A Guest Blogger uses her lived experience of an eating disorder to write a compassionate blog to those supporting their loved ones.
“I hope that this can be a voice for them too, letting you know what they need from you right now…”
First off, I want to say that I cannot even imagine the pain that you are experiencing watching someone that you love so dearly suffer. I wanted to write this post to you, from my experience of having had an eating disorder, to let you know what I needed and hopefully help you to best support the one that you love. There is a good chance that they may be pushing you away from this aspect of their life and it is so hard when you are in the depths of an eating disorder to communicate what it is that you need. So, I hope that this can be a voice for them too, letting you know what they need from you right now.
I am sorry if the person you care about is pushing you away right now. It’s not intended to hurt you or to cut you out. Unfortunately, they are possibly very scared at the moment and their eating disorder is their crutch. You therefore can feel like a threat as you might challenge their eating disorder behaviours. This is not the true them, they are being dominated by their eating disorder voice for the safety and certainty that it can falsely promise. Understand that their eating disorder feels like a friend and anyone who may challenge that voice in their head feels like a threat to their safety. Please try not to take their distance personally or as a form of rejection.
Now, I know that it must be incredibly frustrating sometimes to watch someone seemingly unable to function “normally”. I can’t begin to understand how devastated and angry that could make you. Please try to monitor your own emotions in your own space and your own time. Please try not to express these in too overpowering a manner to the person suffering. I understand that you might want to express your pain and frustration but very often eating disorder sufferers are not able to regulate their emotions or the emotions of others very well. This means that they may internalise your emotion in an unhealthy way and further feed their eating disorder behaviour as a coping mechanism. Of course it would not be possible for you to have no support so please make sure that you have a safe outlet and your own help to talk to. This may be a friend or your own therapist, whoever it is that you need to take care of your own health.
In terms of what positive action you can take to support someone you love, please just be there. Unconditionally, without judgement and no matter what, please just be there. Please let them know that you see them and you see their pain and they are OK. That they are safe and that they can depend on you. Of course I don’t know what your family dynamic is like and I don’t know what may be a source of distress for the person you love who is suffering but they are going to need a lot of unconditional love and support. They are scared just as much as you and they are going to need accountability and safety throughout this. I guess the point of having your own outlet and place to talk is so that if and when they are able to tell you something, you can respond calmly and kindly. Not judging them just validating who they are beneath their disorder and acknowledging that you know that they are doing their best and it is OK that they haven’t worked it all out yet.
“I can only imagine how difficult it would be but please remain calm, curious and on their side and remember, this is not you vs. them, this is you and them vs. the eating disorder.”
Related, please try to understand them. Of course you will not fully understand because unless you yourself have been in that position, it is very hard to. I don’t mean to make them feel ‘crazy’ for their behaviour when you can’t understand but asking questions such as ‘how can I best support you?’ or ‘what do you need from me right now?’ can help them to vocalise what is going on and what they feel they might need. I don’t know where you are with them on the journey but it is very likely that, if not already in place, therapist support will be needed. It might be worthwhile at some point offering to help them find someone qualified and impartial to talk to. I can only imagine how difficult it would be but please remain calm, curious and on their side and remember, this is not you vs. them, this is you and them vs. the eating disorder.
Please also understand that the person you love may need to re-learn how to regulate their own emotions, what it is that they like, who they are even. It may sound extreme but an eating disorder can zap an entire personality and there is a whole load of work to do to rediscover this and rebuild a life without food rules. Please be open minded and understanding throughout this process. They may seem flakey or irrational but whatever it is, they are trying. Hormones may be out of whack, emotions may not be correctly identified. It really is a minefield so please remain a constant in their life and unconditionally accept them.
I guess on a related note, the person you love may seem to change in your eyes. Try not to tell them who they are or what they like. Please try to remain open and curious to what they discover about themselves.
“Boundaries are there to keep you in their life. If boundaries are ever communicated or appear to be implemented then this person loves you so much they don’t want to lose you. They want to find an adult way for your relationship to work which is healthy for both of you.”
They may even need to establish boundaries within your relationship. Try to respect these if they do. That is not to say that this will always be the case, and this may be heartbreaking for you if your relationship has always been a certain way; but whatever they are asking for is what they feel that they need. Please understand that sometimes this can be necessary whilst in recovery. The best thing that you can do is accept these (no matter how frustrated or upset you are) and show them that you respect who they are becoming. They are having to re-learn how to navigate relationships to take care of themselves, and boundaries are not there to shut you out. Boundaries are there to keep you in their life. If boundaries are ever communicated or appear to be implemented then this person loves you so much they don’t want to lose you. They want to find an adult way for your relationship to work which is healthy for both of you.
Of course everyone is different but I hope that this can help you to understand what you can do to best help the person you care about who is currently suffering with an eating disorder. The most important thing that you can do is to be there, unconditionally accepting them, and seeking your own help; not only to regulate their own emotions but also to demonstrate and normalise the idea of needing help. This is not you vs. them, this is you and them vs. the eating disorder.
If you are in a caring role of a loved one, we ask that you go gently and ensure you are supported. To read our advice for parents and carers, you can click here.