Eating Disorders: Something Worth Talking About
Too many people suffering with Eating Disorders slip under the radar. They hide the eating disorder’s behaviour from their friends and family meaning that they can slip further into their illness and often feel like no one cares enough to take any notice. It’s been said numerous times that one of the worst things about having an Eating Disorder is the feeling of isolation.
If you are worried about someone - talk about it!
We spoke to young people who had had an eating disorder and asked them for their thoughts on what their friends did or did not do when they were in recovery and how this helped. We hope this gives inspiration for how you can be there to help!
Fighting Anorexia is about the hardest thing I’ve done in my life to date. It’s made successive challenges seem like child’s play. However, I believe eating disorders, in many ways, are hardest on those attempting to care, on friends and family. I owe my successful recovery to them. Life would have been much harder if I hadn’t had dear friends on the other end of the phone talking for hours about life. When I think about individual things that made a difference, I can think of one perfect example. In the depths of illness and depression, when I hadn’t been amongst my peer group at school for months, a friend invited me to Party in the Park. I must have seemed very rude because I was withdrawn all day and I struggled to join in. The day itself was a real challenge, but it meant a lot. It made me feel included. It gave me something to talk about with my peers- we had shared a perfectly normal experience; we had shared memories that were fun and light-hearted. Those experiences of being part of a group, and experiencing normality, do so much to break down the isolation imposed by an eating disorder.
Do I look big in this?
The main advice I would give to somebody supporting students with eating disorders is not to comment on your friend’s weight. It's difficult to say the right thing without being triggering. I see things differently now, but a while back I found it difficult when people told me in looked 'healthier' or that I was ' looking well' because I tended to take things negatively and see it as 'You look fatter'. Even if friend’s told me that I looked as though I had lost weight, I'd also see this negatively. Anything to do with weight my mind would twist, and if I’m honest I do still find myself thinking like this sometimes. I’d also suggest that you don’t change how you eat when around your friend. Friends would stop eating around me. This made me feel guilty. They'd stop asking me out to places that involved food. I felt awful when they felt they had to revolve things around me. I would have felt a lot more relaxed about eating if they didn't make a big issue out of it. But in saying that, I wouldn't advise not to mention it at all. I would suggest maybe you tell your friend that you are there to support them and are there if they ever need to chat about things, but I’d let them be the one to bring the subject up, not the other way around.
Being there to talk to
My eating disorder was the most controlling, manipulating and deceitful 'friend' in my life and was so real he was known to my family, friends and myself as 'ED'. Escaping from ED’s clutches has been the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. One of the many things ED insisted on was me living a solitary life. Without the love, support and persistence of family and friends I didn't stand a chance to fight ED. Two strong memories stand out in my mind. One was a holiday my family and I took to Turkey. Although they knew what a strain ED would be on us they tried their best to make me feel loved and wanted. My friends on countless occasions would invite me out to events even though I would be more like an onlooker with ED. More than anything, just knowing that I could talk to my friend whenever and about whatever, gave me a warm glow of love. Those were the times I knew there was another way to live and that the day would come when ED is no longer a 'friend' and is no more than an illness that can, will, and has been beaten with the love, support and persistence of my family and friends.
Staying in the loop
One of the hardest things about being an inpatient was the fear of being forgotten by my friends. Prior to being admitted as an inpatient, I had become a recluse; the low self-esteem, depressed mood, fatigue and fear of food meant that I had gradually withdrawn from any social interactions- choosing evenings in studying alone instead of being with friends. It wasn’t that I had no interest in my friends – I was just too engrossed in the disorder, I was no longer fun loving me, only anorexia. The social isolation was made worse when I had to stop attending school and was eventually admitted to the inpatient unit. I worried that being out of sight would mean I was out of mind; the thought of being even more outside the friendship circle made me more depressed and anxious. Whilst some friends found it too difficult to visit, my closest friends made special efforts to come to the unit bringing flowers and teddies to cheer me up. Whilst I loved them visiting, they seemed to be treading on egg shells, not wanting to say anything that would upset me. Rather than having conversations about new boyfriends, parties and changes at school, we would discuss the weather and what had been happening in the news. I would put a brave face on and pretend all was well. One morning in the unit, I received a letter. I recognised immediately the handwriting – it was from my best friend who had visited me earlier that week. The letter, which I still have today, was a detailed and entertaining account of everything that had happened within our friendship circle, everything I had missed over the previous couple of months. At the end of the letter, she commented on how she wanted to keep me up to date with all the gossip but thought that writing would be easier. She also encouraged me to write back to let her know about all my gossip! (And of course how I was really feeling). This meant a lot to me.
Come rain or shine
For me personally, the thing that I most admired and found the most helpful in my recovery was my friend’s ability to be consistent. It did not matter if what she said was sometimes ‘unhelpful’ or ‘wrong’, in trying to help me, or if she acted exasperated, frustrated and sometimes downright upset at my Eating Disorder; the fact that she was always there, through positive steps and backwards ones, meant so much to me. At the time, I found it difficult to express how I felt, and quite often I didn’t know how I felt. Therefore, even if the sufferer gets upset or angry with you, most probably this is because deep down you are helping them work through the Eating Disorder, and all of the anger and emotion is because of the Disorder, not because of you. Being a consistent friend was an unbelievably helpful thing, and just by taking the time to be a friend for someone in recovery, you are doing so much for them, even though sometimes you may feel unappreciated. Believe me, the support of others in what is such an overwhelmingly lonely time for a sufferer, is incredible.
