Living with an eating disorder is hell, but I think it is underestimated just how horrendous it can be for the people living with people who have eating disorders. I know many parents, families, partners and friends tend to feel pretty hopeless when watching someone they love slowly drowning, without knowing how to stop it. Almost every day my mum will ask me what she can do to help, like there is some problem solving action she can perform as easily as changing a lightbulb.
I know for a fact that if there were an action she could carry out, my mum would do it in an instant no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant (I think she would even play Pictionary and she HATES Pictionary…weirdo). Unfortunately, eating disorders don’t have quick solutions and no matter how much a loved one wants to help, they cannot fix the problem. They can however support the person, and often these little offerings of support are nowhere near as dramatic as people seem to think. Supporting someone with an eating disorder doesn’t require grand complicated acts of kindness, often you can support someone with little things that don’t take much time or effort at all. So today, I am going to share with you a list of things that I find help me at home aka 10 simple ways you can help someone with an eating disorder.
1. Don’t get angry with the person, get angry with their disorder – When you have an eating disorder in the house/in any relationship, you can guarantee it is going to cause some conflict. I have lost count of the number of arguments I have had with my mum with regard to eating disorder issues like what I am eating for dinner. I honestly don’t think we have ever had an argument about anything that wasn’t mental health related (bar one argument we had in 2002 because she wanted Will Young to win Pop Idol when I was firmly on the side of Gareth Gates. I would like it noted that I can now lift my hands up and admit I was wrong on that one). Just yesterday I am ashamed to say I had an argument with my mother and yelled at her for about half an hour because she tried to help, and unknowingly put my kidney beans in the “wrong pan”.
Afterwards I felt incredibly guilty/like the worst person in the world. This guilt would have eaten me up and is the kind of thing that makes me feel that I don’t deserve food, but after we had all calmed down and I had apologised, what I found helpful is the fact that my mum made it clear that she understood that I hadn’t meant to yell about a bean pan. She knew it had just been the eating disorder taking control, and though I need to work on managing that myself, the acknowledgement that I wasn’t this terrible person who worried more about what pan my beans were in than my mother’s kind attempt at assistance, made me feel more able to continue with the meal.
2. If you are eating with someone with an eating disorder, keep them distracted and don’t make the food the sole focus of the experience – Meal times with someone with an eating disorder are not the most relaxing of situations and can be pretty intense (like one of those awkward dinner parties you see on Come Dine with me only less bitchy and without a voiceover man commenting on every little thing that occurs). For this reason, when I have to eat a meal with someone, I find it really helpful for them to help keep me distracted and not make it all about the food. Silence allows thoughts to creep in at the table, so I would recommend conversation if the person is able or, if they are unable (sometimes I cannot talk very much/think of words because I am so anxious), have the radio on in the background or play a game. Sometimes in hospital we would even do things like crosswords or little quizzes which really helped keep your mind occupied by working on something else (my favourite thing about this was that when there were bank staff they would go through the pile of quiz questions without realising which ones we had already done so we were all able to provide correct answers instantly and looked like geniuses.)
3. Allow them to take baby steps in their recovery rather than expecting miracles overnight – When people are in recovery from any mental health problem, there is often a lot of pressure for progress to be quick so that the problem can be solved and forgotten about as soon as possible. However, recovery is a very slow process and this pressure is often detrimental as it can make a sufferer more anxious and stressed. To help someone who is struggling, allow them to make progress at a steady pace they are comfortable with rather than forcing them to make dramatic changes which ultimately will not be sustainable.
4. Praise them…or don’t praise them at all – I have many friends who appreciate a little “well done” or similar nudge of encouragement after a meal to make them feel supported and like their hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, so offering those words of praise can be a great way to support a loved one. That said, I know there are others, (me included) who actually find this more unhelpful, as they like to leave the table and forget everything rather than acknowledge the meal that has just been consumed. Denial may not be the best way to deal with mealtimes, but at the moment denial is how I cope, so I am helped by nobody commenting on how fantastic it is that I have cleared my plate. For this one then, maybe ask the person you are supporting to see whether praise would be helpful to them before whipping out the party poppers to celebrate an empty bowl of cereal.
