My best friend is struggling with eating disorder right now and I have no idea how to help, or even how to act around them at the moment in case I say or do anything that makes it worse. How can I support them through this?
You are already being a wonderful friend by wanting to find out how to help. So many friendships don't make it through eating disorders, because it's scary and confusing to see someone you care about battle with something that's changing them into a person you don't recognise. Thank you for wanting to stay.
I wish I could give you a magic answer that would instantly help your friend to recover, but eating disorders are complex and often deeply rooted illnesses, and there isn't any one thing you can say to make everything better. What I can do is tell you from my own experience what was helpful, and what was hurtful in my recovery, so let's get right to that.
What to steer clear of:
1. Weight-related comments
All of them. Without exception. When you're in an eating disorder mindset you become an expert at twisting any comment into a reason not to recover. For example, when I lost weight and people started to tell me I was too thin, my ED told me that they were lying to trick me into weight gain, so I better keep losing to make sure that didn't happen. When I gained weight and people told me that I looked 'well', the fear of fatness that my ED thrived on spiked and convinced me that I needed to go back.
Whatever the eating disorder, and whatever body changes come with it, it's likely that your friend is already obsessing over them every minute of every day, and they don't need any more fuel on that fire. No weight comments, ever.
2. Getting angry
I know how frustrating it might be sometimes when the solution to the problem seems so simple from the outside. But there is so much more going on in their brain than you can see, things that make it feel impossible for them to do what you know they should. Showing your frustration and telling them to 'just eat', 'just eat less', or 'just don't exercise' is about as helpful as shouting 'just swim' at someone who's drowning because they don't know how to. Be patient with them. It's important that you're able to express your anger somewhere, but it shouldn't be in front of them.
3. Thinking you need all the answers
You don't need to have the magic solution in order to be supportive. And you don't have to try and double as an unqualified therapist every time you see them, sometimes it's enough to just be there, as their friend.
4. Diet talk
Body shaming. Calorie counting. I hope this one is self explanatory but I know from experience that people might not see the harm in discussing their weight loss goals around someone in recovery. Existing in a culture that normalises disordered eating patterns through dieting and celebrates weight loss endlessly is probably one of the hardest things about recovery. The ED tells you that there isn't anything wrong with what you're doing, after all everyone's obsessed with calories and wanting to lose weight, it's totally normal. Except it shouldn't be. And it definitely shouldn't be around anyone in recovery. Shut down the diet talk you hear when you're with them, and watch how you talk about your own body and food as well. The most helpful friends I had in recovery were the ones who were unapologetic about their size and the fact that they enjoyed food. Be that friend.
What to do:
Even if you don't understand. Even if you don't have the answer. Let them know that you're there to listen without judgement and that you'll always be there for them.
One of the best things we can do for a friend with any mental illness is try our best to understand. There's so much information about eating disorders out there – I'm going to leave a list of resources at the end of this column for anyone who wants to learn more or needs support for themselves.
3. Believe in them
Even if they don't see a way out and even if everyone else has given up, make sure they know that you have no doubt in their ability to beat this. And on the days that they don't believe in themselves, tell them how thankful you are that they're here, and how proud of them you are every day, especially on the hard days. Be their biggest cheerleader, and when you're not cheering just let them know how loved they are.
4. Keep reminding them of who they are
One of the scariest parts of having an eating disorder is gradually losing sight of the person you are underneath. The ED will be working very hard to convince them that they can't let it go because they have no identity without it. Which is why it's crucial that you remind them otherwise. Talk about your shared passions, even if they seem to have lost them now. Let them know all of the amazing things about them that have nothing to do with food or appearance. Try your best to include them in activities and events (while being mindful that anything food-related might be too scary for them to say yes to). Don't let them forget that they are a whole, multi-dimensional, interesting and valued person, and so much more than what their eating disorder tells them.
If they do come through their ED and seem different from who you knew before, give them time to grow into their post-recovery self. Your friendship might not be exactly the same as it was before, but they will never forget who was by their side while they were fighting.
Love & bopo,
P.S. You can find eating disorder resources for your country here.
P.P.S. If you like this column and want more advice like this, I wrote a whole book of it! You can find Body Positive Power here.