Hannah and I have written this document from our own personal experience of eating disorders and of supporting friends and family through illness. If you do have further questions, please feel free to get in touch either via email (email@example.com) or on facebook (hwww.facebook.com/fb.SRSH) and we’ll do our best to get back to you.
1. Distance and boundariesLife with an eating disorder is often in crisis. When I was ill, life often seemed too difficult to manage. I regularly created crisis situations. As a carer or a friend it may be best not to get to involved in these crisis situations. Don’t panic in a crisis, step back and let the storm blow out. I am not saying that you should ignore an individual, but every now and then saying something along the lines of
“Yes, I’m here to support you, but right now you are making a mountain out of a mole hill – I’m here to listen when you calm down.”
might just help defuse the situation. At the very least, it will keep you calmer.
You would not put your life on hold for most of your friends. Don’t put your life on hold because of the eating disorder. This sounds cold, but you need to be careful not to give the Eating Disorder too much attention – I’m going to start speaking about two people and it is worth considering these two people when supporting a friend: you have your friend and you have the eating disorder (Edi). They are separable, and the more you keep them separate the better- Edi will thrive off attention, don’t ignore your friend, but do try not to give Edi too much attention.
2. Keep pushing the door open.The question often arises, “Do I say something? Or don’t I?” “Do I start talking about my concerns, or do I pretend everything is fine?”
I would start talking! But remember that people often find it difficult to accept they have a problem, and harder still to talk about it. I would encourage you to have a conversation in which you explain your concerns gently and calmly, express that you want to help. I recommend that you have this meeting in a place that is neutral (e.g. somewhere that either person could easily get up and walk away from) and at a time away from a meal time.
Don’t be surprised if this discussion is not successful, don’t push for a response, don’t become confrontational. I would leave the discussion if it is not going well with the reminder – I’m here whenever you want to talk. I would not be afraid to remind your friend of this statement “I’m here whenever you want to talk.”
Be careful here not to make every conversation about the eating disorder – in fact this rule pretty much stands for any situation. Individuals with eating disorders are often concerned about how their friends will react to being told about the eating disorder. They tend to worry that their relationship will be reduced to the eating disorder, that everyone will change how they behave around them because they have an eating disorder. Remember this, and remember to try to maintain everything that your friendship had prior to you starting to worry about their eating. As an individual slips into an eating disorder, very often their world contracts so that much of their life becomes focused on the eating disorder – this can be very difficult to reverse during recovery. You can help by trying to keep their life as varied and non-eating disorder focused as possible.
3. Keep the invitations coming in...Following on from above, individuals with an eating disorder may start to shut themselves away, become more isolated and shut people out. Never stop issuing the invitations, however unwelcome they seem – keep on trying to include your friend in every normal thing you and your friends do.
4. Don’t hover around meals.It can be very difficult to have a sensible conversation about food, let alone monitor, support and help someone eat. The good news here is that it is often more helpful to talk about wider thoughts and feelings that the eating disorder itself. Many people consider an eating disorder as a solution to a problem rather than the problem itself – it is often helpful to talk about the bigger situation rather the ins and outs of eating.
If you want to help with food, I recommend you have a conversation away from meal times. Ask if there is anything you can do to help with meals. They may find it helpful for you to go food shopping or sit through meals with them or keep them company / distracted after a meal. They may find none of this helpful.
Just remember when having this conversation, that individuals with an eating disorder naturally find eating very stressful, you only want to reduce the stress around meal times, not add to it! Hovering around while they are preparing food or having confrontations at a meal time is unlikely to be helpful. If you want to pick up on something they ate or did not eat, it may be best to come back to it gently well away from a meal time.
5. There are no wordsWhen I was ill I found it very hard at times to find words for what I was feeling, sometimes it felt like there were no words and yet people would ask me what was wrong... it can be hard to answer such a question.
6. Involve others.This may be controversial, but in the long run it can be best to get as much help as early as possible. Eating disorders caught early are less likely to spiral into long term problems. How can you get other people involved?
- - Make sure you have friends you can talk to, to support you,
- This may require you asking your friend to come open to a few more people than they were initially planning on.
- - Encourage your friend to talk to and lean on as wider support base as possible.
- - Encourage your friend to go and see their GP – you may want to offer to go with them for moral support.
- - Look up who can offer support locally – whether it is a support service within the university or wider community.
- - If you are at one of our universities – you could offer to go to an SRSH group with your friend, again offering moral support.
Finally – who is supporting you? Remember, you can’t do this alone and no one would expect you to.
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