When Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder: Wise Words from Women Who've Been There
This week at Weightless we’re extending eating disorder awareness week (which was last week) with several posts dedicated to eating disorders.
When a loved one has an eating disorder, families can feel scared, frustrated and confused. One of the questions I ask women who’ve recovered from eating disorders is how families can help their loved one. Today, I want to share with you some wise words from these women. Also, you’ll find a list of additional resources for families and friends below.
From Andrea Roe:
Be supportive. Let your loved one know you are always there for them, no matter what. Encourage them to do activities with you. Go for a walk. Go shopping. Spend time on hobbies the sufferer still enjoys. Just having a meaningful conversation.
It is often difficult for someone with an eating disorder to be really open and honest with their loved ones as there is so much fear and shame connected with this disorder. We are afraid of being rejected, being made fun of, being left alone.
Don’t force them to act “normal.” You cannot force someone with an eating disorder to change their beliefs or behaviors. You cannot force an anorexic to eat, a bulimic to stop vomiting, or a binge eater to stop eating huge amounts of food. We have to remember that eating disorders are not simply about food and weight.
As well, learn as much as you can about eating disorders. There are many books written for loved ones filled with information on eating disorders and also tips and advice on how to best support someone with an eating disorder, what to say and do and also what not to say and do. Eating disorders are still very misunderstood in today’s culture. A little education can go a long way.
REMEMBER: Be realistic. Successfully dealing with an eating disorder takes time. Don’t expect your loved one to be “cured” right after treatment. Recovery is a process. There is also no rule for how long it takes for someone to recover. We all have different stories to tell, different reasons why we developed our eating disorders, and we are all at different points in our lives.
From Eleanor Kohlsaat:
That’s a tough one. It’s frustrating to watch someone struggling with a food problem and nothing you say or do seems to help. The most important thing, in my view, is to demonstrate that you love and accept that person as they are right now, independent of them behaving a certain way or meeting your qualifications. You value them just for being themselves.
Clamping down on a binge eater is the worst thing you can do. The second worst thing you can do is make comments, either negative or positive, about what they eat or how much. Most binge eaters are highly sensitive to being judged, and trust me, they’re already acutely aware of everything they put into their mouth.
If you’re a parent or someone else responsible for bringing food into the home, try to create an atmosphere of healthy abundance. Make sure there’s always food available, but real food that needs to be prepared, not processed food that can just be scarfed out of the package. Don’t place an undue emphasis on serving sizes. We all need to figure out for ourselves what constitutes an appropriate portion and to make mistakes and learn from them.
From Michelle Myers:
Encourage, listen and be there. Every eating disorder is different, and every eating disorder patient is different. There is not one set of rules that will apply in every situation. You know the victim better than anyone else. Respond to meet their needs.
From Kendra Sebelius:
This is a very hard part of this disorder and addictions as well. It really depends on the person and the family relationships. I did some really awful things to my parents, but they always stood by me. They knew it was the disorder and drinking, and not me who was “bad.” They could see them as separate, and that helped.
I do believe my parents could have used more information on eating disorders. I think any parent who suspects a loved one has an eating disorder should do their research and find support for themselves. Recovery is not only for the person who has the ED, the loved ones are going through their own journey, and I would recommend they seek therapy, read books and join support groups if there are any in their area.
I also recommend loved ones listen to the person struggling with the ED, and be open about how they may not understand the disorder, that they support those who struggle. I really needed to feel “heard.” I also think, in my particular situation, I needed someone to call me out and draw the line. I needed to be sent away. I am a very strong-willed person, and needed someone else to help. I knew I was not able to seek out the help I needed.
I also recommend family members try to have an open dialogue. If they can’t do this, maybe family therapy could help.
Most of all, family members need to be patient. Recovery is not an easy, quick process, and often parents feel guilty, and want to “fix” it but cannot. It’s a powerless position, and very difficult, which is why they need their own support during this time.
Also – this disorder lies: Often while you think a loved one may need help, the person struggling will not and sometimes cannot see this. Try not to lash out with frustration, and understand that it is a very complicated disorder, and it is normal for the person struggling to not want help, be unwilling to stop behaviors and may get very angry at any suggestion of help.
In my case, being forceful helped. I needed someone else to make the decision where I could not. But every person is different – and often seeing a therapist or psychiatrist that specializes in ED could help loved ones know how to initially pursue treatment for those struggling.
In the end, loved ones need to be mindful of their words, their actions, and their own eating behaviors, because they influence those around them, and can often add to the struggle of the person with an eating disorder.
From Dr. Christina Bjorndal:
Eating disorders are multi-factorial. They can start “innocently” as mine did and then serve a greater function in a person’s life, thereby becoming a symptom of a bigger problem. The challenge is always to determine what the “root” cause is for each individual. Each case is as unique as there are people on the planet. My recommendations for family members are to:
- Realize that your loved one may be resistant to your help – do NOT take this personally and continue to try to support them and get them the help that they need. Recognize that many people with eating disorders refuse help or refuse to accept the diagnosis (yet you still have to live with the symptoms).
- One of the keys is keeping life simple, reducing stress and taking baby steps to get back to the basics of life. Remember, you may experience resistance; be persistent in a kind and loving way.
