As we wrap up National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2012, one of the most frequent questions those of us who treat people with eating disorders get asked from partners, families, and friends is, “How can I help? I don’t know what to say or do, but I want to support my loved one!”
Here are ten ways you can help.
- Learn as much as you can about the eating disorder. Start with the National Eating Disorders Association site, and their list of resources.
- If your loved one has not yet reached a point of seeking treatment, but clearly is struggling, present your concerns in a caring, straightforward manner. Do this in private, and during a time when you both have the opportunity to talk. Have information available to give your loved one about treatment options, such as helplines or names of local eating disorder treatment providers.
- Offer to go to the initial appointments (such as with a counselor, dietitian, or doctor) with your loved one. If your loved one is resistant, ask them to consider going to just one appointment before making the decision to commit to ongoing treatment.
- Keep the focus of life away from food. Your loved one is not just their eating disorder. Remember to have fun together, do routine things together, and encourage new activities that have nothing to do with food, weight, or exercise, such as art, music, journaling, being outside, gardening, etc.
- Encourage your loved one to stay away from too much media consumption, which includes television, movies, women’s magazines, social media sites, and especially websites that promote eating disordered behavior (called pro-ana and pro-mia, for pro-anorexia and pro-bulimia, respectively). All of these only reinforce the messages that one can never be thin enough.
- Don’t get sucked into playing the role of therapist or dietitian. Yes, you can listen to your loved one, and validate how hard it is to recover from an eating disorder, but it is not your job to be the sole support person. Boundaries are something those with eating disorders often have trouble with, so you need to keep yours clear. Also, do not become the food police. It is not your job to make sure your loved one is doing the right thing.
- Get support yourself. You will have a variety of thoughts and feelings about what is happening for your loved one and how that impacts your life. Having a therapist yourself can help you to process your experience and learn additional ways to assist your loved one in recovery.
- Be a good role model. If your loved one sees you eating appropriately and enjoying the experience, it reinforces what they are (or will be) learning in treatment. Also, be careful about your language and whether you are discussing how other people look in front of your loved one. Refrain from commenting about appearance.
- Recognize that only your loved one can make the choices they need to in order to recover. No amount of begging, pleading, arguing, or rationalizing will make everything better. All you can do is let the person know that you are concerned and are ready to help. Eating disorders are incredibly stubborn, and it can take a long time before your loved one may be ready to accept the help they need to change.
- Keep hope alive. Recovering from an eating disorder is a long, difficult process. Your loved one will take a step forward and then several back, but you need to keep the faith that recovery is on the horizon.