5. Try to be as relaxed as possible at the dinner table – When I sit at the table, I am always anxious, and when I can see that other people are anxious, it makes me more anxious. This then makes them more anxious and before you know we are left with a table of people panicking about a meal that hasn’t even happened yet. For this reason when supporting someone at a meal time, if possible try to be calm and relaxed to show that the situation isn’t anything to be afraid of, rather than freaking yourself out and condoning the “THE TABLE IS A SCARY PLACE” fear.
6. Seek support for yourself – People with eating disorders need support and so do the people around them. As important as it is for carers to have an outlet somewhere to discuss their concerns and worries though, it is helpful to make that outlet someone other than the person who is struggling. When you feel that you are a terrible person who is ruining everyone’s lives because you cant eat normally, emotional outpourings condoning that are only going to make things worse. Ultimately then for this one, support someone by finding support and seeking help for yourself too.
7. Keep diet talk to a minimum if you are on a diet – Obviously when you have an eating disorder, people being on diets can be rather triggering. That said you cannot dictate that nobody who lives with someone who is struggling is allowed to have any say in what they eat. Naturally we all have needs and some people may be prescribed special diets from a doctor which of course they should follow. If this is the case however, the best way to help the sufferer manage the situation is to not make a song and dance about it (aka no conga lines for the fact you have switched to low fat yoghurt and if possible none of those “I LOST THREE STONE” certificates which diet clubs award people plastered all over the fridge).
8. Know their meal plan – Again this one depends from sufferer to sufferer but personally I find it helpful when those around me know what is on and what is expected of me in my meal plan as it makes me accountable in some way. Obviously the goal is to get to a point where I don’t need people to know what I should be eating and am able to be responsible myself, but right now my mum having a copy of my meal plan supports me every day. That way, when I am struggling and want to miss things out, I know that it is not a case of “nobody will notice so just throw the bread out of the window” as my mum would immediately wonder where the soft wholemeal has gone (and why there is half a loaf of Hovis stuck in the garden hedge)…
9. Don’t treat them like a disorder – When people see or think of me, I always feel they think of me as “the one with the eating disorder” and that I have no other identifiers to me as a person. It is therefore helpful when living with someone with an ED, to treat them as a normal person with other interests and hobbies so as to remind them that they are more than their disorder and will ultimately still have an identity left, even when the disorder is gone.
10. Do not comment on their meal plan or their body weight – This last one is probably fairly obvious but nevertheless very important so I had to include it. Whatever you do and if you only follow one of these tips as to how to support a loved one, make it this one and for the love of all that is holy NEVER comment on how much weight someone has gained on their recovery meal plan and NEVER comment on how big someone’s meal is. Eating disorder recovery meal plans may look totally normal but there are some that may perhaps be bigger than normal. Whatever the meal plan though, the person will need all the food prescribed to treat their malnourished body and repair all of the damage that has been done internally. If someone is soldiering through their meal plan trying to reassure themselves of this, the last thing they need is a comment like “blimey that is a lot of food, I couldn’t eat that”. Hand on heart a bank HCA in hospital with no experience in eating disorders sat next to me one meal time and after I had finished my main/was picking a spoon up to dive into my rhubarb crumble with custard, they commented “I don’t know how you can eat that. My main course was half the size of yours and I am already too full to eat another bite”…THAT IS NOT HELPFUL INFORMATION.
So there you have it, ten ways in which family/friends can support people with eating disorders (at least in my experience), without actually having to do much at all. Being desperate to help a loved one and wanting to support them doesn’t have to be carried out in dramatic acts like white water rafting or playing Pictionary, Sometimes all you need do to be the most helpful and make the biggest difference, is the little things like asking them for help with a crossword over their cornflakes or giving an encouraging nod at lunchtime.
Take care everyone x