The moment I began opening up about my eating disorder I invited the world to learn about and witness my struggles. Frequently, people will now approach my parents and tell them that they had no idea that I was struggling. My mother’s general response is that this is because it was a “private” ordeal and one that I chose not to share with the public. Other people have told my parents that they knew something was going on, but did not want to pry and weren’t sure what to say.
There is generally curiosity about how to approach someone, or the loved ones of someone, whom you suspect is suffering from an eating disorder. Should they be blunt and tell the suspecting individual that they think s/he has an eating disorder? Should they skirt the situation and pretend that nothing is going on? Will saying something make it worse? While each situation is different, the following answers should prove helpful.
The first step when you may suspect that someone has an eating disorder is to avoid discussions about weight: Opening the conversation with comments about weight loss or gain can trigger unhealthy reactions. For instance, at the onset of my eating disorder, hearing that my weight “scared” my parents only acted as a reinforcement that I was succeeding in my Anorexia and that I should continue. While this may be my personal account, the idea of staying away from “weight” or “body talk” has been encouraged by many throughout my training. (Additionally, most eating disorder patients are not emaciated and so judging based on weight is not productive.) The safest way to approach someone would be to raise the topic of mood. When an individual is suffering from an eating disorder there is deep psychological pain occurring. For instance, approach the male or female and say “I’ve noticed that you don’t quite seem yourself – is there anything you’d like to talk about? How can I help or support you?” It should be noted that this conversation should not necessarily take place the first time you witness this individual using eating disorder-like behaviors. It is best not to speak up after only witnessing one or two behaviors or bad days. At the same time, one should not wait to say something if the individual is clearly using behaviors that are putting them in danger. I encourage individuals to look for prevalent mood and behavioral changes that seem to be affecting the functioning of the individual. Providing the opportunity for open communication and showing support can be considered the best first step.
On another note, if you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder you might want to approach his/her loved ones. This may be because you feel more comfortable doing so than approaching the person him/herself, or perhaps you are closer to the loved ones than the individual. The safest and most comforting approach is to speak calmly and supportively. Your job is not to tattle; you are raising the subject from a place of concern. It is also important to note that you cannot officially diagnose someone. Rather than say “Your sister is Anorexic,” it would be more helpful to say something along the lines of “Your sister seems to be behaving differently recently and I’m concerned. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed it…” Again, witnessing someone skip one meal does not mean you should go ahead and call her or her family immediately. It may be best to look for other patterns of mood and behavior that show something is not quite right.
What can you do if you know for a fact that a friend or family member has an eating disorder? What can you say that will be helpful? How should you approach his/her family members with whom you may have a strong connection? Try to be supportive without being too invasive. I encourage you to remind your friend or loved one that you are around as a means of support and that if s/he ever wants to talk about it, or simply talk about anything else, you are there to listen. Do not comment on “weight,” give any complement regarding looking “good” or “healthy-” this generally translates in the person’s mind as you calling them “fat.” When I first came home after a month of residential treatment I remember my siblings and close friends simply being with me emotionally –they told me that if I wanted to talk, they were there to listen. I have found that most people find this helpful since they do not feel like others are prying, but they know that they’re being supported.
The most important piece of advice is not to appear judgmental. Be careful not to make comments that trivialize the severity and difficulty of the sufferer. When I first disclosed my suffering to a friend he responded, “But food is delicious why don’t you eat?” I remember how hurt I felt…I had taken a scary step by telling him of my pain and his response made me feel low and misunderstood.
It may help to read NEDA’s information on Myths Disproved to help create understanding and a judgment free environment.
If you have questions related to this or other topics, email Temimah: informationTVC_gmail.com
by Temimah Zucker