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What to do if a friend/partner is struggling with an eating disorder?

Aside from the regular question of, “how do i recover?” i also get asked frequently by friends/family/partners of someone who is sick, or someone they suspect is sick.

Being close to someone who you see is struggling – whether they are open about it or not, can be incredibly frustrating, sad, stressful and many other emotions and feelings. Wanting to help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves is incredibly tough,

When you just want the best for someone – want someone to be happy and healthy – but you know that it is up to them to make the choices to recover and get better.

I have been the one who struggled with an eating disorder in my family – and i can only imagine how tough it was for my family. Since recovering i have talked to them about how they felt during those years as i was sick, and it was awful for my family. I was going through hell and my own struggles, but it was not easy for them either.

Also in recent years, since recovering i have seen people in my friendship circle who have struggled with an eating disorder, and it is always tough to be on the other side. To know what the person is going through – and want to help them so badly – but also knowing that all i can do is support them and try to help them. It is always tough when the person doesn’t want to admit they are sick, but you can see them getting worse and it feels like all you are doing is standing and watching it happen.

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So what do you do when a friend/family member/partner is struggling with an eating disorder?

My first advice is to try to talk to them. Ask them how they are doing/how they are feeling? If they need to talk to you or anyone else. Just showing that you are there for them can be helpful.

You don’t want to directly accuse or confront someone, because they will instead go into defense mode and when you are sick, you will have 101 excuses as to why you do what you do. Anything to hide your illness. However, it can sometimes be a good idea to just tell the person what you see or if you notice ex. they never eat lunch, or that they never eat around people, or always working out. Just mentioning that you see those small things and asking if they are ok. It can 1) make the person aware what they are doing and 2) make them realise that someone notices what they are doing.

In my recovery my sister often called me out on things i was doing “wrong”, and i despised her for it because it made my mum aware, which then made her watch me even closer. But in the end – it was for the best. The only way to recover is to go against your eating disorder and the eating disorder habits, and having someone watch you and knowing you can’t do certain habits is helpful in the journey towards recovery.

Be a role model around food. Depending on how close you are to the person, you may or may not eat alot of meals with them. But if you eat regular meals with the person, try to be a role model around food. Show that you can eat balanced – this doesn’t mean you order burgers, fries and milkshakes just to prove that you can and it is ok. But sitting there with a salad and black coffee isn’t a good idea either. Also try to avoid all talk about diet, weight, calories, food etc when around the person.

Don’t talk about appearance with the person – avoid commenting on their body. Even if you think they have lost weight or look skinny or look sick – telling them won’t be helpful. Infact, it can at times have the opposite effect and make the person happy by being told they look sick/skinny/have lost weight.

You can’t force the person to eat – but encourage them to eat if they are at social events or with family/friends. Often they may have an excuse that they have already eaten or will eat later (and sure, that can be true. But if it is a recurring thing that they never eat around others, then it is an excuse to avoid eating.)

Watch them. This can be tough for both you and the person suffering. But if you ex. suspect a person purges after meals – watch them or even follow them when they go to the bathroom after/between meals. Yes, this may be uncomfortable for both of you. And the person may go into defense mode and get angry at you for doing this. But it is a way of showing that you see what the person is doing and you aren’t ok with it.

Be helpful and supportive. Just showing a  person that you are there for them can make a big difference.

Avoid telling them to “just eat” or “just stop exercising”, also avoid forcing them to eat as that will just lead to defense mode and a negative reaction. Instead, encourage them to eat. Encourage them to talk to someone and/or seek help. Also telling them that you are worried for them may be helpful.

Remember that even if a person gains weight – don’t automatically assume they are better. Also avoid commenting on weightloss or weightgain.

 

Being around someone who is struggling can be incredibly tough mentally for you. So remember that it is NOT your job to make the person recover, you still need to take care of yourself. All you can do is support and help the person and encourage them to seek help and get better. But in the end, it is their choice to recover.

 

If you have to – take distance from the person. This of course can be tough for both of you. Both for the person who is sick, because they will feel even more lonely and part of their eating disorder is often to isolate themselves and push people away so they can continue being sick. But if being around the person too much is causing you your own mental health problems and draining you of energy, then you may need to step back slightly. Still show that you care and are there for them, but don’t get so invested that you end up getting burnt out as well. This is a very fine balance of how much you can do and how much you can be around a person who is struggling with an eating disorder, without ending up sick and burnt out yourself.

And lastly – in some cases you just need to confront the person and tell them to seek help, at times you may need to give them an ultimatum for them to seek help. This can be tough and is not always a good idea, but if you always pretend like nothing is wrong then nothing will get better or change either. And sometimes the person just needs to be confronted to realise they need to get help and get better.

Also, there are groups for family/partners/friends of someone who is struggling which you may want to join if you find it tough. Sometimes you may need to just talk to others in the same situation and vent your feelings and emotions to people who understand and get angry and irritated – but also not let out those emotions on the person who is struggling as that will just end up in a bad situation.

And finally i want to remind you all to avoid talk about calories, weight, body size, diet etc during Christmas. You never know who is struggling and it can be incredibly triggering. So if your family talks about those things during the dinner table or in general – just talk to them and say that those types of topics and conversations are not allowed this christmas!

Previous post on my óld blog:

What to do when a friend is sick

What do i do if my friend has an eating disorder? – Psychology today

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