3 Things to Say and 3 Things NOT to say when someone tells you they have an eating disorder

WARNING: Massive tabboo topic on its way *cue wailing sirens and screaming citizens*

Calm yourself people, I’m here to help.  I’m here to give you an insight into my consciousness and the brains of many other people struggling with an eating disorder.  In this day and age because of the meteoric rise of social media and the insumountable expectations of how one should look (a topic for another time) I am sure you know at least one person in your life who has experienced an eating disorder.

I have been living with anorexia nervosa for over 5 years, essentially throughout my teenage years. I have experienced alot of scrutiny and, though my recovery, have been able to reflect on how people and society in general DEAL with eating disorders.  So never fear I am here to guide you through the Do’s and Don’ts of dealing with someone who tells you they are sturggling with disordered eating.

3 DON’TS when someone tells you they have an eating disorder:

  1. “But you don’t look like you have an eating disorder”

Believe it or not I have heard this HUMDINGER before.  When I have opened myself up and allowed the most vulnerable parts of myself to emerge I have been met with disbelief and responses such as “but you don’t look like you have an eating disorder.” For the love of God, PLEASE refrain from saying this. When I heard this phrase it cut to my core.  It made me cower back into myself and it allowed my disorder to rage and say “well see you don’t have a problem, you don’t even LOOK like you have an eating disorder”. The connotations are critical, judgemental and just unhelpful. Eating disorders are a MENTAL illness and the images of highly emaciated people is not always someone else’s reality.

2. “But you look so good!”

This bad boy is almost as unhelpful as “but you don’t look sick”. An eating disorder is many things but it particularly consumes and destroys your sense of worth and sense of self. You can become fixated and obsessed on your body and your image. This comment only indulges the beast inside that refuses to give up without a fight.  It joins in with that comment and says “you must keep going…you can’t stop now.” Again, the disorder is of the mind and every case is different.

3.  “Just get over it and eat something.”

This not only hurts but is extrememly patronising. To be honest I compeletly understand where it comes from. As a friend or a parent or a sibling or a colleague the solution seems simple! You need to eat…so eat! What could be so difficult about something so natural?  It’s important here to stop and understand that an eating disorder is NOT a lifestyle choice but is an ILLNESS meaning it must be treated with substantial psychological therapy and often a “refeeding” program to allow the sufferer to regain vital nutrients and develop a normal relationship with food.  What is needed instead of “just eat a burger” is a more educated and informed response.  Finding a therapist is a great start.

3 DO’s when someone tells you they have an eating disorder:

  1. Let them know that they are unequivicolly and unconditionally loved and there is support available

When someone discusses their history with any mental illness it can be a frightening experience for the person on the receiving end.  They’re paranoid they’re going to say something wrong, or say something triggering or make matters worse.  The best thing to do is not to panic and to listen with an open heart and an open mind.  You are not expected to understand. You are not expected to be an expert in clinical psychology. But often for the suffer having someone to talk to and connect with who ACTUALLY listens is truly powerful.  So I advise you to listen and then ensure that the sufferer knows that there IS support, there IS a way out and there IS life after their illness.  There are helplines, websites, books and blogs, a whole bunch of resources to help them.  If you don’t feel qualified to take it on refer them to further help but make just be there to support, nurture and listen.

2. Ask what you can do

Sometimes the sufferer may ask you for your help.  This could really be anything and could range from helping him or her tell their parents or their partner to coming with them to a support group or a psychologist.  If you don’t feel comfortable doing whatever you have been asked to do it is fine to say that. You have your own life and you should not compromise your own health and life if that’s what would occur. However if it’s within your capabilities, support is the BEST medicine.  Ask what you can do to help the sufferer, whether it’s to be the one they call when they need to talk or whether it’s coming with them to the doctor or the therapist.

3. If you can, share your own story or experiences

Relatability can be unbelievably powerful.  If you have struggled with your sense of self, have had a form of mental illness, or known anyone who has been through a mental illness, sharing your story can be empowering for both parties.  Hope is an intense force that can evolve a person’s direction in life. So share and don’t be afraid because we are all vulnerable and sharing our vulnerability is how we grow!

So there it is my friends.  Stay true, be you and stay smiley!

Love, Smiley xx

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