Eating Disorders Can Be Beaten: Tips for Helping a Friend in Need
A recent poll on CollegeCandy showed that many of us know people in our lives who are suffering from an Eating Disorder. Not only did those results remind me of a very sad truth for our demographic, but they also made me realize that the only way to change that truth is to provide people with the tools necessary to help a friend in need.
I was anorexic and then bulimic for about two years before ultimately recovering. I have also had a few friends go down the Eating Disorder path, so I feel like I have been on both sides of the predicament and truly understand the best methods for reaching out to someone who is suffering from this brutal and debilitating disease.
The most important method for helping people help their friends is awareness, so first let me dispel some E.D myths.
Eating Disorders are a Choice
It is a common misconception to believe that a person can ‘choose’ to have an Eating Disorder. They are a true psychological disease, often a manifested coping mechanism or even the result of anxiety. You can’t wake up and say, “Hm, I’ll starve myself for a month to fit into this dress.” That is a ( stupid and unhealthy) crash diet, not Anorexia. Sometimes a series of unhealthy crash diets can lead to a disordered mindset/vision of food, which can ultimately make someone more prone to a full-fledged disorder, but it is an affliction anyone can develop.
Making an Anorexic/Bulimic Eat Will Help Them
This is probably the biggest and most commonly practiced “help” tactics friends use to deal with a friend who is likely suffering from an Eating Disorder. I remember people NEVER wanting to hang out with me when I was skeletal and depressed, but always inviting me to restaurants to pressure me into getting ice cream. Or in the cafeteria, people would literally throw bags of chips in front of me because I “needed” them. The wounds inflicted by others (and obviously myself) during this time will never be forgotten. Do not ever embarrass, pressure or harass a person with an Eating Disorder (or anyone?) as it will only isolate them more.
An Eating Disordered Person Will Always be Disordered
False. I recovered, friends of mine recovered and probably millions more worldwide. But one can only recover when they are ready. We have all seen Lifetime movies where the Anorexic girl goes to inpatient rehab 5 times and still dies of starvation, which is because she was not willing to get better. Recovery is a hard road and sometimes more emotionally exhausting than the Eating Disorder itself. But as cliche as this sounds, I feel I have come out stronger. As a friend, you need to be patient and understanding during this time, because it is not as simple as “just eating more”; it’s re-learning normal eating habits, training oneself to accept a healthy body image and finding new outlets for the stress that caused the disorder.
Paying Attention to Them Will Make it Worse
Yes and No. I remember a lot of people said stuff to me like, “Wow you look great,” and “You have such great willpower,” and these comments were triggering, but I do not think they perpetuated my issues. Trying to ignore disordered behaviors and habits of a friend suffering with an Eating Disorder could enable them even further, as a lot of eating disordered persons are “crying for help” in the form of attention. Sometimes it is hard not to “turn your back” on someone who has become extremely depressing to be around, but letting someone know that you genuinely care about them and think they are changing into a person different from their real self is important. Make it clear that they don’t have to go down this path alone and that you are there to help.
Red Flags you Should Never Ignore
Some of the warning signs found on websites or in magazines are generic, so let me tell you like it is. If you have a friend who: rapidly loses weight, drastically changes her eating habits (more or less), becomes vigilant about working out, makes constant comments about body image, prefers to eat by his/herself always, loses interest in favorite activities or friends, seems perpetually anxious or unhappy, exhibits signs of being unstable or abandoning goals, your friend could definitely be in trouble.
You need to tell that friend in a discreet, genuine manner that you are concerned. It is best to point out to them legitimate reasons for why you are worried such as, “You seem distant and detached from life,” or even, “You’ve been taking up unhealthy habits lately and I have been noticing,” rather than just saying, “Everyone’s talking about how you have an eating disorder.”
There are places you can call, websites you can go to, and most universities have student health centers that would love to help. Assure them you will be there every step of the way in a non-judgmental fashion; you owe this to your friend. Do not make “Ano” jokes to your other friends, don’t stalk their Facebook pictures to see just how profound the weight loss is, and don’t spread rumors/gossip.
The most important thing to remember is that this can happen to anyone and it’s crucial that you treat this like the disease that it is, not a psychotic lifestyle choice.
The years I suffered from Anorexia and Bulimia were the worst years of my entire life and I pray for the millions of people suffering with these diseases now. But hope is out there. Like any other disease, you can ‘catch’ Anorexia/Bulimia early and treat it more easily. Also, like a disease, everyone suffers differently and to different degrees; eating disorders don’t all look the same, so if you are concerned you must speak up.
And remember, recovery is possible. I am in the best shape of my entire life; I teach exercise classes at my gym, I eat (and, obvs, drink) everything I want in moderation and I feel more in touch with my mental health than I ever have.