A while ago, Therese Borchard, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Beyond Blue, penned a piece about things you shouldn’t say to someone who’s struggling with depression. This inspired me to think about what you shouldn’t say to someone with an eating disorder. While people may not be as direct as the statements below, we know that some still say various versions of them.
1. Why can’t you just eat?
This is the same as asking someone with depression to just snap out of it. If they could, they would. In her book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle With Anorexia, Harriet Brown poignantly describes what it was like for her daughter to eat.
That year, I learned just how brave my daughter is. Five or six times a day, she sat at the table and faced down panic and guilt, terror and delusions and physical pain, and kept going.
In another chapter, Brown equates her daughter’s eating to jumping out of an airplane:
[My husband] Jamie and I are crying now too, as we understand for the first time exactly how courageous our daughter is. Each time she lifts the spoon to her lips, her whole body shaking, she is jumping out of a plane at thirty thousand feet. Without a parachute.
2. Why can’t you just stop eating?
People will often say this — or think it — to people who struggle with binge eating disorder (or bulimia). The thinking is that you have control over your eating; just use a dose of willpower and stop. But that’s the problem with binge eating — you feel a loss of control while you’re eating (it’s one of the symptoms).
It’s probably hard to understand, but that’s why eating disorders are illnesses that require treatment. Willpower has nothing to do with an ED.
3. Try such and such diet — it worked for so and so.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to believe that dieting can eliminate or reduce binge eating. This belief probably comes from the idea that dieting gives you rules. When you have specific and strict regulations, you naturally stay in line.
(Also, how often have you seen a commercial of a teary-eyed actress talking about how such and such diet program healed her out-of-control eating?)
For starters, dieting is a Band-aid. It doesn’t get at the other symptoms and underlying problems of eating disorders. It’s also probably how the person got to where they are in the first place. While EDs are biologically based, dieting is a common trigger.
It only makes matters worse. Research has actually shown that restricting leads to overeating. (It’s one of the many reasons dieting is futile for everyone.) The only treatment for binge eating is to see a professional who specializes in eating disorders.
4. Everyone hates their body (or everyone overeats, or everyone skips meals sometimes).
It’s hard watching a person you love struggle. Sometimes we think relating to their words will make them feel better. So if they say something disparaging about their body or talk about skipping a meal or eating a lot in a short period of time, we quickly let them know that they’re not alone. We’ve been there. We can relate.
But in reality, this can shut the person up and stop them from sharing any more of their thoughts and feelings. (Which is a big problem because eating disorders are secretive as it is.) Worse, it can normalize their eating disorder and validate it.
While many of us might’ve struggled with some ED behaviors and thoughts, it’s very different from actually struggling with an eating disorder. Again, eating disorders are serious illnesses that require treatment.
5. Yes, I’ll keep your ED a secret.
Maybe you’ve noticed the signs of an eating disorder and confronted your loved one or maybe they came to you first. Either way, they beg you to keep their eating disorder a secret. I would say, “No way, no how.”
Eating disorders are dangerous. Even if someone doesn’t look emaciated and sick, they can still suffer serious problems. In her memoir, Purge: Rehab Diaries, Nicole Johns, who struggled with EDNOS, talks about being “normal weight” and having a slew of very serious health problems.
Throughout her 20s, Johns is “hospitalized for fainting, a concussion, electrolyte imbalances, and three different kinds of heart-rhythm irregularities.” During this time, she’s abusing diet pills, starving and purging. In just two years, she has to go to the ER six times because of her heart problems.
The reality is that EDs can be deadly — and secrets don’t lead to treatment, and treatment is essential. According to Kenneth L. Weiner, MD, CEDS, of the Eating Recovery Center:
Eating disorders are the deadliest mental illness. A woman with anorexia nervosa is 5.6 times more likely to die than another woman of her same age. The most frequent causes of death from eating disorders are suicide (32 percent), complications associated with anorexia (19 percent), and cancer (11 percent). The average age of death for an individual with anorexia is only 34 years.
I hope you’ve found these statements of what not to say helpful.
What would you add to the list? If you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, what do you want others to know?