This past week I had someone ask me about how to be a good, supportive friend to someone with an eating disorder. Although she did tell him that she has an ED, he mentioned that he notices worrying behavior, and he doesn’t know how to respond to it.
He felt like he could ask me since I came out via this blog as someone with an ED, so, I though it’d be appropriate to share some of what we discussed here, in hopes that it helps others.
1. VALIDATE THEIR DIAGNOSIS.
If they confess that they have an ED, don’t say something to the effect of “Are you sure?” or “Why do you think that?” If you do, they will think that you are dismissing them and/or saying that they don’t look like someone with an ED. Believe that what they are telling you is as real to them as someone with a broken leg. Even if they don’t have an ED per se, something is going on in their life, and you are someone they trust.
2. ENCOURAGE TRIGGER TRACKING.
When I was first diagnosed with an ED, I was sent to a nutritionist who told me to keep a food diary–this is a VERY BAD idea, because it is something that most people with an ED have already been doing. Each day, I would excitedly tally up the calories I ate for that day, and it fed my anorexia like nothing else. I didn’t continue seeing her for very long.
I do, however, support trigger tracking. On days that I feel like my ED is consuming me, I journal about what is going on in my life that might have fueled him. The same goes for the good days in which my ED is just a shadow. EDs are NOT about food. So, it’s important to understand what other factors in a person’s life cause them to feel the need to restrict and/or binge and purge.
3. SUPPORT HEALTHY EATING.
Food is not the enemy. It took me years to make peace with the stuff I need to stay alive. The move from fat-free, calorie-less, sugar-free trash to whole foods was a slow, slow process, but I’ve been plant-based for over a decade, and I feel better mentally and physically. When I was at my lowest weight, I was consuming meat and dairy, so let’s disrupt the myth that healthy eating is all about losing weight. It’s about feeling like your best self. So, if your friend with an ED orders a salad instead of a burger, DON’T JUDGE. Feeling pressured to eat a certain food so as to appear “normal” can trigger a binge and purge cycle, so be careful of what you say. I also am all for cooking instead of eating out. It gives me a sense of control, plus it’s way more satisfying to eat the food that you have spent time making.
4. SURROUND THEM WITH A STRONG COMMUNITY.
You are (probably?) not a therapist. I am (definitely) not a therapist. I don’t currently see a therapist, but doing so early on in my diagnosis was crucial in order to get me to accept that I had an ED. I highly recommend encouraging them to see a therapist (at least in the early diagnosis period). Even if they don’t like therapy, there are other helpful resources that the therapist can provide, such as information about local support groups. If they have a supportive family, that’s amazing, but so many people don’t. So, it’s important that they actively build up a support network.
5. DON’T GIVE UP ON THEM.
- At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S.
- Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder.
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
If you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder, or someone recently confided in you that they do, please, please, please do not look away. They need you, and we need them.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.