How to Help a Loved One Struggling To Eat

[Please remember I am in no way a professional and cannot offer any alternatives to medical advice. I am writing from personal experience and opinion but if you or a loved one needs more help, please contact your local GP or get in touch with BEAT or Mind.]

I’ve written this post as it is a question I get asked a lot over on Instagram. The answer isn’t simple but I really do think that as a person that has personally experienced anorexia and recovery, I will be able to offer an alternative and more insightful perspective to the more general articles I’ve seen online.

I will be writing another post on how to help a loved one in recovery soon, which will contain different content, as I found the two periods to require very different support.

I’m offering a list of ideas/principles that you may want to consider when a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder and may not yet be committed to recovery. It’s important to keep in mind that these are not set rules; everyone is different and everyone will experience their struggles in a different way. These are just suggestions I have accumulated over time that I believe most people suffering with an eating disorder (again, for people who aren’t in recovery yet) would appreciate.

✨ Know they may not want help.

This one is at the top of the list because I believe lots of people do not consider it. You cannot, no matter how much support you offer or love you show, make someone with anorexia want help. They must want help themselves before you can help them. I realise how terrifying this can be to accept when you know a loved one is suffering and in danger, but recovery has to come from them and I cannot stress this enough. Unfortunately, the desire to get better can sometimes take months or years but without it often recovery is not sustainable – it’s not enough for someone to recover because their loved ones are scared or someone is making them feel guilty for being unwell as it often. However, once their own motivation comes and they want to get better to change and improve their own life, commitment can follow and commitment is the true key to full recovery.

✨ If they don’t want help, don’t give up on them.

There was a period of about 18 months where I avoided help at all costs. When I was offered help, I ignored what people said and didn’t engage. If everyone around me had given up on me by then, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I can’t stress enough that anyone can fully recover, no matter the severity or length of their suffering. Medical professionals too often push aside the concept of full recovery which can lead to a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re not aware of any alternative. So I’m here to tell you: whether or not your loved one wants recovery right now, you must never lose hope. The desire to recover isn’t black and white and it will be a rollercoaster of wanting to relapse and wanting to recover. Whatever they are saying, keep supporting them.

✨ Be patient.

Patience is vital when supporting someone with an eating disorder. They will be malnourished, volatile, apathetic and scared. Please, try not to get angry when they struggle. They are consumed by a deadly mental illness. I know it’s hard to understand a disease so illogical and cruel, but anger and annoyance at them won’t help.

✨ Know that they are not their disorder.

Eating disorders, particularly anorexia nervosa, make people change. When I was ill I was angry, paranoid, lethargic, depressed, apathetic and I got really bloody good at lying. However, none of that was me. I am not an angry, paranoid liar. I was malnourished, my brain wasn’t healthy and I was in survival mode. It’s so important that you remember that your loved one is acting different because of their illness. You would not get angry at a cancer patient for the symptoms they were experiencing. It used to comfort me so much after I (but really my anorexia) got angry at Mum, for her to say “I know this is not you shouting at me. I know you love me and would not speak to me this way and this is your illness and it’s not your fault”. Although I could not show it at the time, I knew she knew I loved her. I knew she knew I did not want to be shouting at her. I knew she knew I was not my disorder.

✨ Be weary.

Following on from the point above: eating disorders make people lie. So, when your loved one tells you they have eaten lunch or had an ice cream, don’t assume they have. This can be a hard concept to tackle, especially if you place a lot of trust in them, but you’d be surprised how much the illness can manipulate. The best thing I think you could do would be to accompany them as much as you can. If nobody saw it and they are not in active recovery, it probably didn’t happen.

✨ Recognise disorder.

The more you know about disordered behaviours, the more you can be aware of them, avoid them yourself and support your loved one. Disordered behaviours are often the symptom, not the cause, of eating disorders. Yes, lots of people display disordered eating behaviours and are not mentally ill but for those who are, disorder can make the illness worse. Knowing they are engaging in negative behaviours may not be the key to them stopping, but with awareness, you can provide better support and understand a bit more about what they are going through. Try and encourage your loved one to avoid these behaviours and let them know that what they’re up to worries you.

✨ Be persistent.

When I say “be persistent” I don’t mean “be forceful”. I mean, be persistent with support. Be persistent with love. Be persistent with belief they will get better. Believe it or not, it used to warm my heart when friends would offer me dessert or to go out for drinks or to go out for a meal when I was at my lowest. It showed me that they hadn’t given up on me and gave me at least a chance to one day say yes. And yes, nowadays I do say yes. Always.

✨ Educate yourself.

Knowledge is power. The more you learn about recovery, eating disorders, treatments, symptoms, experiences, the stronger the position you will be in to help your loved one. It can be heard to hear the facts and figures, but you can’t be ignorant to the reality. Get scared, get angry, get sad. Then use it as ammunition to do all you can to support them.

✨ Take them seriously and acknowledge their suffering.

No, they’re not just being “picky”. They have a serious mental illness are battling something that is trying to kill them. Acknowledge how hard it is for them and take everything they say in earnest.

✨ Don’t guilt trip them.

Your loved one will feel bad enough as it is without you reminding them they are scaring their mum and costing the NHS/their family for their treatment. You wouldn’t guilt trip someone with a physical illness so don’t guilt-trip someone with a mental one.

✨ Don’t ask about their therapy or medication.

If they wanted to discuss their treatment with you, chances are they would have already. Medication, therapy and meal plans are personal, so if they don’t bring them up, don’t ask them about it.

✨ Let them have their own space when they need it.

Now, this one doesn’t imply that you should let your loved one be completely isolated 24/7. What it does mean is that when your loved one feels overwhelmed or angry or scared, let them be. Chances are their brain is going at a million miles an hour, so rest and a bit of space can temporarily do good. Don’t rush after them, or tell them they are being childish – let them have their moment then go and give them a hug, tell them you love them and let them know you know they are not their disorder.

✨ Realise you will never understand.

If you have never experienced an eating disorder, you will never know how truly painful it is. Remember this but try to recognise what they are going through. Their thoughts and behaviours may seem nonsensical but this will be something you will have to learn to accept. Eating disorders are not meant to be logical. Humans have not evolved to feel the need to starve themselves to death. Neither have they evolved to break bones or get dementia. Your loved one is ill. You may not understand fully but you don’t need to. Just try to learn how to be there for them.

✨ Lead by example.

The best way you can show someone that there is life outside their disorder is to show them that you do not need to engage in diet culture. This doesn’t mean to say you have to eat foods you would never normally eat, but pick up on your own behaviours. Do you talk about calories to friends? Do you talk about other peoples’ weights? Do you talk about foods being “good” or “bad”? Do you talk about your steps or exercise regime without being asked? If so, try to stop. This just reinforces the disordered mindset and will make recovery for your loved one a heck of a lot harder.

✨ Learn from and be supported by others.

There are hundreds of online support groups for families and friends of people with eating disorders and thousands upon thousands of fully-recovered anorexia sufferers sharing experiences online. The resources are extensive if you look for them. For example there are groups on Facebook, instagram, BEAT, and even some local hospitals run them. These are the people who will truly understand you and be able to help. Reach out, be brave and know you are never alone.

✨ Look after yourself.

You cannot care for someone else if you aren’t well yourself. Prioritise your own mental health for the best chance at supporting your loved one. Looking after someone with an eating disorder is hard, traumatic, painful and scary. Don’t give up hope, keep talking and know you are amazing 💕

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