Supportive Friends & Family
At Rader Programs we understand that eating disorders such as Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating not only affect the disordered individual but also the person's relationships with others. Those who care the most, are often those most affected. Oftentimes, relationships with family members and friends are severely damaged as a result of the eating disorder. Communication within the family is often strained and sometimes non-existent. Feelings of anger, fear, sadness, shame, guilt and abandonment run rampant in the affected family. Family and friends are often concerned but do not know what to do. The following is a partial guideline for families and friends to assist in the recovery from an eating disorder.
It's Not Your Fault: Eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating are diseases and are not caused by family, friends or even the eating disordered individual themselves. There is no simple cause of eating disorders, nor is there a simple cure. It is not possible to force an Anorexic to eat, prevent a Bulimic from purging, or stop a Compulsive Overeater from binging. Family and friends often feel they must take on responsibility for the eating disorder, which is something they truly have no control over. The guilt associated with this misplaced responsibility can become paralyzing at times. Once you, as a family member or friend, have accepted that the eating disorder is not anyone's fault, you can be freed to take action that is honest and not clouded by what you "should" or "could" have done.
Being There: Eating disorders can be viewed as a survival mechanism. Even though it may be difficult to understand, the practice of an eating disorder may give the effected individual a feeling of security. Just as an alcoholic uses alcohol to cope, a person with an eating disorder can use eating, purging or restricting to deal with their problems. Some of the underlying intra-personal issues that are attributed to an eating disorder include low self esteem, depression, feelings of loss of control, feeling worthless, identity concerns, and inability to cope with emotions. The practice of an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating may be an expression of something that the eating disordered individual has found no other way of expressing. For many, the practice of an eating disorder is their cry for help. You may be the one who has to initiate the conversation as often the eating disordered person feels afraid, unsafe or even that they do not deserve the help. As a family member or friend, you can help them by empathetically listening and finding out their perspective of the situation. To empathize with someone you need not agree with their perspective, but you must listen to them in a nonjudgmental way. You can listen empathetically by attempting to understand the other person's feelings by relating similar feelings you have had through related experiences. Practice active listening. In active listening, the receiver tries to understand what the sender is trying to portray. The receiver then puts what they understand the sender has said into their own words and reiterates the message back to the sender. It will be healing and comforting for the person to share her, or his, own perspective without feeling judged. Eating disordered individuals often feel that if they were truthful about their disease, family members and friends would abandon them. Acknowledgment, acceptance and understanding can go a long way.
Share Your Feelings: Be honest with the person and let them know how the eating disorder is effecting your life. Try speaking from your own experience and using "I" statements. Rather than stating "you're too thin" or "you're killing yourself" tell the person how you feel. "I'm scared and I feel like I'm losing you" or " I heard you throwing up in the bathroom and I'm afraid" are statements that share the feelings that you are experiencing. Avoid assigning blame, remember eating disorders such as Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating are diseases and not a matter of willpower. In addition to feelings of concern, you may be experiencing feelings of anger and resentment. These are natural and can be expressed without making the eating disordered person feel abandoned. "Sometimes I get so angry and frustrated seeing you slowly kill yourself, because I'm concerned and I don't know what to do" is an example of such a statement.
More Than Their Weight: When someone you care about is losing or gaining large amounts of weight or participating in dangerous purging activities it is difficult not to focus solely on these issues. Eating disorders do have serious and potentially fatal medical consequences that should not be ignored. But concentrating only on these physical issues can leave the eating disordered individual feeling misunderstood and ignored when it comes to their emotional pain. Often, they are already obsessed with their weight, appearance and food. Any comments regarding these issues will usually be heard as negative or may possibly cause the person to feel guilt. Eating disordered individuals need to be related to in areas other then their weight and eating. Make yourself available for these intimate conversations. Concern regarding the emotional well-being of a person with an eating disorder like Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating will be paramount in their eventual recovery.
Don't Give Up: Denial of the eating disorder and downplaying the seriousness of their behaviors is common with eating disordered individuals. Be prepared for strong reactions from the eating disordered person. Anger, embarrassment, withdrawal and betrayal are all emotions that the eating disordered person may use to hide their true feeling of terror of losing their perceived sense of control, that the eating disorder affords them. Although, it may seem that the effort and concern you are imparting is falling on deaf ears, do not resign yourself to the eating disorder. Possibly, the eating disordered individual is just not ready to hear the message at that time but the next time they just might be ready. Also, the cumulative effect of hearing similar things from different people can help get the message through.
Find Education and Support: Do not try and handle the eating disorder on your own. Eating disorders are serious diseases that, if left untreated, can be deadly. Ten percent of all eating disorders lead to death. For this reason professional support is often warranted. Make an appointment to see a counselor and offer to accompany the person to the appointment. You can also recommend books and educational materials on eating disorders like Anorexia, Bulimia and Compulsive Overeating. Many communities offer support groups for eating disorders. Overeaters' Anonymous (OA) and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) can be found in the phonebook or as links on our website. You may also want to consider getting support for yourself. Find a counselor, friend or support group where you can receive support for what you are going through. The eating disorder did not develop overnight nor will recovery take hold overnight. So remember to be patient, recovery takes time.