Ask Aly: Reaching Out

What advice would you give those who suspect a friend/loved one has an eating disorder?  What is the best way to approach the subject and/or help them and give them the support they need?  What kind of actions/reactions/support do you -or did you- wish your family would have done to help you in the many different phases?
Sorry!  I see you addressed most of my questions in a previous post I had somehow missed.  So that just leaves the first question - what to do if they don't approach you or tell you?

Hi there!

One thing that I've learned since recovering from my disorders, is that once you've had an eating disorder, you can spot the telltale signs of one from a mile away.  However, even though I can spot people who may have disorders or disorder tendencies on a daily basis, it's something that I can't and won't directly confront them about (even if they are friends or family) until they have personally told me themselves what they are going through.

So, what can you do if you've heard that someone you know might have a disorder or if you strongly believe that they might have one?

And by that, I don't mean you should actually do nothing.

If you are worried about someone, you definitely should take action, but it's all in how you take that action. If they haven't approached or told you about what they're going through, the best thing that you can do is to take action behind the scenes and leave breadcrumbs for them to follow when they're ready to start the recovery process. If they are ready for help and have told you personally, then you can go full-force and help them find treatment etc.

The trick with approaching someone that you either think or know has an eating disorder is all within how you word things. One thing that's important to remember is that no one wants to be accused of being something they aren't or think they aren't. If you're concerned about someone and they haven't approached you about it yet, there's no harm in asking if they're doing okay. However, it's important to remember that they have the right to heal according to their own timeline (unless they are in immediate danger--you could probably directly address the fact that they have an eating disorder in a situation like this, but again, you would have to be delicate in how you approach that topic) and to keep their own secrets until they're ready to share them.

Here are a couple of sample conversations:

1. You: "Are you doing okay?"
    Them: "Yes, why?"
    You: "I've noticed that you've lost/gained a lot of weight lately and I was worried about you."

2. You: "Are you doing okay? I've noticed that you haven't been eating lately."
    Them: "Yeah, I'm doing fine--I've just been stressed out with school (could be a lie); thanks for asking though!"
    You (knowing that it could be a lie): You're welcome! I was worried about you. Let me know if can do anything to    help with your stress!"

3. You: "Are you okay? You spent a lot of time in the bathroom after dinner."
    Them: "I'm fine."
    You: "Good! I was worried about you!"

4. You: "Hey, I've noticed that you've been going into the kitchen late at night to eat, are doing okay?"
    Them: ""
    You: "What can I do to help you?"

In all of these sample conversations, the person asking the questions (you) never once straight out said that or asked if the other person had an eating disorder--which is probably the most important thing that you can do in situations like this. I remember when I was anorexic, my mom told me that I had taken my dieting too far and I was being reckless with my health. Although she was right, her comment made me incredibly defensive and caused me to shut myself off from her help. I also started to do more things behind her back as well.

Additionally, it's important to start conversations like this in private and not in a group setting. No one wants to be embarrassed or feel like its them against everyone else. Also, if they say that they are okay, don't press them for the answer that you want or the truth that you think they are hiding. Accept it and make sure to let them know that you're there to help if they need anything.

One of the best things about approaching someone with a disorder in this way is that if they're in denial, your words can plant a seed in their head and cause them to reexamine what they're doing. If they aren't in denial, it lets them know that someone has caught on to what's going on and that you're there to help if they need it.

Again, it's important not to accuse or call them out on their behaviors if you want them to genuinely recover. It has to be a decision that they make, not that they're resentfully forced in to. I found that I was able to fully recover from my binge eating disorder because I was the one to notice it and I was the one to take the initiative. By starting the recovery process through myself, I was able to take full responsibility for my recovery because my disorder was something that I fully acknowledged and wanted to end.

One way that I like to think of an eating disorder is to liken it to a house with a door that only has one handle which is on the inside where the eating disorder victim lives. People can knock on the door and try to get the victim to open it and come out, but ultimately it's up to the person inside of the house to open the door. They get to choose when to let you in and then they choose when they're ready to walk out of the house. You can't just break down the door on them and expect things to be okay.

Aside from talking with them, there also other things that you can do to help:

  • Compliment them on their non-physical traits, build up their self-esteem
  • Don't compliment them on their weight loss
  • Don't let them talk negatively about themselves or their bodies
  • Don't talk negatively about yourself or your body around them
  • Help them not feel bad about the food that they've eaten
  • Don't count calories, criticize the food that you've eaten, or talk about diets around them.
  • Keep in contact with them so that they can feel comfortable talking with you when they're ready; check up on them after talking to them too
  • Keep them company while they eat and after they eat so that they can be distracted from the thoughts of the disorder and purging methods
  • Serve them, let them know that they are loved 

Before I finish this, I have one last thought to add. When I was going through my disorders, hardly anyone noticed that anything was wrong or that I was struggling--especially during the binge eating. It hurt. I was so frustrated that no one was reaching out to me and that I had no one to talk to. That no one realized how miserable I was. Although I didn't necessarily want to talk about my disorder, I just wanted someone to notice what was going on. Someone to reach out to. Someone to be there to catch me. Someone to care.

I think that the fact that you want to help and are aware of what this person is going through is a great first step. I can't guarantee that things will go smoothly even if you're incredibly careful with how you help them, but just make sure that you use good judgement while trying to help them.

Good luck!

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