How Do I Talk to a Friend or Family Member With An Eating Disorder? (Or You Suspect They Do)

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This is 2017’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I’m excited to be writing a few posts based on requests.

My first post is how to talk to a friend or family member with an eating disorder or who might have one… from my perspective as someone in recovery. While I was struggling through the years, I heard from friends and family that they felt powerless. It was like watching a sinking ship and not knowing if they could do anything to stop its demise.

While it is impossible to cure another person, friends and family members are NOT powerless. I think about the camp counselor who talked about her own eating disorder openly without shame while I was symptomatic but not yet diagnosed; the friend who reached out to the school administration when she was concerned about me; my mom who spent countless hours trying to understand why I wouldn’t eat. I might have resented them at the time, but now I know that they planted seeds that would bear to fruition later. I didn’t enter recovery in their timing, but it did happen.

I will forever have memories of friends, family members, professors, and co-workers expressing their concern to me over the years. If you think that your words don’t make a difference or impact to someone deep within an eating disorder, you’re wrong.

I will give a cautionary note, however. For every good friend who expressed concern and gave me unconditional love during my journey, there was another who met me with insensitivity and stigma.

Talking to someone with an eating disorder can be a tricky endeavor. On the one hand, you want to express love and concern, but you don’t want to do so in a way that is off putting or hurtful.

In this blog post I will be outlining some “do’s and don’t’s” derived from years of experience of what has and hasn’t helped me.

  1. Do ask about it…

… but try not to probe or make assumptions.

Bringing up your concerns with someone you believe to be struggling can be anxiety provoking. It is a whole lot easier to pretend everything is okay. However, if you have a sinking feeling that something is wrong, and you are close enough to the person to broach the subject, by all means consider it.

Before you do so, consider these two things:

a) Don’t push it– If you bring it up and are met with defensiveness, it might not be the right time to talk. People with eating disorders can be highly secretive. In my deepest stages of denial and shame, I avoided all conversations about how I was doing. I remember how one time prior to admission to residential treatment, a teacher asked if I had an eating disorder. Taken aback, I mumbled something about having a rare digestive disorder. I wasn’t ready to admit how out of control or scared I was. Eight years later, I still remember that conversation as formative. She did not push the issue but expressed concern, and that meant a lot. Even though I wasn’t in a place to talk about it at the time, I respected her for bringing up the subject.

b) Check your assumptions– In society, we tend to associate eating disorders with “thinness” (whatever that means), but that’s just not accurate. Most people with eating disorders are not underweight. Anorexia is the most rare eating disorder, and bulimia and binge eating disorder are more common. People with eating disorders often fluctuate between periods of restriction, bingeing, and purging. I know some of my most symptomatic, out of control times were when I looked healthy. Don’t automatically assume that someone’s thinness is anorexia. It might as easily be a thyroid issue, an autoimmune disease, drug abuse, or simply body type. Similarly, don’t assume that someone doesn’t have an eating disorder because they appear to be healthy.

I have a “spidey sense” in my judgments about whether someone has an eating disorder, but I can be wrong. I am also careful about bringing up the subject of a possible eating disorder. Far before I bring that topic up, I make sure to talk about my own experience, normalize the reality of eating disorders, and check the facts.

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2. Do seek consultation…

… but avoid gossip.

I can’t tell you how horrible it feels to know that people have been talking about you in the whispers you slightly overhear as you pass by and in hushed conversations you know have happened. I think by all means people learn more about eating disorders if they suspect a problem in a family member or friend. Education is important. Talking to a dietitian, therapist, or an organization like the National Eating Disorders Association can be a great move. HOWEVER, when that trickles into gossip and shaming, it stops being helpful.

Sometimes a family or friend group might need to get together to discuss how best to broach the subject with a loved one, but as soon as it turns into judgment and teasing, it can become toxic.

A note about consultation: It is strangely easy to read an article from BuzzFeed or some other reputable source (joke, but in full disclosure, I love BuzzFeed) and think you’re Dr. Phil or something. “Is it about control?” I’ve had people ask me in condescending tones. As if that comment is unique and your therapist hasn’t talked about control 900 times. Eating disorders *can* have an element of control, but it is ALWAYS much more complex. Eating disorders are associated with a cluster of things that may or may not be related: psychological factors, personality types, presence of past trauma, significant stressors, biological predisposition, family history, etc. A cursory look at a non-scientific article or watching a horrible Lifetime movie about anorexia cannot make anyone an expert.

. . .

3. Do express concern about eating habits…

… but don’t do so during meal time. 

Eating with someone you’re almost sure has an eating disorder is difficult and uncomfortable.

It is SO tempting to reach across the table and critique a meal choice, or say something like, “Is that all you’re having?”, or, “Why aren’t you eating more?” In my experience, those conversations are never helpful. The person with an eating disorder, who is likely anxious from the experience eating out, is on guard and gets defensive fast.

