Note: While there is no quick fix solution for an eating disorder, I aim to offer advice based on my experience. I have moved from an individual who battled with Anorexia and Bulimia to being a mother who understands the concerns of parents or friends. I’m not a medical professional; all I can offer you is knowledge from my research and personal experience.
Eating disorders can be so difficult to understand, particularly for those involved with the sufferer. It seems like an unnecessary, destructive path that makes no sense. Why can’t they just eat normally? Why do they care so much about their weight? Watching someone self-sabotage with an eating disorder is a helpless and devastating time. Worldwide, there are 70 million victims and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in every 5 women will likely struggle with an eating disorder during her lifetime.
Bulimia, anorexia, binge eating and other eating disorders are usually signs of a deeper underlying problem and are not always about weight or the food itself. Although this could sometimes be a contributor, the habit of weight loss (can be enough manifest it deeper). Could indicate something deeper is involved. An eating disorder also does not indicate that victims are self-focused either; it’s usually caused by emotional and stress-related issues.
Everyone’s situation is different so there isn’t a unified answer to why eating disorders happen. It could arise from reasons such as bullying, emotional stress, genetics, abuse, high-stress environments and so on. What is clear, however, is that body image and low self-esteem goes hand in hand, causing complications in other aspects of lives such as decision-making, relationships and careers.
It is important to identify the key triggers for the disorder but beware, it doesn’t become a blaming game and this includes blaming yourself. If there are triggers that stand out, always approach your loved one in a non-judgmental way or seek advice from a professional. Here are some tips to help you from the outside, to understand a bit more of what’s going on on the inside. The aim is to help you communicate and step forward with your loved one through this time
IT DOESN’T ALWAYS START OUT ABOUT FOOD
As mentioned above, eating disorders usually have little to do with food and are signs of deeper underlying problems that as much as you want to help, you might not always be able to. It may be the need to control something in their life when they are feeling out of control in other areas due to emotional stress.
As food becomes the visible issue of the disorder, it is important you keep a level-headed approach around meal times. Forcing your loved one to eat and pointing out their abnormal habits around food is only going to put them back up and result in a communication shut down towards you.
As hard as it may be, patience and understanding are essential. Try not to discuss food, image, weight or dieting. They’re already aware of their body image, and as an eating disorder is usually about control, you can’t be seen to take that away from them. Do reassure them of your concern and love for them, but most importantly, make sure you respect your loved one’s privacy. There’s a lot of guilt and shame attached to an eating disorder, so when you do communicate, talk privately and avoid any statements such as “You should just eat properly”. You need to be the rock right now and your stability will help their recovery. There are forums online where you can anonymously chat with others in your situation or professionals who are willing to support and help.
BUILD THE COMMUNICATION PLATFORM
Another piece of advice to build your communication platform is by giving your loved one compliments on who they are and great things they have done.
Building communication can be done in many ways. My advice is to try to give their stressed mind a break from their disorder by finding out goals they would like to achieve, places they would like to travel to or challenges that interest them. This can be made into a goal building session, where each of you writes down your top goals to achieve and actions you can make towards them that week. Start with small goals that can be achieved in the short term and build from there. Together, piece out the actions you need to take to make them a reality. Each week, get together at the same time and review your actions success. Then, of course, repeat and repeat again. At first, overcoming the eating disorder may not be an open goal for your loved one, but the foundation of goal setting and action planning will begin to set in, so when they’re ready to overcome their disorder, they will have a platform to model.
INTRODUCE A FOCUS SHIFT
The focus shift should incorporate some goals that are fun and not just for practicality. By doing this, it helps to shift your loved ones focus and of course, yours. Get out and do something crazy, wild or new together! While it’s not always easy getting your loved one to listen or do things with you – when they get there, it will be fun or at least new!
There are endless options to try: bungee jumping, outdoor adventure, travelling, language classes, etc. Do something where you can’t help but change your state – even though it’s temporary, this will build up trust in your relationship and enable communication between you.
UNDERSTANDING THE EATING DISORDER BRAIN (EDB)
The eating disorder brain is not a reasonable one and even though from the outside you can clearly see it is a destructive unnecessary path, to someone with the disorder it’s sometimes seen as the only way and logic is thrown out the window. The disorder is deeply justified within themselves and they may not even be aware of it.
It’s usually uncomfortable or painful emotions driving the eating disorders. They restrict food as a way to control their lives. Quoted from Help Guide “ Overeating temporarily soothes sadness, anger, or loneliness. Purging is used to combat feelings of helplessness and self-loathing. Over time, people with eating disorders lose the ability to see themselves objectively and obsessions over food and weight come to dominate everything else in life”
When dealing with the EDB, communication should always be at a level where you are not attacking it or threatening it, instead try and understand it. Show empathy and show them that you care. “What you’re going through must be hard, how can I help you?” Let them talk about what they’re going through and don’t undermine or simplify their problems. If they resist initially, don’t get frustrated, just give them space and remember to be patient. Just let them know you’re there and you’re on their level in a not judgemental way.
DON’T TALK ABOUT IMAGE
As mentioned briefly before, avoid commenting on looks and anything image based. You might have an opinion on how your loved one looks and that the weight loss is making them less attractive, too thin etc. This kind of advice is dangerous as the self-esteem has already taken a knock in the first place and image has become the forefront of their disorder. Make it a rule not to discuss bodies or images about them, yourself or anyone else. Poor ‘self-talk- should be banned for all homes with adolescents.
Last but not least, don’t blame yourself. Like I mentioned earlier, there is no quick fix for an eating disorder. Parents think is it something I could have prevented, what can I do to fix it? An eating disorder is a lot more complex. Your best tool to use is building your communication with your loved one by coming from a non-threatening place on their level.
As a girl who had these disorders: My battle lasted over a decade and it was not an easy road. It shifted from years of anorexia to years of bulimia. (On average. 50% of anorexics follow-on to bulimia.) I can’t put it down to one thing that changed it for me, but surrounding myself with good people who loved me gave me the motivation to say enough is enough and I made a choice. Becoming a mum was also a driving force as I could only imagine how I would feel if they learned those habits from me. What role model would I be to them?
From a mother now who has two beautiful daughters, as hard as it may be, you must keep your head high. I know it’s not easy. My mum and I sometimes talk about what she has gone through too now that I have recovered and I can see how hard it was for her.
I know sometimes you’re scared and you’re wondering what you did wrong. Don’t blame yourself. Look around at the world our youth are forced to grow up in, a world you can’t protect them from. Advertising, media …, it’s all very confusing for a young person. The pressure to be what is so-called ‘beautiful’ and to fit a one-size fits all mould.
Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go, but I believe with the right care and assistance, we can build and rebuild the broken pieces.