and the sufferer will get through this. I did, and so did my family and friends.
Things to Keep in Mind:
- They Are Not Trying to Hurt You
- An eating disorder can manifest in so many different ways, and are often result in the releasing of a lot of anger and frustration. Despite what the sufferer says, they are NOT trying to "get back at you" or hurt you in any way. Period.
They May Be Blind to the Obvious
It can be extremely frustrating to see a thin person freak out about being "too fat" and can cause a lot of irritation for anyone just trying to help. Because anorexia is a psychological disorder, it usually brings with it other psychological disorder friends--one of them being body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia is a real condition where someone truly and genuinely believes themselves to look a way they don't. Any convincing of them otherwise is simply not heard--they can't see the reality.
- They are not enjoying this!!
- I remember one day out of frustration, a family member yelled in exhasperation "do you think this is fun/funny!?!" and I cannot blame them for loosing their temper...I was killing myself. But, this just angered me to my core. Enjoying THIS?! Enjoying being haunted by thoughts of numbers, food, and my body 24/7?? Enjoying the fear of social interactions where I would have to hide food or sit and stare at it?? It is not fun for anyone. Period.
- Anger, frustration, or force feeding will only do more damage.
- First off, I think it goes without saying that anger or frustration only generates more anger & frustration. Force feeding or making threats to do so is a traumatizing experience for someone with a food phobia. It would be like telling a spider-phobic person that you are going to buy a tarantula and put it on their face at night. It will not scare them into eating--they will just despise you and your tactics. Just avoid this.
- The sufferer needs a consistent, calm voice to help settle their internal storm.
- One thing that almost always comes with anorexia is anxiety. When I got sick, I also became OCD. Not the "omg I'm so OCD" OCD...the, real, psychological disorder OCD--there is a HUGE difference. My room became a spotless box. Nobody could touch my things. I would open and close doors over and over again to hit a certain number that then allowed me to continue my day (sounds crazy, but that's OCD for you). All of this caused serious anxiety for me day in and day out. The last thing I ever needed was more external anxiety. So, I urge you to not interact or offer support on days when you feel depleted--they need calm strength during this time and any anxiety coming from the outside can make things worse.
One thing my family learned the hard way is that people battling anorexia are extremely self-conscious and words are taken seriously. You may be familiar with the term "trigger" in this regard and that's essentially any and everything that will cause a suffer to dive further into their illness. Though you cannot be expected to be perfect with this, just keep in mind that what you say to an anorexic need be thought through if you want to help them. But, please do keep in mind that is my personal opinion based on my experience with the illness, watching & helping others with the illness and my study of psychology.
What Not To Say:
1) You Look Great
- So, this is counterintuitive but let me explain! Mentions of how a sufferer looks is the very last thing you want to engage in because remember, this illness is not about looks!! What?? Yes. It's just a manifestation of inner turmoil via seeking control with food. So commenting on their body only puts more pressure on them to achieve or maintain some physical form when the focus should be on re-gaining a sense of self.
2) You Look Sick/You Looked better before
- Simply said, this is only making the suffer-er more self conscious and will not encourage them to gain weight. They will probably just want to restrict more out of pure insecurity. Period.
3) Just Eat.
- Really? (ahaha) In case this is not blatantly obvious, telling an anorexic to just eat is like telling a sufferer of depression to "just not be sad." It doesn't work like that...! This will only cause more pain for the sufferer--just avoid saying this at ALL costs.
Safe Things to Say:
1) What you are doing will seriously harm you.
- When I was very deep in my battle with anorexia, one thing that did strike some fear into the part of me that wanted to live was the possibility of damaging my body forever. But the only time I took this seriously is when I was reminded of this is a very calm, loving way as opposed to out of frustration. They key is avoiding threats. You are not trying to threaten them...you just want to speak truth out of love.
*Tones and tempers mean so much when communicating a message.*
2) How can I help?
- This is more about the spirit of the offer rather than actually being able to "help." I remember when I would have crying fits my mom would always ask me, "how can I help you right now?" and though I would scream and cry and be tormented with hunger coupled with fear, often not knowing HOW she could really help, her sincere gesture often calmed me down and brought me down from a fit.
2) This is not your fault, we will get through this, but can you be open to getting help?
- It took a WHILE for my support system to understand that I wasn't choosing this "lifestyle" but rather, that I was trapped within it. I remember being so angry that I had "gotten anorexia" and just wanted someone to tell me, it wasn't my fault. My incredible therapist was the first person to actually say those words. Hearing her say them--specifically the "this is not your fault" was like freeing me of all the guilt I ever had. I believe that hearing this was a major turning point in my recovery--I just wanted someone to understand that I felt like a victim--Like I had been innocently playing with a match-- fire--, but then got a 3rd degree-burn.
3) You were beautiful then, you are beautiful now, and you will always be beautiful.
- Though I said not to talk about the suffer's body, I do think it was important for me to hear that I was a beautiful person, on a character and spiritual level. The key words are "then" "now" & "will always be" because this automatically removes size or shape from the picture. This insinuates that no matter what they do or look like, they will always be beautiful. This is so so so powerful!
4) You are an amazing person, and deserve to do amazing things. You will be cheated of that if we let this take your health or your life!
- I was reminded by my mom and therapist of this and thank God. A sufferer of anorexia usually has very very low self esteem despite their often strong, confident, fake-smiles vibe. I needed to be told...reminded that I was born for a reason! I wasn't put here to starve myself or suffer--this wasn't me!! I had something to bring to this world and it wouldn't be fair to cheat myself or others of this.
You may have already heard this, but I'll say it again: You cannot force someone out of anorexia's grips. If you could, it would not be the deadliest mental illness. No matter what you do, how nice you are, how supportive and loving you are, they will be responsible for their ultimate outcome. But, that being said, being taken to treatment DOES have a high success rate, so I'm all for that! Just keep in mind that you can only do so much--so keep doing what you are doing--keep it up--but do not put the weight of their outcomes on what they choose to do in or outside of treatment. That's not your burden to carry as awful as that may sound.
Now, I know that the nature of this post is on the blunt side, and I understand if you feel hopeless. I know that my mom and dad must have felt an incredible sense of sadness watching me defy every offering of help at the time. But that being said, I made it out. I made a FULL recovery. It took time--2 full years of intense struggle and 2 years of climbing out, but nonetheless, I made it.
How? I had relentless support from mostly my mom and a therapist. She (my mom), no matter what, was there for me--at crazy hours of the night, early in the morning, and when I was panicking over "eating 5 extra calories". And, though I didn't want to at first, seeing a therapist, NOT PSYCHIATRIST (who would only made things worse) was like the magic sauce of recovery.
At the end of the day, I wanted a life--I didn't want to die or be depressed forever--I knew that deep down, but had I not had support, I would have never had the desire to live re-planted in me. So, kicking and screaming (literally the number of breakdowns I had during recovery is off the charts--so expect them from the person suffering) I made small steps outside my self-constructed box and over time, I abandoned that box. I can still see it in the distance, but I'm no longer inside it. And that's the goal.
So, if you take anything from this blog post, remember, patience, persistence and positivity is what a sufferer needs. They need an air of calm and rational in their internal storm. I remember the most breakthrough moments happened when my mom would sit with me for hours and just let me talk in circles to her about what was in my head, followed by her calmly and unconditionally loving me. I am a firm believer that love always wins.
If you have any questions, need tips or advice, or are just seeking support, please reach out, comment, email--anything! Thank you for reading.