Fear of social rejection
In the depths of my eating disorder, a great deal more of my time was spent living in my head than it was actually really participating in the world around me. But as much as I convinced myself I was like that because I preferred it that way, in reality my fears of being a social failure played a big part in it. It was much safer for me to isolate myself in the world of numbers and rules in my mind, than it was for me to risk rejection from my peers. Often, people gave up inviting me out after the first few times I turned them down. This confirmed that I wasn’t really worth spending time with. Of course there times when I simply couldn’t be swayed, but often just a small amount of encouragement and assurance that my presence would be really appreciated gave me the confidence to venture out of my loneliness and realise that the world was much bigger than my eating disorder.
Business as usual
I am always heartened to receive emails from concerned flatmates or course mates, asking how to help their friend as best as possible. Having suffered from an eating disorder myself, I only now appreciate the difficult situation I put my own friends through and the stress it must have put on them. I like to think they had someone to turn to themselves, whilst they were being so supportive of me. The best thing my friends did for me was to maintain as normal a friendship as possible and support me in helping myself. I know my friends continuing to invite me out, even though I often refused, and just keeping me company gave me a focus other than my eating disorder and reminded me that I was valued for who I was. Eating disorders can be isolating and the sufferer can lose their sense of identity. I remember it was frustrating for my friends that they could not force me to eat or prevent me from purging when I did, but they listened to me complain about it. That was the biggest help of all, they knew I did these things and still treated me normally. They did not try to analyse me or accuse me of being "attention-seeking". Engaging in the big concept of 'recovery' can be daunting, so knowing they were there for me was a huge help. Recovery is something which requires the motivation of the individual, and this takes time. So I sincerely hope my friends put themselves first. There is a limit to what friends can do to help and compromising their own needs does not help anyone.
Who am I?
Anorexia was one thing. Thinking about letting go was another entirely. I was anorexia. If I were not to be anorexic, I would be nothing. Logical. Recovery was an identity crisis. I had to define myself in new words. But who the f**! was I? The more I thought, the more I decided that no one in their right mind would be me because I didn’t really exist. That made the eating disorder seem terribly comforting. At least it existed. Something had to be better than nothing? Or so I told myself. Starting with nothing though, you can build something new. I needed the confidence and courage to do this, to let go and build something new. Have you ever started a hobby or a sport or something and had the desire that no one watch until you’ve had some practice; no one likes to look a fool. Well I was very good at this anorexia thing and the world wasn’t going to go away while I practiced being something new. People were watching. Recovery took so many leaps of faith, every word of encouragement helped; every criticism or unkind laugh set me scurrying back to Anorexia. Other people’s judgement doesn’t matter when you’re good at anorexia; you are playing on a different pitch to them, and by god are you better at anorexia than them. So, what helped in recovery was encouragement and acceptance. When people commented positively on the music I was listening to or the book I was reading, it reaffirmed that this new identity, independent from anorexia, was okay.
Just let go... and set a good example
I’m still recovering from anorexia. Putting on weight, eating the amount of food required to do so, is hard. It was harder still while people around me are on controlled diets. My mum has always dieted; she eats to a strict rigid plan which she follows every single day. As I'm trying hard to let go, my mum holds on. Last week I thought I'd be brave and decided to buy a mars bars as a snack. I asked mum if she would like one, and if she'd have it with me with a coffee instead of her usual four squares of chocolate perhaps. She said she might do, but then pulled over at a petrol station and bought a bar of her normal dark chocolate. As I ate my mars bar, the first one I'd eaten in several years, she ate her usual four squares. I really wish she had bent her rules. As I get bigger, she's still slimming down. It may be selfish, but I wish she was the sort of middle-aged woman who didn't give two monkeys if she carried a bit of extra weight. I wish she'd completely let go. It's not that I need people around me to get fat, I don't, I just need someone to prove that getting fat isn't the end of the world.
Thoughts and feelings: not behaviours
I think when you have a friend who suffers from an eating disorder there is a tendency for you to focus on their behaviours; what they are eating, how much they are eating, exercise habits etc. However, this can create unbearable pressure for a sufferer and cause them to find new ways of hiding their disorder from outside view, making them even more deeply entrenched in it. I remember feeling very awkward and guilty when my flatmates kept asking me why I always seemed to be on my way to the gym; so eventually I stopped telling them. Instead, ask your friend if there is anything that was upsetting them prior to the onset of their eating disorder, anything worrying them now and if there is anything you can do to help. Helping somebody to identify potential triggers is far more beneficial to their recovery than arguing over the size of their dinner and may even help them if they choose to enter therapy. In addition, talking over painful issues may help your friend realise that they are in fact very ‘special’ and valued by you and they don’t need an eating disorder to feel important or worthy, in addition to lessening the chains of social isolation which accompanies the illness.
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Registered Charity: 1142783