Trigger Warning: If frank discussion of eating disorders and disordered eating may be triggering to you, this would be a good time to move along. Your well-being is way too important to ignore.
With eating disorders on the rise, there’s a very good chance that one day you will know someone in the grip of an eating disorder. If that person is your child, I highly recommend looking into the Maudsley approach. It will be difficult, but it has a much higher success rate than more traditional forms of therapy.
There are, however, several different possible approaches and you need to be open to figuring out which one will be the most effective in your individual case. Educate yourself on the options.
But what if the person with an eating disorder isn’t your immediate family member? What if it’s a friend, a lover, or a more distant relation? In that case, you can’t control the choice of therapy, or even whether they seek help. What can you do to help? What can you do that won’t make things worse? What should you avoid doing?
Here are a few tips:
Do listen. This may be the single most important thing you can do. Keep your ears and your heart open. Pay attention. Assumptions don’t help, neither does scolding or platitudes. But when the sufferer feels heard in a safe environment, it helps. Keeping lines of communication open can also alert you to potentially fatal symptoms.
Don’t judge. People don’t have eating disorders at you. They aren’t doing it to hurt you. They aren’t even doing it to hurt themselves. Compulsions are so difficult to overcome and dangerous because they are beyond the immediate control of the person in their grips.
Don’t focus on what they are or are not eating. Don’t coax an anorexic to eat ‘just one more bite’ or tell a compulsive eater to put down the chips. Again, it isn’t helpful. It’s more likely to trigger panic or self-loathing that will then be controlled through more disordered eating.
Do pull the focus off of food. If pressed, ask how your friend is feeling instead of commenting on how many pounds they’ve lost or gained. Try to encourage thinking about other subjects. Talk about what book you’re reading or ask them to go to the movies with you.
Don’t avoid all mention of food. Sometimes food will come up naturally in conversation. When that happens, just let it happen. You go out to dinner. It’s normal. Let it be normal.
Do educate yourself. There are plenty of websites and books and magazine articles and blogs about eating disorders. Read them.
This is the last of my series of articles on eating disorders, but it doesn’t need to be the end of your education. Knowledge is the most important weapon we have against eating disorders. Arm yourselves.