How do you help a loved one who is struggling? It’s true that anyone can have an eating disorder. The illnesses have no look. As demand for treatment more than doubled across the globe during the pandemic, many must be wondering, how can I know if my loved one is struggling? There is no simple answer. The signs will be different for everyone. But there are some hallmark behaviors and attitudes about food, body, and exercise to look out for. The second question, naturally, is how can I help?
My friend and I have different eating disorders, but only one of us has recovered. I’ve recovered from anorexia, with transformed routines, behaviors, and thoughts. Ever since, my friend doesn’t want to be around me, and I don’t want to be around them. We trigger each other, which makes sense, but doesn’t make this distance between us any easier.
There are various ways to approach a loved one who is struggling, depending on your relationship. My family members were direct with telling me their fears, knowing that however I reacted, I would still be their sister/daughter at the end of it. I’m grateful to them now for seeing how trapped I was in my eating disorder. But when I was sick, I would get angry with people, friends or family, for calling me out. I wanted to protect my eating disorder because I couldn’t rationally comprehend being able to survive without it.
Many of my friends attempted a more delicate approach. They had noticed my behaviors and wanted to support me through whatever help I needed. I completely understand, now that I’m out of malnourishment, that my friends were trying to be gentle because they didn’t want to upset me or further damage our relationships. I did lose friends after becoming defensive and angry after being confronted about my illness. All in all, I can’t say which approach is better or worse. All I can say is that I remember them all and am grateful in hindsight, even to those who I pushed away. They were only trying to help.
And now I am one of those friends only trying to help another. My treatment team constantly compares recovered eating disorder cases to sober addicts and PTSD survivors. Eating disorders really are addictions, somewhere along with the illusion of self-control. I’ve heard it takes an addict to know one, and I think that’s true. When I see the person’s lackluster gaze, I recognize the hollowness that gnaws on them, and I want to help them because I know what that’s like.
I don’t want to upset, trigger, or push them away. Now there’s this distance between us, and at this point, I only want what’s best for their health, regardless of whether or not we can repair our friendship. It’s heartbreaking to accept that I can’t force another adult to take control of their health.
I hope that one day my friend will recover. I will be there with open arms if they choose to get help. They know this because I told them. As painful as it is to watch someone I love suffer, I learned in recovery about constantly accepting some struggles whose outcomes are out of my control. I cannot change my friend’s course of healing. Everyone arrives at getting better differently and most importantly, at their own pace. To those who spoke up when it was me, and to those who are looking for words to support their loved ones, thank you.