EDAW: How to (not) support your family member or friend in recovery
Digital team's blog
As Eating Disorders Awareness Week draws to a close, we asked Hannah from our Campaigns and policy team what tips her and her colleagues have for for supporting someone who has an eating disorder and what has helped them through their own recovery. This is what they told us:
Firstly, mind your language
I understand that diet culture is engrained in our society, but there needs to be a higher level of consciousness about how problematic these conversations can be – especially for someone who is trying to avoid the toxic diet culture that permeates our society and maintains an eating disorder. The chances are that someone in recovery is already hyperaware of what they’re eating in public, and so avoid making comments even if they are well-intentioned.
“Please don’t make comments about my food... ”that looks healthy” isn’t a compliment or a conversation starter!”
Educate yourself about eating disorders
Rethink Mental Illness has information available about the different types of eating disorders. Becoming familiar with these resources is a really good step in understanding how different types of eating disorders may present themselves. It’s important to remember, though, that each person may be figuring out their own eating disorder, so be patient if someone’s symptoms aren’t ‘textbook’ and deviate from the stereotypical perception of an eating disorder.
“Educate yourself about bulimia. It is a mental health condition relating to an inability to deal with painful or overwhelming emotions (mine started when my mum was diagnosed with a fatal illness, as a teenager). It is not to do with vanity…it helped me feel more in control at a time of helplessness – and still does, on occasion. It is a coping mechanism. Try and get that person to talk about what is bothering them, as bottling up negative emotions is often a trigger.”
Get involved in their recovery journey
Within reason, of course, as there may be some parts of therapy that are too tricky to reshare. However, a massive part of therapy is learning how to establish regular eating patterns, and having support and encouragement from your friends and family during this challenging period can be really appreciated.
“Ask me how therapy is going. It’s great to talk about the practical tips I’m learning to aid my recovery and you never know, they may be helpful to you too! Don’t be too surprised if I do some you wouldn’t expect, believe it or not I still do have to eat something. If I’ve chosen to share a meal with you, it’s because I trust you to support me with my recovery. The best thing you can do is keep things as normal as possible and let’s celebrate this little mile stone, but not too extravagantly!”
It’s okay if you don’t get it
Despite the previous two points, there is also a value in recognising the times when you don’t quite understand, and that’s alright. The chances are that the person in recovery doesn’t quite understand why they think or do certain things either due to the complex nature of eating disorders. The important thing here is to be patient and compassionate. The New Maudsley Approach encourages carers of someone with an eating disorder to be like a ‘dolphin’ – rather than a jellyfish or a rhinoceros!
“Never try to “force feed” or comment on the person’s eating habits. Express concern, tell that person you love them and want to help, but try not to offer solutions as it can come across as lecturing or criticising…Another good one for me was establishing with my boyfriend and friends that I knew that they didn’t get it and that it was ok for them to ask how to try to get it… recognising that there are some things you can try to understand.”
Remember: it’s not all about food!
Despite being called ‘eating’ disorders, it’s important to acknowledge that food behaviours and eating are an outlet for coping with difficult emotions and distress. A person in recovery still has an identity outside of their mental illness, despite what their eating disorder has convinced them over the years. As a friend or family member, it’s great to remind the person in recovery about what makes them unique, and what hobbies and activities they enjoy doing which enhance their wellbeing.
“Behaviours around food are a symptom of how I’m feeling, ask me how I’m doing/feeling rather than asking questions about food… I already struggle to see my identity outside of my eating disorder, so hang out with me like we would normally do, and help me to realise I am more than just my eating disorder… “clothes shopping and going to restaurants might not be my top social priorities, but there are so many other things we can do together - cinema, grabbing a coffee, watching Netflix, or having a sleepover.”
And finally, let’s help each other to be body confident and feel good about themselves
As I mentioned earlier, we’re currently living in a society where diet-culture and the beauty industry perpetuate messages which make us think that we are not good enough. Together, let’s challenge that and create safer spaces for everyone to become comfortable with who they are.
Hannah is the Senior Policy and Practise Officer at Rethink Mental Illness and Project and is an ambassador and . You can follow her on Twitter via @hannahloo12345
If you would like more information about eating disorders, please download our free factsheet