[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 at https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk or mind.]
This is part two of a sort-of “Helping A Loved One” series. My post from last week looked into how to help someone who was struggling to eat as opposed to this week’s, which is how to help someone who is in active recovery. It should be remembered that even when a loved one has committed themselves to getting better, chances are there will still be days when they struggle. There will almost certainly be times where they tell you they give up, it’s too hard and they don’t want to recover anymore. This is their eating disorder creeping back in and happens to lots and lots of people in recovery. I hope with this guide you will be able to get something helpful and perhaps learn some things too.
I want to reiterate once more that these are just a list of ideas. There is no “perfect” and everyone is different in terms of what helps them and what doesn’t. I am speaking from experience as to what I found useful to me the most and what I appreciated from loved ones.
💕 Reassurance is EVERYTHING.
At the start of my recovery, reassurance is what got me through each meal and snack. I would constantly being asking stuff like “Is this ok? Is this too much? Will this really help me? Do I deserve this?” To the point it verged on obsessive but what do you expect?! My brain had been telling me for years on end that eating is the absolute worst thing I could do. I think when I went through this phase of needing constant reassurance, I was actually in the very first stages of rewiring my brain. Hearing Immy and Mum say “Yes, this is safe. Yes, you need food. Yes, you deserve to eat. Yes, this will help you. No, nothing bad will happen” over and over and over again engrained those positive thoughts in my head until eventually, like now, I believed them. 😇
💕 Tell them you’re proud of their bravery NOT the fact they’re eating.
This one is important but might seem odd to some. If you feel proud of them, yes, tell them. However, I used to find it a bit scary when someone said they were proud of me for eating. Like, doesn’t everyone eat? I’m not doing something incredible and monumental by eating a sandwich. Healthy people eat sandwiches every day and nobody is praising them. What I am doing, however, that is brave and monumental and incredible, is going through this process. My fight, my battle with my relentless mind, is something to be proud of. So please, let me know if you are proud of that instead. Which leads on nicely to the next point which is:
💕 Recognise the immensity of their bravery and know they are probably TERRIFIED.
Your loved one is (hopefully) going through the hardest battle of their lives right now. 24 hours a day. You don’t get a break from your biggest fears when you are recovering from an eating disorder. They are doing the thing that scares them the most and they are killing something that tried to kill them. Know that and remember it.
In fact, they are probably terrified. They are putting trust into their body and taking a huge leap. They are so outside their comfort-zone they are in a completely different comfort-continent. They are seeing a completely different body in the mirror and their whole identity is changing. Their mind is growing and they are feeling things they haven’t been able to feel in years. Their whole flippin’ world has been turned upside down. Just something to keep in mind when…
💕 They may not be acting themselves.
Your loved one might be acting differently. They might be making threats, getting angry, crying lots. Know that this is all part of recovery and the enormous battle they are facing right now. Be patient, be empathetic and let them know you won’t give up on them. Those threats, those screams, those tears are not them. They are the eating disorder trying to do anything it can to sneak back in. The eating disorder will be screaming at them, bullying them. Don’t take it personally.
💕 Know that recovery takes a loooooooooooong time.
Recovery can sometimes take weeks, months, years. There will be ups and downs. It will certainly not happen overnight. They may “look” different, or have what society considers a “healthy” BMI (🤢) but that DOES NOT mean they have recovered. Them and only them, will know when they are free so don’t make assumptions based on appearance that they are well. It doesn’t actually really matter to you how long it takes but just know that it’s probably going to take longer than you think.
💕 Never, ever, ever judge them. Ever. For anything.
Most judgement at the best of time is uncalled for, but in recovery, please don’t judge your loved one. They may be eating pickles out of the jar, or family-sized packets of crisps, or not moving from their bed. They need to do this. Don’t act surprised when they eat their first chocolate bar, then another, then another. They are in recovery from a deadly illness and they are doing what they need to do to get better. Their body will change, they will need new clothes, they will be eating new foods. Support, don’t comment and never judge.
💕 Let them talk.
If your loved one wants to open up to you about their previous struggles, let them. It’s not helpful to pretend it didn’t happen. I know it may be hard to hear, and if it is, it is your responsibility to get help or let your loved one know that you might find the conversation triggering. However, if you simply find it uncomfortable to hear them talking about their experiences, as someone that they have trusted you with this very personal stuff, be kind. It is their life and they have had to live it, so the least you could do is listen.
💕 Educate yourself on things not to say.
Eating disorders are pretty weird. Hearing someone say “you look healthy!” is an absolute classic trigger in the anorexia-world. Why? Because that translates, to someone who hasn’t reached a point of un-learning their implicit weight-based biases, that they are fat and that fat = bad. And yes, there are lots of these seemingly “helpful” comments that can trigger anorexia patients. There are so many resources on this topic on instagram, blog posts and online but if in doubt, don’t comment on your loved one’s appearance.
💕 Stick at it with the encouragement.
As previously mentioned, yes there will be times they want to give up. You though, should never give up supporting and encouraging their recovery. Know there sometimes will be ups and downs but don’t lose hope. Just because they have told you “I swear on my life I am not doing this anymore, I can’t do it, I’d rather die than do this for another second” doesn’t mean THEY actually want to, or will give up. Again, that’s the ED doing the talking.
💕 Show them life is worth living.
