The day I was diagnosed with Anorexia both my parents were with me at the doctor’s office, sitting across from me. My parents were the ones involved in my treatment, the people who made sure I was eating each day when I was unable to do so on my own, my supporters and cheerleaders all along my journey. But they were not the only ones.
People often think of young teenage girls when they picture the population suffering from eating disorders. In reality, eating disorders do not discriminate; they strike men and women of all ages. While there are many cases in the young adult community, not all those suffering receive support from just parents. There are many resources for parents who are looking to be involved in their child’s treatment but there are fewer resources and organizations for the other supports in an individual’s life.
When I was diagnosed my friends, siblings, and boyfriend all wished to help me. Part of the reason that this was difficult was because I was not really accepting help. But the other part was that they were ignorant as to what to do. They were not directly involved in feeding me or witnessing my behaviors, but they wanted to help and knew I was in pain. They watched as I morphed into a different person and felt helpless as I retreated deeper into my disorder.
The following are some tips for siblings, friends, and partners:
• Don’t assume that you don’t matter or can’t have an impact. Your loved one is going through a difficult time and your support is incomparable. You may not understand what s/he is going through, but that doesn’t mean s/he doesn’t want you involved. Hardly anyone can truly understand what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder; what you can do is show him/her that you care and that you want to help.
• Test the temperature by creating a space for open communication. Not sure if you can talk about certain subjects? Nervous to talk about food or dieting or even clothes or celebrities? You can ask! There are some topics that should probably be avoided for a while like calories and pounds, etc. But if you aren’t sure, you can express that you want to make it the most comfortable for your loved one and do what feels okay for them.
• You are a strong motivation! I’ve heard countless times that people want to get better so that they can be good role models for siblings or return to having fun, deep relationships. At the same time, try not to pressure someone. If you’re a motivating factor for your loved one, awesome! You should feel blessed! But don’t use that as pressure. I’ve heard people say often, “If you loved me, you’d get better and know that I think you’re beautiful.” The sentiment is there but it completely ignores the deep pain and discomfort the person is experiencing and makes it seem as if recovery is possible but the individual is just being selfish and not “doing it already.”
• Be patient. Recovery takes time…and hold onto hope. More often than not, your loved one isn’t sure if recovery is possible and may look to you for guidance. The moment you doubt it, s/he will know. So although it’s hard, hold onto the hope that things will get better.
• It is important to show the person that you love him/her whether or not s/he has an eating disorder. Sometimes people don’t believe they’re loveable or special or adequate and showing them and reminding them of this is crucial. Sometimes it helps to start doing activities unrelated to the eating disorder, to show him/her that you want to be with him/her and that’s what matters.
• Take time for yourself! I often recommend that close friends/family see a counselor to be able to talk about what it’s like to have this experience. Be sure to take care of yourself and find time to do things just for you. If you aren’t taking care of yourself how can you possibly take care of your loved one?
Those who provide support to individuals suffering are often some of the strongest individuals. It is not easy and it is not always pleasant, but it is worth it. I would not be here today without the people who showed me I was loved and reminded me not only that I had so much to live for, but that they believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself.
Temimah is a graduate student at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work and works in the field of eating disorders. Want to bring her to your institution to speak about body image or eating disorder awareness? [email protected]
By Temimah Zucker