Supporting someone with an eating disorder is tough. It is imperative that you know from the offset that you are not the cause or the solution to the eating disorder. You can however be a source of compassion and support for the person suffering and for yourself (yes, eating disorders DO effect other people and it is ok to feel frustration and distress)
The mental health professionals supporting the person with the eating disorder can often advise on what individual supports are best for the person. Here are a few of my suggestions to give you some food for thought.
1. Understand more about eating disorders
Reading literature on the disease and listening to the sufferers anxieties, feelings and triggers can raise your awareness of the day to day challenges faced by the person and can lead to more compassion at times when the person may appear to just be picky, gluttonous, inflexible, unreliable or moody. Check out our page on understanding eating disorders or go on to look at all the great external resources that can help you.
2. Communicate – Don’t walk on eggshells
Having an awareness and understanding of the eating disorder does NOT mean you have to just accept everything the person does. Your own boundaries are important too and so the best approach is to foster open communication (listening and explaining) so that both your needs and feelings can be understood.
3. Timing is everything
A person who is experiencing severe anxiety is not going to be able to listen or communicate well. So when communicating your needs and seeking further understanding of the issues the sufferer is facing, it is best to avoid high stress times. These may differ from person to person but there are some to really look out for:
- Meal times – do not talk about the disease at the dinner table.
- Post meal times – the time directly following the meal may be even more tricky than the meal itself for the person.
- At times of visible anxiety
4. Watch your own eating behaviors
Being around someone who is on a ‘diet’, is restricting food or is binging can be highly distressing for the person in recovery. Having a healthy meal plan yourself if you are eating with the person in recovery provide more comfort for the person.
5. Be predictable
Trying to catch the person out in the act is anxiety provoking and just causes conflict. Resist the urge for this type of surprise intervention. Recovery is a collaboration and is best built on successes rather than by focusing on bad times. If you are cooking for the person or eating with a person in early recovery try and plan specific meal times and stick to them, the less surprises the better. If it is NOT possible to have regular meal times with the person in recovery, support them while they prepare food in advance and encourage them to stick to the times regardless of whether you are present or not. Reminding them of their plan or listening to their plan can be a huge support.
6. Celebrate small victories
You get more bees with honey than with vinegar. It may not seem that eating one full meal is a large achievement but this could be the first full meal the person in recovery has finished in a while. I am not suggesting a high five after each pea but listen for queues for positive reinforcement. I still remember being told how brave I was to eat a dessert when I first came home from treatment and feeling heard by getting this somewhat unexpected compliment.