Are you wondering how best to support a friend or a loved one in eating disorder recovery? As you someone you care about physically change, it can be easy to assume that they ‘must be better’. The reflection of many people moving through recovery is that as their eating disorder is being challenged, they can feel really overwhelmed and this can be a really difficult transition period.
For people providing support and care this can be a confusing time. Our specialist guidance in this blog is set out to support you to offer helpful support and to deepen your awareness of this period.
“The answer is in some ways quite simple; reassurance and love are the two dominating factors when it comes to helping anyone with mental health issues.” Beat
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, and are highly individualised – meaning not one eating disorder is the same, and that anybody can develop one. Eating disorders do not just affect the sufferer, but also those around them. It may be that your loved one has received treatment for their eating disorder and is now navigating ‘normal’ life. This can be tricky time for all concerned. You might feel helpless or worried that you’re not doing enough to support them. Or, you may be worried you will say the wrong thing, in fear it could fuel the eating disorder thoughts and behaviours. You might have questions – “what can I do to support?”, “what can or can I not say?” or, “how can I socialise with them again?”
To support yourself in supporting your loved one, here are our suggestions to keep in mind.
First of all, tend to your needs
It is so important to look after yourself when supporting a friend with an eating disorder – in fact, it is vital.
This means finding the time to fulfil acts of self-care and to be immersed in an environment that fuels your happiness and re-energises your authentic self. Your needs are also valued in this experience, so take time to honour that. If you feel tired and need rest, that is ok. If you feel you need time to recharge your mental batteries, that too is ok.
Setting boundaries is a way to tend to your needs and to protect your energy, and boundaries keep us safe. By setting healthy boundaries with your friend, this can provide space for you to identify when your values and time are being tested and respond to in a direct way. They keep relationships strong and healthy and involve knowing when to say “yes” and importantly, when to say “no”.
When a friend is struggling and needing a lot of support, it’s common to feel compelled to “fix” them and to be present 24/7 whenever they need. Remember, as helpful as this may seem, it is vital that you look after yourself first. As Karen, our Consultant Family Therapist says, “put your own mask on first!” – this ensures that you can come from a place of understanding and be truly present with them and their needs when you do offer support.
Ask your friend “What do you need from me”
It is important to understand that recovery from an eating disorder can instigate feelings of guilt and at times shame. It is also often a very scary time in which lot of feelings, perhaps previously cut off feelings, can resurface..
Keep in mind that just because your loved one may look “better” on the outside, perhaps seem “healthier” or even “recovered”, it does not necessarily mean that they are feeling this way on the inside. In fact, what many people share is that paradoxically as they begin to look better to others, they often feel worse. Recovery is a complex process, so go gently if you find yourself frustrated when offering support that is denied or recieved with ambivalence or frustration.
What will help is talking. Asking genuinely open questions that allows the person to connect wt what they need really helps. As “how are you?”, “do you need anything from me?”, “is there anything different I can do right now?”
Approaching this with authenticity and patience, from a place of really listening can be very powerful and even if they cant respond immediately, they will know you are there.
If your friend is able to express their thoughts and feelings, then listen and simply ‘be’ alongside them. There is such power in this.
Try to ground yourself in a place of openness; try not to judge or pre-empt what your friend is telling you. Support them as the individual that they are, and the not their illness. Just listen.
Be mindful of language
Use the right language or phrasing when supporting your friend in recovery. Whilst eating disorders are not about food, be mindful of how you talk about food and your food choices around someone who is struggling –flippant comments canbe unhelpful, and hold in mind that talking about foods as “good” or “bad” can risk exacerbating someone’s fixation on the nutritional content of food.
So, if you and your friend go for an outing to the beach or to a park, rather than focusing on food, or anything weight/image related, why not use words that reflect compassion and kindness instead? Such as, “I am so proud of you for showing up today,” or, “let’s do this, together.”
For, your friend is worth more than their eating disorder, and hearing these values determined in their outer world (by you) over time could improve their implicit views and values of their recovering self. And remember, if you do say something with hindsight you feel was unhelpful, check it out. Asking for feedback really helps, and again it normalises that we all make mistakes but that we care enough to correct them.
Signpost to additional specialist support
As hard as you try and as much as you may want to, you can’t “fix” you’re the person you care. That is their work.
If you are concerned that someone you care for is experiencing a relapse or is not receiving support through therapy or specialist treatment, it may be helpful to signpost them to eating disorder support services or treatment centres to explore their options. Beat, our charity partner, is a fantastic resource for support and offers different helplines and support groups for everyone involved (so you, too, can also get the support).
They provide helpful blogs for friends and carers, outlining how to show support and ‘what not to say’:
Model “regular” behaviour
Often, we encourage those around individuals with eating disorders to role model “regular behaviour”. Your friend may have become disconnected with the natural flow of life and having you and people around them who “normalise” core aspects of life, such as food, eating and social behaviours can be really helpful.
An eating disorder is pretty much the antithesis of living “intuitively”. By going about your life in as normal a way as you can help can support someone else to normalise behaviours and in time undo the fears often associated the every day taks of life an eating disorder interrupts.
Ride the waves with them
You may have heard that recovery is not linear, meaning that there will be ups and downs, side steps, back steps and roundabouts along the way. It is a journey of rediscovery, and your friend may feel that they lost who they are, underneath their eating disorder or be in a process of really getting to know themselves for the first time. Many of our clients at Orri share feelings of “emptiness”, of feeling “blank” or “numb”. In time as their eating disorder recovery progresses, they will start to feel a bit more. As they feel a bit more, there may be confusion with what happiness or hope feels like.
Your friend at this point will be facing an even bigger battle, to fight off the eating disorder and to keep it at bay as they fight also for themselves again. This is when your holding onto the hope for them is crucial. Whilst being mindful of your boundaries, journey alongside your friend with the ups and downs and fight the battle together. To know they are not alone is a powerful ally in recovery.
“With the support of family and friends, chances of a full recovery are so much bigger than without that essential support. Eating disorders root deep inside someone. It will take time, tears and more time to recover. Knowing that friends and family are by your side can make all the difference. Reassure and find distractions together. Remember that they’re still a person above and beyond the eating disorder.” Hannah, Beat contributor
If you are reading this as a friend, a loved one, a partner, or a family member of someone with an eating disorder, we want to acknowledge the journey you have been on alongside them too. You may have witnessed their tears, their struggles and their pain, all manifested by the eating disorder, all the while, bearing witness to your own. That is a heavy load to carry. Especially when you have had to stay grounded or ‘be strong’ for your loved one. Eating disorder recovery for all is difficult, and we commend you on your resilience in holding onto hope, for the both of you.
If you are concerned for a friend and wish to speak to someone, you can complete our form below or call our Admissions team today.