Helping a friend or significant other who is struggling with an eating disorder is no easy task. An eating disorder is, at best, a stress-causing monster, and at worst, a murderer.
Those who suffer from the disease often do so in silence, sometimes even unaware that there's a problem at all. There is a secrecy that goes along with having an eating disorder, creating a force field between the victim and everyone else in his or her life.
It is the inclination of loved ones to want to step in, have a formal heart to heart, or stage a loving intervention. While stemming from good intentions, these aggressive strategies are risky. Unfortunately, tactics that address the disease head-on can sometimes have the opposite effect.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that recovery can only happen when the person who is suffering wants it to happen; it cannot be forced. This can make friends and family feel helpless, but there are several indirect ways to be supportive and helpful to someone battling this silent demon.
1. Learn As Much As You Can
This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised by how little some people know about eating disorders. There are a lot of assumptions and generalizations, ranging from "anorexia is a cry for attention" to "eating disorders only affect females."
There are millions of people, both men and women, who suffer from a variety of eating disorders, and there's not one specific answer as to what causes them.
The best thing you can do for someone who is struggling with this disease is to try to understand what's happening. Ask questions, and be available to listen.
Visit websites, not just those run by national organizations, but look at blogs and online communities for people struggling with eating disorders.
The Internet is a vast resource for women and men struggling with eating disorders, and a quick search will yield a plethora of content, some of which might frighten you. Immerse yourself in the mindset to gain a specific kind of insight that a psychology textbook won't tell you.
2. Encourage Healthy Choices That Are "Safe"
Many people with eating disorders have a running mental list of "safe" and "scary" foods. Through observation, you might be able to get an idea of what foods your friend is comfortable eating; these are foods that don't make him or her anxious.
You can try to capitalize on that information and use it to create stress-free situations.
Full disclosure: This is a risky tactic if not executed well; you obviously don't want to reinforce a fear of food. But, if you can find a way to encourage your friend to eat something that is, by nutritional standards, healthy, while also simultaneously avoiding anxiety, it's a win-win.
For example, if your friend chooses to eat chickpeas, whip out your food processor, have a hummus-making party and invite him or her over.
If your friend isn't ready to confront his or her demons just yet, at least help him or her to be as physically healthy as possible. All the while, let friends know you are there for them whenever they are ready to take the next step in recovery.
3. Offer a Different Perspective
It might sound simple, but sometimes a fresh way of looking at something can make all the difference. One of the problems with eating disorders is that they create a warped perspective on everything, ranging from portion size to what constitutes a reasonable amount of exercise.
It can take a long time for those perspectives to shift during recovery, but there are ways to help.
Suggest a fun social activity, like a hike and a picnic lunch, to bring things that might typically be done in secret into a new environment. Someone who uses exercise as self-punishment might benefit from a healthy and social version of working out, and it might help him or her view the activity in a different way.
4. Avoid Complimenting Weight Loss...
This one is tricky because it's instinct to tell your friends they look good. Society tells us we should praise thinness, and it can be a knee-jerk reaction to do so.
But even if your friend looks great, try to remember there's a war inside his or her mind. What may outwardly appear to be fashionable and attractive is inwardly represented as dark chaos.
Complimenting weight loss is dangerous because you are adding fuel to the eating disorder's power over your friend. Although an eating disorder is not just about being thin, the association between weight loss and gratification from praise will undoubtedly bear some kind of silent effect.
Instead of complimenting, continue to remind your friend that you're willing to listen. Ask how he or she is feeling, inquire about what he or she may be thinking. I cannot stress this enough: It never hurts to know that the option to talk is there, even if your friend isn't ready to do so.
5. ...But Don't Ignore Significant Changes
It's hard to find a balance between quietly observing and speaking up with confidence. You don't want to alienate someone suffering from an eating disorder by creating a confrontational atmosphere, but at the same time, you have a responsibility as this person's friend. So what do you do?
If you do feel the need to address this issue, try not to be too specific. Eating disorders can cause people to fixate on certain details, such as the protruding of collarbones or the definition of one's ribcage. Drawing attention to those elements might produce a surprising satisfaction in someone who is routinely checking him or herself for those exact qualities.
Rather than commenting on weight or body at all, simply express that you are worried about his or her health. Explain that you respect your friend's privacy, but you have an obligation to convey your concern. Focus on your relationship and his or her feelings, rather than weight and body shape.
6. Manage Your Own Emotions
There is no doubt it's emotionally draining and stressful to know that a friend or loved one is dealing with an eating disorder. You may find yourself worrying about this person all of the time, feeling responsible for making sure he or she is healthy and feeling frustrated when you can't change his or her behavior.
It is very important that you don't ever make someone feel guilty or ashamed for having an eating disorder. Keep in mind that an eating disorder is not something your friend can control; rather, he or she is subjected to a series of thoughts, emotions and compulsions that feel very involuntary.
Eating disorders are not selfish, and they are not vain. Find ways to deal with your own feelings. Talk to other friends, or seek help yourself. Take care of your own emotions, so you are better fitted to be supportive.
7. Above All Else, Remember, Recovery Comes From Within
At the end of the day, no one can force a person to recover from an eating disorder. No one can wave a magic wand and fix it. There is no switch to be flipped, no tangible cure to be delivered by a doctor.
Although you can't push recovery on someone who isn't ready, you can spark the desire to recover simply by being a good friend. Continue to reach out, suggest plans, encourage your friend to be social. Be the catalyst for change simply by extending a hand every day.
Stand tall through the entire journey; don't preach, criticize or make demands. This requires unrelenting patience, but if you maintain your strength and reinforce your relationship through this battle, you may be the light to guide your friend out of the worst darkness imaginable.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It