- If you suspect someone who has not been diagnosed, try to go to a support group meeting in your area first to talk to others. If you are a health care professional, then you may be trained to recognize the symptoms; however, if you aren’t, I would recommend you talk to a professional regarding your loved one. The next step would then be to ask your loved one to go with you for an assessment. Again, expect to encounter resistance in this area, but be persistent. It is scary at first for someone to acknowledge that they have a problem, and it is equally rewarding to accept help.
- You can take care of yourself by recognizing that you cannot control your loved one and your job as a support person in their life is just that. Sometimes you need to give more and sometimes you need to give less, depending on how your loved one is managing their illness. Remember to be kind to yourself and do something for yourself that refuels you on a daily basis (i.e. yoga, going for a walk, preparing a healthy meal for yourself, having a warm bath, getting a massage, etc.)
From Becky Oot:
Helping a loved one can be tricky. Have you ever seen the show Intervention? You never know how people who need help will react. I would always recommend that family members do some research before making any kind of assumptions and/or accusations. Eating disorders are tricky and can be hard for loved ones to understand. There are plenty of resources available online and in books to help family members talk to loved ones about an eating disorder, if they choose to do so.
Keep in mind that every person is different and may require a different approach. I, personally, needed tough love. But someone else may not. I would also recommend enlisting the help of a therapist who specializes in eating disorders to help the family understand the disease and find ways to not only help their loved one, but find ways of coping for themselves.
They have to realize that they can’t fix it alone. Finding a doctor who understands ED is crucial, but you might have to fight for treatment while fighting your angry, fear and ill child/sister/lover, etc.
I have a lot of guilt about what I inflicted on my family. They really did think I was dying. They did the right things: They educated themselves, they avoided confrontation, and they examined their own behavior. I have a younger sister, and despite what happened with me, she’s incredibly happy and body confident.
From Kate Thieda:
I can only imagine how difficult it must be to watch a family member struggle with an eating disorder. It’s hard to understand what is going on in the person’s head and to not get sucked into the problem as well. It’s a fine line to walk between being overprotective and responding appropriately to the person’s needs.
A few key points for family members to remember, in no particular order:
- It’s not about food. As I said earlier, food is just a way to exert control over a life that feels as if it has none.
- It’s not your fault. You are not a bad parent/brother/sister/friend/significant other because this is happening. Don’t focus on what could have been done to prevent it; look forward to what needs to be done to help.
- The patient needs professional help. If you are lucky, the person recognizes she needs help and is willing to get treatment. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, and you may have to be the bad guy and insist. Do it anyway! Better to take the person for evaluation and find out you were wrong in your suspicions of an eating disorder then have to plan a funeral because you looked the other way. Yes, that’s blunt, but it’s also reality.
- Patience. Eating disorders don’t appear overnight, and they don’t disappear overnight either. Be prepared for a long recovery process, with many victories and setbacks.
- No shaming! Eating disorders in and of themselves are punishing – putting the patient on the spot and making her feel bad about her behaviors will not help her “snap out of it.”
- Educate yourself. There are tons of resources out there, from books and websites to support groups for family and friends. Utilize them. Ask questions, although I would recommend that you pose your questions to qualified professionals, not the patient, who may not be able to put words to her experience or may not know the answer.
From Kate Le Page:
I believe that family members are crucial in terms of spotting the illness early on before it really begins to take hold of the sufferer. It is really important that they do their best to create an atmosphere of support and provide times where they are able to sit and talk about general issues, to keep lines of communication open.
If you’re a sibling or parent, read up on signs/symptoms to look out for and be prepared to be met with total denial – this is very common. There are also many support groups available just for carers/relatives where much-needed advice and knowledge can be sought.
The most important thing is to separate the person from the illness – when talking to them, remind them that it is not them that you are frustrated/angry etc… about, but their illness. I feel it’s really important the sufferer doesn’t feel got at, or picked on, as they are already likely to be feeling isolated and alone.
From Therese Borchard:
That’s by far the hardest question. I know that a person isn’t going to recover until she wants to recover. She’s got to get there on her own. But I also know if my counselor hadn’t been there at the right time, I might still be skipping meals, and who knows if I would have been healthy enough to get pregnant, carry a baby, and give birth. Twice.
So I first recommend having a candid talk. Especially if there is “proof” of a disorder – times you’ve noticed a family member throw a meal into her napkin instead of eating it, or if you’ve caught her in a lie, or overheard her throwing up, or found a laxative box in the trashcan.
By far the best thing a family member can do is to become educated on eating disorders and why they happen. It would be helpful if you had some resources on hand in case the family member is open to seeking help, or at least to inform her about for the time when she is willing to pursue treatment.
These are additional resources on how you can help a loved one along with support for families of individuals with an eating disorder:
F.E.A.S.T., an international organization of loved ones and family members of individuals with eating disorders. It’s filled with important information.
Information for family and friends from NEDA.
Advice from Helpguide.org.
How to help a friend from PBS.
Empowered Parents, a website by eating disorder specialist Abigail Natenshon.
Maudsley Parents, a volunteer organization of parents, which also has great information.
(P.S., I still haven’t heard from two winners of the book giveaway. Please email me your mailing address and book preference as soon as you can. Thanks!)
Do you have any suggestions for families? If you’re a family member, what would you like to know about helping your loved one? Also, if you know of other great resources for families and friends, please list them below!
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). When Your Loved One Has an Eating Disorder: Wise Words from Women Who've Been There. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/weightless/2010/03/when-your-loved-one-has-an-eating-disorder-wise-words-from-women-whove-been-there/