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How to Help Someone You Think Has an Eating Disorder

By Sara Lindberg ; Updated August 14, 2017

It’s time to talk about it.

That’s the theme of this year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) Week, taking place February 26 to March 4.

At 42 years old, I can finally say that I’m ready to talk about it. But things haven’t always been that clear or easy. I’ve spent more than half my life battling an eating disorder — a disorder on which I’ve expended an inordinate amount of energy to keep hidden.

I can still remember my lowest point — or at least what I think was my lowest point. See, that’s the thing with eating disorders: They often stick around far longer than we could ever imagine, blending years together and numbing thoughts and feelings as we go through life.

It was my junior year in college, and I had finally found the courage to ask for help. As I sat in the counselor’s office checking the “yes” box to almost every question on an eating-disorder inventory, it became clear that I had a real problem.

For the first time I realized my eating disorder had taken over my life.

My eating disorder had become my closest friend. It was something I could always count on and often the only thing I let into my world. Bulimia, binge eating disorder, exercise addiction, the list goes on and on. A lifetime of secrecy and fear defined by labels.

The world of eating disorders isn’t a place many people want to visit or even talk about. It’s a place of loneliness and isolation for those living there, and the stigma attached to it is real and utterly terrifying. But it’s time to fight for change, shatter the stigma and increase access to care. It’s time to talk about it.

What Can You Do to Help?

According to NEDA, 30 million Americans — both men and women — will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives. And while eating disorders (specifically anorexia) have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, many people (including doctors) don’t recognize the signs. That’s why early detection, intervention and a willingness to talk about it are key to recovery.

Here’s how you can help someone you think might be struggling with one:

1. Express your concern and tell them how much you care.

“Honesty is almost always the best policy,” says Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA. Discuss your concerns directly with the person who’s struggling in a caring but firm manner. Remember: Avoiding the issue won’t help.

Use this time to reinforce your friendship, love and compassion and to make them understand that, while you may not fully understand what they’re going through, you want to support them in any way you can.

2. Avoid certain discussions.

Discussions about size and weight and conversations that glorify dieting or eating-disordered behaviors should be avoided, Mysko says. It’s also important not to force rules or ultimatums on the person who’s struggling.

3. Offer nonjudgmental support.

Once you’ve shared your concern and willingness to be there for them, it’s time to listen. A person who’s suffering from an eating disorder needs people who are willing to listen and not continually give advice or pass judgment.

Mysko says that isolation is one of the most difficult aspects of eating disorders for many. In general, try to serve as a nonjudgmental support while also making sure that you take care of your own needs.

“I just needed someone to listen to everything I was going through without judgment and without trying to solve everything overnight,” says Rachel Grice, content editor at LIVESTRONG.COM. “I didn’t need to hear, ‘Just start eating,’ or ‘Just get over it.’ It’s not that simple.”

4. Ask one important question.

“What can I do for you right now?” While it’s important to recognize that each person’s experience and story differs, how you approach someone and offer support often looks similar. Asking this one question can show your care and support in just a few words.

5. Know when to ask for help.

If the person you care about isn’t getting better, it’s important to know when to ask a professional for guidance. “People struggling with anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder do need professional help,” says Mysko. “You can make important progress in honestly sharing your concerns, providing support and knowing where to go for more information.”

6. Remember that you can’t force someone to seek help.

“You are not responsible for being someone’s therapist or for his or her recovery, but encourage people to seek help for themselves,” says Mysko. It’s important to reinforce that it’s courageous and necessary to reach out for support and guidance during the recovery process. Recovery is often a long process, but it is achievable. And there are many resources and organizations, such as NEDA, available to help.

Stepping Closer to Acceptance and Recovery

Recovery takes time. And according to Grice, that was simultaneously the worst but most comforting thing to hear. “Because it did take time — a lot of time,” she says. “And to this day I still struggle with disordered thoughts and behaviors, even though it was more than a decade ago,” she says. “Overall, I’m healthy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with it from time to time.”

“I once had a therapist tell me that recovery is never a straight path,” says Grice. “You slip up; you fall back into old patterns. But that’s OK, as long as you’re still moving forward.”

And, like Grice, I also wished someone would have told me that I’m going to have bad days (and lots of them) on my road to recovery. But part of this journey has been learning that perfection isn’t possible. I finally appreciate my body for what it can do and accept who I am right now.

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