When your loved one starts struggling with an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know how best to support them. It can often feel like you’re trying to get your own head around the situation, whilst simultaneously wanting or needing to be there for them as much as you can. Knowing what to say, how to act, and how to be there for a loved one struggling with an eating disorder doesn’t always feel so straight forward. Here are a few tips to help you on your journey.
Keep an ongoing dialogue with your loved one
Firstly, it is worth saying that everyone’s eating disorder affects them in different ways, and this means that the support someone needs is different for each person. So one of the best things you can do is to have a conversation with your loved one about how you might best be able to support them, and what might be helpful to them. It’s even better if you can make this a regular conversation, as people’s needs are often different at different stages of recovery. If you live with the person, these conversations might also include mealtime plans and agreements. What are the expectations at mealtimes? Who makes the meals? What time will you be eating? Though these might be difficult and daunting conversations to have, they can help to set boundaries and expectations, and enable opportunities for you and your loved one to work through this difficult time together.
Keep some ‘normality’
When someone experiences an eating disorder, everything around them can seem so chaotic and overwhelming. It can therefore help to know that your friends and family are still there, and that they still care. One of the most memorable things my best friend Alice did during my battle with anorexia was to send me regular texts and letters in the post, and to still invite me to places and events, even though I often turned them down. Knowing that someone cared helped me to keep pushing forward. It mustn’t have been easy for her. Being turned down and not getting regular replies is tough. But I look back now and realise just how much difference those texts and updates meant to me, and how much they kept me going. It reminded me that I still had something (a friendship) worth living for. I also think it is important, if you are living with the person, to try to organise something at least once a week that doesn’t involve food, and is in a more ‘neutral’ environment. Maybe a short stroll in the park or a local trip out (restrictions permitting of course) – something that helps you to continue building a relationship and feel a sense of ‘normality’ in a situation that often feels very ‘abnormal’ and ‘alien’.
Avoid comments about weight or food
Comments about weight or food can be triggering for someone experiencing an eating disorder. Again, it’s best to ask your loved one if there are certain things they would prefer were not said or talked about, though in general, it is usually best to avoid conversations around dieting, food, or weight, particularly at mealtimes. Personally, I found that while I couldn’t get away from triggering comments around me, particularly online and in the media, my friends and family were a ‘safe space’ where I knew that, most of the time, I wasn’t going to be exposed to triggering remarks. This was both a comfort and a great source of help to me.
Do some research
Eating disorders are extremely difficult illnesses to understand, and that’s not always helped by the myths out there saying that people with eating disorders only care about how they look, that they just want to look thinner, or that people who are overweight are just lazy, to name a few. One really helpful use of your time is to do a bit of research about eating disorders. There are so many resources and sources of information out there that explain the different eating disorders, how best to navigate conversations around eating disorders, how to support a loved one at mealtimes, and much more. S.E.E.D itself, as well as Breathe, have lots of information and resources, as do Beat Eating Disorders and the National Eating Disorder Association. For any parents out there supporting their child, Eva Musby offers some really great tips and advice. As you can already tell, the information is out there, it’s just a case of knowing where to look.
Remember your own needs
This might be the last point of the blog, but it is one of the most important points! A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of taking care of your own needs whilst you support someone else. It can seem like the most counterintuitive thing to do when you can see your loved one struggling. But making sure you look after your own needs makes sure that you are most able to support your loved one, and also sets an example that it’s important for each of us to look after yourself.
A little end note
These are just a few pointers that might be helpful on this difficult journey. The thing I would like to leave you with is the knowledge that you are trying your best. The fact that you have come to this page indicates that you really care. From personal experience, it can be helpful to know what might help and how you might be able to best support your loved one, but at the same time, there’s no perfect manual, and sometimes it’s a case of trying our best. Occasionally, we might do or say something that upsets our loved one (I’ve done that many times!). Taking us back to the first point, that’s also why both clear and honest communication and regular conversations are really important. As one final little (but nevertheless important) point, I want to reassure you that there is hope out there, and that, with time and the right support, recovery for your loved one is possible.
This blog was written by Rosie, one of our lovely S.E.E.D volunteers who has also recovered from an eating disorder.