Ever since I became open about my struggles with an eating disorder on social media I have had a lot of people message me asking all sorts of questions. Most are from people who have loved ones that they suspect are struggling with some of the same issues I have. I hear the concern in their voices, but I also hear frustration and fear as they desperately ask for tangible ways to help.
If you believe a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, here are 6 ways you can help:
Accept that you can not “fix” them.
The fact is: if they do have an eating disorder you can’t fix them. They don’t need “fixing.” They need to be loved and understood. Eating disorders are hard to understand. There are so many different kinds of eating disorders. Some of them can look entirely different in two people with the same diagnosis. Medical and mental health practitioners that specialize in eating disorders are out there- let them do the hard work while you place yourself in a supporting role.
Know that food is not the primary issue.
Eating disorders are usually not about food. This means that planning to go to dinner with your friend and watching them eat isn’t going to help. It means that shoving a Runza down their throat isn’t saving them today. It’s not about the food. They don’t want to be doing this to their body either. Their behaviors could be coming out of anxiety surrounding their body image, or body dysmorphia, or out of an anxiety disorder that has robbed them of any kind of appetite, or out if a place of depression where they aren’t even motivated to eat. Just feeding someone with an eating disorder isn’t going to fix it.
Don’t point out their behaviors, ask about their fears.
Sometimes the behaviors surrounding an eating disorder are obvious, while some are sneaky. It doesn’t really matter. Human instincts make us get defensive when what we do gets called into question. So don’t just point it out accusing them of doing something wrong of strange. If you notice behaviors that concern you ask questions for understanding. Ask what they did at the gym for 4 hours, or what they are eating if they brought their own food to a dinner party. Just ask questions and see if they can open up about the anxieties that motivate their behaviors.
Talk to them about what you want for them, not about what you think they should do.
If it is clear that this person is struggling from an eating disorder don’t tell them what they should do. They know what they should do, and there are reasons they haven’t done it yet. Recovery is scary. Treatment holds a lot of unknowns and promises of deepest nightmares coming to reality. Encourage them by telling them what you desire for them. Tell them that you want freedom for them and you desperately want them to enjoy food, and not feel enslaved to exercise. Or tell them that you want them to love their body and fuel it well so they have the energy and ability to live life with you. It will bring a perspective of hope to recovery that is tainted by the lies of their eating disorder.
It takes time for someone to be ready for recovery, but if/when that happens, have the resources for them. Take the time to look into clinics that specialize in eating disorder treatments. Look into what kind of treatment center they might need. See if they could benefit from outpatient or inpatient clinics. If you want there to be a spiritual component, take the time to find a behavior therapist with a spiritual background. If you think they need to work with a dietitian make sure to do research to find one you agree with. Do the research so if your loved one asks, you have resources to point them to.
Pray that they would want recovery for themselves.
Just as with any addiction- behavioral or substance- recovery can’t be forced if there is no desire to recover. You can’t want recovery for them bad enough to make it happen if they don’t want it for themselves. We know the ultimate Healer and He is in control of our hearts. Pray for them to know that there is more to this life than what they experience physically. Ask Jesus to capture their heart and give them a desire to live this life without being enslaved to food, exercise, binge eating, overeating, or purging, and everything else. Pray for them to want freedom and victory so they might enjoy the good gift that food was created to be.
The reality is that no matter how badly you might want freedom for your loved one, Jesus wants freedom for them infinitely more. Ask him to do the work to make it possible.
Comment other ways that you have helped/have been helped in pursuing eating disorder recovery.