Eating disorders are tricky. In one sense, they are like any other illness in that a person never chooses to be afflicted, despite stigmas that may suggest otherwise. But on the other hand, they’re also a bit of an enigma, because beyond treating any resulting medical complications and addressing the psychological roots of the disorder, a person must find it within him or herself to actively choose to get well, rather than being passively healed. But making that choice is often one of the most difficult parts of the whole process, and there’s really only one thing that makes it a tad easier: support.
Depending on the person, however, support can take many forms. Personally, the tough love approach has always worked best for me. When I was at my sickest, a few of my close friends intervened even though they knew it could potentially violate my trust. Now, of course, I am forever grateful to their persistence, and always say it’s better to risk losing a friendship than a friend. Different approaches work for different people, though, so we polled experts and women in recovery on various ways you can help a friend who may be struggling.
“When I was struggling with an eating disorder, I lost myself. I wasn’t the girl my friends knew. Remember that your friend is so much more than just someone with an eating disorder. Remind them of the things they are good at and help them continue to focus their energy on following their passions. Reassure your friend that you will always be with them throughout the process and back it up with action by being their biggest cheerleader. You can’t make your friend stop the behaviors, but you can listen, try to understand, and offer support.” – Liana Rosenman, co-founder of Project HEAL
“Oftentimes shame is associated with eating disorder which can prevent those struggling from getting help, or from even acknowledging that there’s a problem. This can feel conflicting for those looking to support these individuals – not wanting to cause more pain, while also feeling concerned or confused. Effective support includes avoiding the subject of weight and weight changes within the individual struggling, sharing your emotional experience, and offering what you have within your capacity to act as a support. This can include a listening ear, company for appointments/sessions, or even accountability. But this does not include acting as the caretaker or policeman for that individual’s recovery.” –Temimah Zucker, LMSW (Monte Nido Manhattan, Primary Therapist)
“While I was in recovery, my most supportive friends were the ones who were just there to listen. I think a lot of people will try to give the people they love solutions to a problem they don’t really understand. While those actions are well-meaning, my friends that simply listened–without feeling as though they had to “do” anything to help–made me feel understood and empowered to find my own solutions.” –Jacquie, 27, California
“What was most helpful for me in my own recovery was having the other women with whom I was in treatment constantly reminding me how I perceived and was treating myself, versus how I treated them. It was always a wake up call to realize that I was being my own worst critic while supporting and loving my friends unconditionally.” –Emily, 21, New York City
“The best advice I could really give to a supporter is to listen and allow him or her to feel heard. Letting go of an eating disorder can feel like losing a best friend or loved one for those suffering. This is going to take time, understanding, and patience and they have to decide on this for themselves. They really just need to know that they have people who are there to listen without judgment, and support them as they make the decision every day to choose recovery.” –Colleen Baker, LMSW, Primary Therapist at Monte Nido Manhattan
“If you think you or a friend is struggling with an eating disorder, tell someone! Eating disorders thrive in secrecy, and if you’re afraid of telling someone about a loved one you think is struggling, remember that you’re a better friend for speaking up than not saying anything.” –Caroline, 21, New Jersey