I get it– meal time seems like the most logical time to express concern. After all, it is commonly thought that meal time is in fact the problem. When I was deep into my eating disorder, going out to eat was SO MUCH more than an hour at a restaurant. It was the fasting before and after; it was the fear of eating in front of people; it was planning a binge later in the night so I didn’t have to eat in front of people; it was looking up the menu online beforehand; it was counting calories hours before I stepped foot in the restaurant.

It is better to bring up the specific behaviors later in the day when meal time is over. Stick to the specifics about behavior and don’t make it personal. An example: “I noticed when you were at dinner tonight, you ordered a low calorie entree, and you kept putting parts of the meal in the napkin on your lap.” –> I know, easier said than done!! I’ve been the recipient of a lot of insensitive mealtime comments, but I’ve also given some insensitive mealtime comments to friends I knew were struggling. I get it: Frustration can mount in the moment at mealtime, but try to hold off until later. You’ll end up having a much better conversation.

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4. Do focus on food…

… but look at the greater picture, which has a whole lot more to do than just food.

Someone I knew in graduate school said something to the extent of, “I don’t know why families don’t lock the family member with an eating disorder up and force the person to eat.”

While that is absurd, I have heard so many comments that are similarly invalidating and off base:

“Just eat.”

“It’s not that hard.”

“Don’t make this such a big deal.”

That approach doesn’t work.

Eating disorders are both about food and not about food. Of course, eating disorders are highly related to weight and food habits (that’s why they’re called eating disorders) but in some respects have little to do with food.

Restriction was my teenage coping mechanism to deal with a lot of internal chaos– undiagnosed generalized anxiety, crippling OCD, existential anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness, and worthlessness.

In my years of being symptomatic, I was way more likely to talk about those things than my eating habits. I hated when people would make it seem like gaining weight or eating would solve all of my problems. My eating disorder served multiple functions in my life, and until I dealt with those, I didn’t get truly better.

On the other hand, eating disorders are necessarily about eating.

If someone is underweight or malnourished, it is impossible to look adequately at the big picture. Medical, nutritional recovery is a precursor to psychological recovery.

Sometimes in more psychoanalytic approaches to recovery, it is conceptualized that when a person deals fully with the psychological parts of the eating disorder, the symptoms will dissipate. That also doesn’t work.

If you are bringing the subject up with someone, consider the rather paradoxical statement that eating disorders are about eating, but they don’t give us the full picture of what’s going on.

. . .

5. Do take action if necessary

… but think it through first.

Eating disorders are dangerous.

Period.

It is well-known that anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates of all mental health issues, but it is definitely possible to die of bulimia or binge eating disorder too.

The first thing I tell people who haven’t gotten into treatment is: SEE A DOCTOR.

Eating disorders can be associated with some serious medical complications that can kill including (not an exhaustive list): potassium/ electrolyte imbalance, low heart rate, low blood pressure, and general heart abnormalities (that’s why people with eating disorders must have regular EKG’s).

I will reiterate here that someone of average weight, overweight, or obese can die of an eating disorder as well. All of the above medical problems can happen to a person at 70 pounds or 370 pounds.

That is why if you truly suspect a loved one or friend has an eating disorder, don’t stay silent.

In all three of my three major anorexia tail spins, the initial descent into the illness and two subsequent relapses, I needed intensive medical intervention to get back to normal. Two of those times, it was not of my own choosing. Friends, family, and even my school had to intervene on my precarious downward spirals, and thank God they did. Otherwise I might not be here right now.

With that said, if you are seriously concerned about someone who is NOT getting treatment for an eating disorder, there might be cases in which you should advocate for medical consultation or even hospitalization.

For someone with a SEVERE and UNTREATED eating disorder, it could be that lovingly suggesting a trip to the doctor or ER for a medical evaluation is what is needed in the moment. Or, perhaps looking up residential treatment options and calling the person’s insurance company for help.

** Now: Before you attempt this kind of conversation with someone, heed caution! Most people who are diagnosed with an eating disorder have a treatment team or are getting support of some kind. If that is the case, step back and offer support in other ways. Suggesting hospitalization or a doctor consultation additionally has a high likelihood of pissing off the person’s eating disorder, so be prepared that you will likely be met with resistance.

There are some cases when this kind of conversation happens more organically: For example, if a friend passes out or complains of heart palpitations.

. . .

I think the reason many people don’t express concern to a friend or family member about what they’re seeing is out of fear. I get it– it’s scary. People don’t inherently know how to bring it up or what to say.

You are brave and caring to consider having a conversation that might save a life. Sometimes simple comments can go a long way, things like:

“I love you, and I’m concerned about you.”

“It seems like you’ve been struggling lately, and I want to help.”

“If you ever want to talk more about what’s  been going on for you, I’m here for you.”

For more information or to take a free screening, check out NEDA’s website.

In keeping with the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week slogan for this year, I’ll finish with this: “It’s time to talk about it.”