The day I was diagnosed with anorexia both my parents were with me at my pediatrician's office, sitting across from me as they struggled to hold back tears.
My parents were the ones involved in my treatment, the people who made sure I was eating each day when I was unable to do so on my own. They were my supporters and cheerleaders all along my journey, taking time out of their lives to bring me to appointments, to Skype my meals, to attend family therapy...
But they were not the only ones.
As this week, Feb. 22-28, is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it is important to put the spotlight on awareness in general, and to create a dialogue about the true nature of eating disorders, and that "They Do Not Discriminate."
People often think of young teenage girls when they picture the population suffering from eating disorders. In reality, they strike men and women of all ages. There are many resources for parents who are looking to be involved in their child's treatment as many reported or well-known cases of eating disorders strike in the adolescent and young adult population. But there are fewer resources and organizations for the other supports in an individual's life.
When I was diagnosed my friends, siblings, and boyfriend all wished to help me. Part of the reason that this was difficult was because I had shut down; I didn't think I needed help, didn't think they could understand.
They did not see my day-to-day life as my parents did at the time and they were not involved in the feeding or therapy process... but they wanted to help and knew I was in pain. They watched as I morphed into a different person and they felt helpless as I retreated deeper into my disorder.
Any support offered when someone is struggle with an eating disorder is precious. Whether it be parents, relatives, co-workers, etc. Those who provide support often feel a full range of emotions (sadness, fear, frustration, confusion) and the more insight for these individuals -- the more support they can be given, the more support they can then provide.
The following are some tips for supporters including siblings, partners, and friends:
• Don't assume that you don't matter or can't have an impact. Your loved one is going through a difficult time and your support is incomparable. You may not understand what s/he is going through, but that doesn't mean s/he doesn't want you involved. Hardly anyone can truly understand what it is like to suffer from an eating disorder; what you can do is show him/her that you care and that you want to help. This is not to be done in one easy time. It takes persistent conversation and convincing that you love him/her and just want to be there.
• Test the temperature by creating a space for open communication. Not sure if you can talk about certain subjects? Nervous to talk about food or dieting or even clothes or celebrities? You can ask! There are some topics that should probably be avoided for a while like calories and pounds, etc. But if you aren't sure, you can express that you want to make it the most comfortable for your loved one and do what feels okay for them.
• You are a strong motivation! I've heard countless times that people want to get better so that they can be good role models for their siblings or return to having fun, deep relationships. At the same time, try not to pressure someone. If you're a motivating factor for your loved one, awesome! You should feel blessed! But don't use that as pressure. I've also heard supporters say, "If you loved me, you'd get better and know that I think you're beautiful." The sentiment is there but it completely ignores the deep pain and discomfort the person is experiencing and makes it seem as if recovery is possible but the individual is just being selfish and not "doing it already."
• Be patient. Recovery takes time... and hold onto hope. More often than not, your loved one isn't sure if recovery is possible and may look to you for guidance. The moment you doubt it, s/he will know. So although it's hard, hold onto the hope that things will get better.
• It is important to show the person that you love him/her whether or not s/he has an eating disorder. Sometimes people don't believe they're lovable or special or adequate, and showing them and reminding them of this is crucial. Sometimes it helps to start doing activities unrelated to the eating disorder, to show him/her that you want to be with him/her and that's what matters.
• The person may have different needs at this time. Your sibling, partner, or friend may have used to love certain activities that may not feel comfortable at this time. For partners, intimacy may have changed. Going to the mall may be difficult because trying on clothes can feel overwhelming. Don't take this as a personal attack. See if you can create a dialogue about what feels comfortable at this time. How can you be helpful at the workplace, in school? What types of activities are safe right now? What type of support does s/he want you to be? Don't be afraid to gently ask.
• Take time for yourself! I often recommend that close friends/family see a counselor to be able to talk about what it's like to have this experience. Be sure to take care of yourself and find time to do things just for you. If you aren't taking care of yourself how can you possibly take care of your loved one?
Those who provide support to individuals suffering are often some of the strongest individuals. It is not easy, and it is not always pleasant, but it is worth it. I would not be here today without the people who showed me I was loved and reminded me not only that I had so much to live for, but that they believed in me, even when I couldn't believe in myself.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.