Someone I know has an eating disorder. What should I do?


Jen Moffat

date published

June 29, 2018, 8:26 p.m.



So someone you love told you about their eating disorder.

Ohhh, the courage this has taken.

When I “came out” to my husband four years ago I whispered the words, whilst struggling to breathe. Panic rushed in, tried to silence me. Telling him made everything real and there could be no turning back; I knew I had to get help. I couldn’t do it alone. I was 40 years old.

I don’t think this was a conversation he ever expected to have. I felt like I hit him with the ED sledgehammer and he was understandably out of his depth. Whilst he remains incredibly supportive, he has taken some false turns in his efforts to support me, and who could blame him?

Discovering such a secret about a loved one can bedevastating.
Terrifying. Frustrating. Angering. Paralysing.

So, where do you start?

Eating Disorders are not about body size.
Let me repeat that.

Eating Disorders are not about body size.
And again.

Eating Disorders are not about body size.
Got it?

Once this fact is absorbed you’ll experience more success than failure in your attempts to support someone with ED. Some of those affected are overwhelmed with self-loathing, and punishing their body with or without food is a way of feeling in control. It gives relief and numbs the emotional pain.

This can cause someone to cling to a belief system about themselves which is incredibly damaging. The energy used sustaining a life of disordered eating, combined with the hiding of it, can’t be underestimated. For some, strong negative opinions or beliefs about themselves are established early in life and can become firmly entrenched over time. Uprooting these beliefs can be almost impossible without professional help.

Explaining to your loved one that they are beautiful, smart, funny, slim (please no) will fall on deaf ears. It’s likely your loved one will have a core value hangover long after you consider them ‘cured’. Meaning that these negative beliefs about themselves could still be rooted somewhere within them. Remember that they trusted you with this secret. They ARE ready to begin the healing process, but it is not easy. Be prepared that there is the possibility that as soon as you attempt to support them they could shut you down and resist. They may not give up their belief system willingly. Please don’t give up on them.

Sometimes you just need to listen. At other times, you may need to be there to help guide them in the treatment process. There could be times of high emotions where things could be said that are hurtful, but know that they love you, and they won't always react this way.

What they need most is your love and acceptance. Despite craving it desperately, it can be hard for someone to allow themselves this. As a loved one, you can give it freely. Remind them they are enough.

Right now when they feel like damaged goods, they are enough.

In my ED experience, there were some things that helped and some that hindered. Here are some ideas, based off my experience, that may work for those who are supporting a loved one. Something to keep in mind however, is that everyone is different and these tips may not work for everyone:

* Encourage your loved one to seek medical help from your family doctor, or a medical practitioner. If you think they may be an immediate danger to themselves then hit the ER instead.
* Be kind to yourself. This is NOT your fault. If you can, see a therapist to deal with your own emotions. They are valid. You are trying. That is wonderful.
* STOP using words like diet, healthy, unhealthy, fat, curvy, skinny, calories and any others connected with body image. Don’t compare your own body to others, discuss exercise or eating habits, or complain about how you shouldn’t have had that extra chocolate after dinner. These can be triggers. Learn about triggers, both in general and those specific to your loved one.
* Be patient. There isn’t a roadmap. You’ll make mistakes, there will be setbacks. That’s ok.
* Find the humour when you can in life

Eating Disorders take a long time to form roots in a person’s psyche. For me it was thirty years before I sought help so I understand that I’m not going to fully recover overnight. I have seen therapists and doctors and am on medication for anxiety, all of which are necessary and help enormously. I often have to remind both myself and my loved ones of my triggers and just allow mistakes to happen. Pick myself up and start over. Again.

But I AM recovering. There is always hope.

Jen Moffat

Jen Moffat is an Australian writer living in Toronto with a husband, a teenage daughter and various pets. She has played many roles including theatre director, Mother, writer and artisan, all of which have been underscored by a lifetime of disordered eating.
Now, in recovery, Jen hopes to encourage others to seek help and open up about their own mental health struggles by sharing her own experiences.

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