I want to acknowledge the support network who play a pivotal role in the recovery of those with eating disorders. I have been the supporter. But, I have also been the one being supported.
Here are some things to know so you can better support a loved one with an eating disorder.
Food is at the centre of everything social
As humans, our primary purpose in this world is to connect. All relationships stem from a connection. Think about the celebrations, Friday night gatherings and awkward first dates you've attended.
Think again, but now, about food and the role that it plays. Did you celebrate with cake? What restaurant was your favourite on a Friday night? Did you share popcorn on your first movie date? It isn't until you have an unhealthy relationship with food that you realize its power in forging social connections.
My fear and anxiety became so intense that I avoided every social setting in which food may appear. As you probably guessed, I lived in isolation, and, my eating disorder loved that I did. Social avoidance is a key behavioral symptom of eating disorders.
Our weight doesn't indicate the severity of our illness
"You're too skinny" or "you look unhealthy." I'm not surprised that society associates our weight with the severity of our illness. It's the biggest misconception of eating disorders, and one that needs to be deconstructed.
I encourage you to talk to us about how we feel, instead of how we look
Depending on the individual's body type and form of eating disorder, they may never reach what society depicts as an "unhealthy weight." Changes in body weight are a common physical symptom, but they aren't a necessary condition. We do not have to be "skeletal" or grey to have an eating disorder.
I encourage you to talk to us about how we feel, instead of how we look. By shifting our focus from fluctuations in weight to changes in our behaviour, we can increase the likelihood of early intervention. Our eating disorder is a psychological, not physical, illness. Remember that.
Don't start weight-related conversations
I encourage you to disengage from all weight-related conversations. On most days, my eating disorder treated "you look too thin" as a compliment rather than a concern.
"If you don't eat something you're going to die." These threats, despite their good intentions, didn't scare me into getting help. The voice of my eating disorder was overpowering and manipulating; death, at times, was its goal.
To avoid triggering our eating disorder, shift the conversation to a discussion about our behavioural changes. The National Eating Disorders Association has provided a summary of the behavioural and psychological signs of Anorexia Nervosa.
We can't "just eat something"
"Why don't you just eat something?" This question is both invalidating and isolating. We feel intense shame and guilt that we can't eat like a normal person. Food is a privilege, a physiological need, yet we struggle to be in the same room.
There are biological, genetic, and socio-cultural factors that contribute to our inability to just eat something. If we could, we would. You wouldn't tell someone who broke their leg to just run on it, would you? I responded best to concerned observations from my loved ones, such as, "I've noticed you haven't been eating. I am always here to listen. I would like to learn more about what you are feeling."
Don't get discouraged when we repeatedly shut you down; denial and resistance are our eating disorder's best friend. I responded best to the two things my eating disorder deprived me of most: love and compassion. No single cause of an eating disorder has been identified. It's a combination of genetic vulnerabilities, psychological factors and sociocultural influences. Be patient with our journey. This eating disorder did not manifest overnight or from a desire to be thin. It's much more complex than that.
Celebrate our victories
Don't threaten or rush our process. Instead, celebrate our victories. I don't mean our weight gain, but rather our ability to be spontaneous. Celebrate our last-minute decisions to order take-out or join you out for dinner. Celebrate our decision not to go to the gym. Celebrate our ease as we walk up and down the aisles of the grocery store. Celebrate our decision to eat a slice of the birthday cake.
By "celebrate," I don't mean explicitly tell us how proud you are that we ate the piece of cake or didn't go to the gym. We don't need you to remind us every time we are doing something our eating disorder tells us not to; we do need your support. Perhaps the next time we go out for dinner, say "I missed spending time with you, I am so happy we are doing this."
We carry a heavy burden, filled with shame and guilt
Our battle isn't about you
Prior to developing my own, I, too, have supported a loved one with an eating disorder. It's both heartbreaking and infuriating to watch someone you love self-destruct to such an extreme. In acts of desperation, I would ask, "Do you know how hard it is for me to watch you suffer like this?"
Now, I understand why the guilt approach doesn't work. Our eating disorder isn't about you. We carry a heavy burden, filled with shame and guilt. We aren't in a position to counsel you. By projecting your feelings onto us, our shame and guilt are only worsened.
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Acknowledge the battle that we have with our mind every single day. Tell us we're strong, brave and courageous. Use inclusive words such as "we." They make us feel less isolated in that lonely place.
Get curious, and educate yourself on the statistics and symptoms of our illness, which you're doing already by reading my advice.
If you don't know what to say or how to say it, "I love you" is more powerful than you think. Write it, type it, speak it, again and again. Provide us with the one thing our eating disorder deprives us of most: not food, but love.
By Braelyn Bjornson, The Maddie Project BC Ambassador.
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