Eating disorders affect millions of young women and men. Beyond those suffering, they also affect their friends and families. It is extremely difficult to watch someone you love to struggle with a mental illness, and we would do almost anything to prevent it from happening.
Eating disorder recovery is an emotional and demanding process for those suffering, and relies a great deal on a good support network, but being part of a support network for someone is easier said than done. Beginning the recovery journey, as a support network you are faced with a swarm of questions: What do you do? What should you say? How do you know if you are doing the right thing? Are you creating a successful environment for recovery?
Being part of a support network can be emotionally and physically demanding. It is important to keep in mind that recovery is learning experience for not only your loved one but also for you.
Here are 7 tips compiled together as a starting point for you, as families and friends, supporting a loved one through eating disorder recovery.
Don't blame yourself
Family and friends often feel like they are to blame for their loved one's eating disorder, and begin to backtrack their actions: was I not strict enough, was I being too strict, if only I did this, I should of done that
It is important to understand that no one has control over an eating disorder. Once you accept this, you can free yourself from the 'should of' and 'could of' guilt, and put your energy towards helping the recovery process.
Read, research and ask professionals about information about eating disorders. Every individual's recovery is different; communicate with your loved one, and let him or her know that you are there for support.
Recovery is a journey that everyone learns from, you won't always know the right things to say, but that's okay! Like your loved one going through recovery, you need to accept that you are going to make mistakes. Don't beat yourself up over them, but rather look at them as a challenge for creating future strategies.
Make meal times comfortable not confronting
When someone is recovering from an eating disorder, meal times, topics of food, diet and weight can be quite confronting. As a support network, ways that you can help loved ones through this distress is by making conversations about food positive. View and encourage meal times as a way to spend time together and reconnect rather than a dreaded deed.
Explore using distracting conversational topics that are focused around their interests and talents. Ask them for advice in areas they are interested in- if they love reading; ask them what books they recommend.
Instead of commenting on quantity "I've eaten too much" or "look how much you ate!" explore talking about the tastes and what you enjoy about the food so to help create an enjoyable relationship with food.
Avoid Body talk
Recovery is 20% physical and 80% mental and from the outside it can be hard to understand where someone is mentally in terms of recovery. Eating disorders are very manipulative. Body-specific compliments, even well- meaning ones like "I wish I had a body like yours" and "you look so healthy" can be distorted and can actually be damaging to someone in recovery.
Instead, try to surround them with positive comments focusing on their achievements, their personality, and energy such as "you are so creative and you are so full of energy".
It is difficult to avoid body comments in culture where bodies are often topics of conversation, so it will take practice for everyone in recovery. Although Uncle Bob may still slip up and tell them how great it is to "See some meat on those bones!"
Acknowledge their achievements tactfully
When someone is recovering from an eating disorder, they will consciously begin to create a healthy relationship with food, challenging disordered thoughts. This is a major step in recovery, how to acknowledge your loved one's achievements is a difficult and sensitive topic.
It is important to remember that as part of the recovery process, your loved one needs to allow them selves to do everyday things and understand that it doesn't have negative consequences.
Instead of overtly congratulating them, try to encourage them by being a positive example. Allow them to observe that what they are doing, is part of a normal way of life.
Accept your limitations
When seeing a loved one go through a hard time, it can be difficult to stand back and not do anything. It is important to let them make their own decisions, as part of their recovery. It won't always be the right one but it is important as part of their learning to challenge themselves and develop coping strategies.
Be Kind to Yourself
Most importantly, remember to take care of yourself! Supporting someone recovering from an eating disorder can be stressful and at times overwhelming, and if you could, I'm sure you would take it all away with a hug. However, like those going through recovery, you are only human and have problems of your own. Generate your own support network and remember to be kind to yourself - let your friends and family look after you too.