Get excited with them about how amazing life can be. Show them there is fun stuff to do, places you can go, things you can achieve, when not consumed by an eating disorder. Do exciting things together, make happy memories with them. The last few years they have lived will have been burdened with the shadow of their illness. Their life starts now.
💕 Don’t bring up their trauma.
This one seems pretty obvious but I haven’t been surprised when loved ones of mine wanted me to talk about my trauma to them. If they feel comfortable talking to you about it, great, let them. But for Pete’s sake don’t you bring it up. You’re not their therapist and to be honest, it’s none of your goddamn business.
💕 Set “challenges” together (but try not to call them that).
Admittedly, I created a “Challenge Jar” when I was in hospital last year. It was basically a list of foods I would have found especially challenging to eat. However, when I left hospital and allowed myself unlimited amounts of food, I found it pretty triggering seeing the jar with hundreds of foods written inside, each of which I had planned to have just 1 of per day. By that time I was having multiple of these “fear foods” in one sitting. So what I’m trying to say is, having “challenges” and calling them that, can often lead to restriction. Yes, please, encourage your loved one to face these fears but don’t make it a huge deal.
If you do decide to tackle some especially “scary” foods together, think about what they would have enjoyed pre-ED. Think about what your loved one would truly like and do it with them, if you can (but it really, really helps if you can). Help them choose what they would want to choose, or choose it for them. This will tell them that healthy people eat these foods without fear, without restriction and without guilt.
💕 Tell them you love them.
Pretty obvious but they might forget.
💕 Ask how they’re doing.
When asking someone in recovery how they are doing, I’d say it’s generally not helpful to say “hows eating?” Or “are you eating?”. There are so many reasons why that’s not a good thing to say, so just steer away. Literally just a “how are you really doing” will suffice. Asking someone with an eating disorder about their food is really, really personal. You wouldn’t ask someone self-harming how they do it, how often they do it or how deep it was. It’s uncomfortable and rude so please don’t.
💕 Help them with distractions.
Post-eating distractions can be so useful during recovery. I often struggled to initiate them myself, so when a loved one would suggest a distraction I’d feel less guilty for not engaging in disordered behaviours. I still use distractions today, but during the first phase of my recovery I found them useful when I felt particularly anxious about sitting still, after a more challenging meal, when I felt really depressed or when I was getting overwhelmed. Some of my favourite distractions are: going for a drive, playing cards, playing animal crossing, going for a short gentle walk with someone else, sitting down next to someone else or phoning a friend straight away.
💕 Make exciting plans for the future – then follow through!
Having things to look forward to in life can help a recovery warrior stay on track. I called these plans and goals my “whys”. Some of my whys were small, like eating a particular cookie from a bakery in London, others were bigger like travelling with a friend to Edinburgh for the weekend. They are things worth fighting for, things life with your eating disorder doesn’t allow you to do (or doesn’t allow you to enjoy to the fullest). Make fun plans and follow through.
💕 Remind them of their “why”.
Following on from the point above, it can be helpful for your loved one if they are reminded of their reasons why in their hardest moments. I made a scrap book and filled it with photos of the places I would go and the things I would do. It helped seeing them all on paper and excited me when I thought it wasn’t worth the pain. Although motivation alone isn’t enough to fully recover, it’s a great place to start.
💕 Learn about REAL recovery.
Real recovery is extreme hunger, painful bloating, sleeping, panic, highs, lows, snacks in the middle of the night, snacks between snacks, eight breakfasts, lying on the sofa all day and overshoot. Eat, rest, do the opposite. You need more than, more than enough. There is never too much food in recovery. If you know these things and can bang on about them, they may just also get through to your loved one.
Learn from the REAL recovered anorexia suffers and don’t let your loved one settle for anything less than freedom. It may help you to help them understand why they feel the way they do.
💕 FFS don’t talk about your diet/exercise regime.
“Hearing about your low-calorie diet and exercise regime really helped me overcome my restrictive eating disorder!”- said no one, ever. I’m pretty sure nobody cares anyway, but really really really don’t mention calories, steps, diets or exercise. By doing so you are reinforcing the disordered mindset – the very one they are trying to rewire and destroy.
💕 Disengage in diet culture around them.
Diet culture is EVERYWHERE in today’s society. Learn what is disordered and try your very best to disengage. It’s not healthy to run when you are too tired to run. It’s not healthy to avoid fats like the plague. It’s not healthy to demonise carbs. Fat people aren’t lazy. Thin people aren’t superior. Health At Every Size.
Diet culture causes people with eating disorders to die every single day. It’s triggering and I’d reckon is the biggest cause of relapse. Learn about it and prove to your loved one you don’t need to restrict your food and rest to be happy and healthy.
💕 Don’t lose hope.
Patience is key when supporting someone in recovery. I know they might be scared and take it out on you through anger. I promise you though, it will all be worth it in the end. Try to stay calm and support them through their best days and their worst. They are the same person whether in recovery or relapse, it’s just that their eating disorder gets louder or quieter. The future with them will be brighter than you could ever have imagined. Stick with it, you incredible human being.
💕 Look after yourself.
Please, please take care of yourself. The best thing you can do for your loved one is to be the strongest version of you possible. Get help, talk to people and be honest with your support system too. Reach out to people online, the community is amazing and there are so many people ready to help. You are not alone. 💖