6 Ways To Help Someone With An Eating Disorder Recover

A year ago, I had a traumatic experience that triggered a sharp turn in my emotional health. Eventually, this warped into a vicious battle with anorexia — and as anyone who suffers from an eating disorder knows, they come with a secret language, a bodily expression of internal pain that sometimes feels impossible to verbalize. Personally, I buried my shame and used punishing hunger to manifest my anger. As I did, the contours of my body sharpened, and I flattened into a flimsy shadow of my former, passionate self.

My eating disorder recovery has been a process of reading between the lines of my own self-destructive compulsions. My loved ones, after holding their tongues for a little too long, had to learn how to translate their worry into courageous compassion. Through tense trial-and-error, they’ve discovered new ways of caring for me, and it's taught me how to stop, hear, and heal. Honestly, I have no doubt that I wouldn't be here without their vast, if imperfect, support. I'm also well aware that my illness hurt those I love almost as much as it hurt me, and that my recovery has been a process for us all.

Eating disorders thrive on isolation and shame. Few people recover on their own — it takes thoughtful, persistent, courageous intervention to help someone with an eating disorder return to a state of wellness. If you're close to someone who's struggling with an eating disorder, you may be in a position to save a life. Compassionate confrontation is often the first step to penetrating the all-consuming, truth-eclipsing cycle of disordered thinking.

No two people are alike, and no two eating disorders are exactly the same, either. How you help your friend with their eating disorder will largely depend on the level of intimacy and trust the two of you share. If you’re close to the person, and know you have their respect, I invite you to consider the following six forms of support that I’ve found to be key in my own recovery.

1. Speak Up If You Feel Like Something's Not Right

If you suspect one of your loved ones is dealing with an eating disorder, say something. It won’t come out perfectly, and you shouldn't gauge the success of your conversation by the response of your friend — chances are quite high that they'll be unreceptive, angry, or adamantly in denial. But it's also true that someone who is truly in the grips of an eating disorder has lost at least some ability to evaluate their condition objectively. It's very likely they're unaware of the toll their behavior is taking on their body, mind, and relationships.

It's important to remember that although eating disorders are miserable, most every person who struggles with one has believed, in some sense, that their disease is helping them. An eating disorder may be a way for your friend to contain the anxieties that riddle their mind. It may be a form of self-punishment, a manifestation of self-hatred they don’t recognize. Know that your loved one may be caught in a cycle of futile comparison and perfectionism — their perceived control over their body and diet could be an attempt to conjure some feeling of accomplishment or self-approval.

For awhile, my family tried to intervene indirectly. They hesitantly offered food, asked me if I’d lost weight, and made sad jokes about my melting curves. My friends murmured their concern to one another and watched me anxiously from a distance. Eventually, though, their concern boiled over into life-saving action. It was my best friend’s unscripted tears, her loving, mumbling anger, and my family’s firm embraces, that finally woke me.

2. Listen To What They Have To Say, Even When It's Difficult To Hear

You must accept and respect your loved one's personal experience. It may not make sense to you that your friend, perhaps so obviously underweight, doesn’t “feel thin,” or that someone caught in a vicious cycle of binge-and-purge insists that they're “in control.” Even so, meet them where they're at. Approach them gently at first. Ask lots of questions. Let them tell you how they view the situation, and find out if they even believe there’s cause for worry. You may not agree with their assessment, but it's important to listen anyway.

Looking back, I’m amazed at my loved ones’ ability to listen to me so patiently. When I finally began to break my own silence, it took me time to decipher the knots of anxiety, regret, and fear that I was dealing with. I’m sure I repeated myself, I’m sure I talked nonsense half the time, and I know some of what I said was painful for them to hear. But they continued to reach out, gently, until I began to open up on my own. My trauma had locked me inside of myself, but my loved ones' compassionate, available ears slowly loosened isolation's steely grip.

3. Encourage Them To Seek Professional Help — And Be Present Once They Do

As your friend begins to recognize the importance of recovery, encourage them to consider seeking professional help as part of their journey. Mental healthcare is still surrounded by an unfair stigma, but the value of psychological and medical attention in the eating disorder recovery process is crucial. If your friend expresses hesitation, listen to their concerns, and allow them to explore the reasons for their negative reaction.

I, too, balked at the idea of involving mental health professionals in my recovery. It sounded excessive, inconvenient, and intimidating. Even so, as a long-time advocate for mental healthcare, I knew better. My chances of restoring my health would be far higher with a trained team behind me. I leaned on my family and friends for support. They frequently had to remind me that the appointments — doctors, nutritionist, therapist, repeat — were worth it. They held me accountable to my better judgement on the days when busyness or exhaustion drained me of my determination.

4. Challenge Them To Take Their Recovery Seriously

Once your friend gets over the initial hurdle of recognizing their problem, it's important that they stay committed to consistent change over time. Under the care of professionals and loved ones, they should make it a goal to implement changes in their behavior, while also pursuing a healthier emotional and mental framework. A counselor once told me that the key to recovery is accepting discomfort — the strict parameters of an eating disorder must be challenged in order for a healthy pattern to take its place. This was crucial for me. It was so difficult to begin my “turnaround” that, afterwards, it was easy to overlook the importance of small, daily changes.

I can't stress enough the importance of my healthcare team and loved ones. My doctors helped me understand the need to set goals for nutrition and physical recovery, while my friends and family encouraged me to practice a balanced routine of work, rest, and recreation. Looking back, I’m amazed at their gentle patience. My nutritionist began by asking me to drink a cup of milk with my breakfast each day. That felt like a major imposition at the time, but five months and 15 pounds later, I see the wisdom in her gradual approach.

5. Encourage Them To Have Fun & Laugh

Your friend is not their disease. They may be captive to isolating compulsions, half-frozen by the effects of their anxieties, but your loved one is still a human being, an ecosystem of hope and passion as well as fear and uncertainty. It is possible that you could help them carry on living — recovery, after all, is a path back to life. Help your friend remember the way life used to be, and encourage them to engage again with what they once loved and enjoyed about it.

For me, the healing power of fun — the unadulterated silliness of dancing in the living room with siblings, the pleasure of a good book, the quiet thrill of beautiful music — revived my appetite for life and kept me motivated on the long trek back to health.

6. Remind Them That You Value Their Life

Bear in mind that even the smallest step in this process may feel like a plunge for your friend. What we call “obsessive” is, often, a desperate attempt to externalize and control some very frightening feelings: helplessness, anxiety, depression. Suggesting to your friend that they should begin to give up the behaviors that have helped them cope may sound impossible to them at first.

But the beautiful fact is this: it is possible to get well. So many people do. I’m doing it today. Right now, I'm at my laptop eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich (yum). It’s a complex process, and the rewards are proportional to the courage and commitment I put into my recovery. It's not really about food (although I can’t believe I forgot just how tasty mac’n’cheese can be). It’s about so much more than poundage, or iron levels, or getting my doctors “off my back” by appeasing them with numbers.

It’s about living — it’s life, my life, at stake. I am learning to love living, to accept the reality of my body, my place and time in this world. Letting go of the numbing, destructive mechanism of my anorexia has left me facing the stark facts of my past abuse and present fears. It is much harder, and much braver, to deal with these things than to succumb to the soothing, strangling constraints of compulsive behavior. But in the pain and uncertainty of self-acceptance, of letting go, comes the freedom to live. And my loved ones help me realize that there is nothing more precious than being here.

Editor's note: If you or a loved one is struggling with body image or an eating disorder, know that you’re not alone, and help is available.

Images: Sarah Aziza