After battling an eating disorder for over half my life, I was lucky enough to make a full recovery from anorexia. I feel grateful for this every single day, but National Eating Disorder Awareness Week provides me with a great opportunity to focus on the positives and the reasons that I was able to recover. I was diagnosed at age 12 and hospitalized shortly thereafter, and it marked the beginning of a long, frustrating journey through the "revolving door" of eating disorder treatment. For a long time, I believed that I would never recover — but I did so through a combination of professional help and the support of family and friends.
If you have a friend with an eating disorder, it can be hard to know what will and won't be helpful. Every eating disorder is different and I certainly cannot speak on behalf of everyone who has battled anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. But I do know that for many of us, the support of friends has been a critical part of recovery. My closest friends encouraged me to seek help, gave me tough love when I was ready to throw in the towel, and set a positive example by showing me through actions and words that we can't live full, happy lives unless we are willing to let go of our illness and fight for recovery.
If your friend has an eating disorder, here are seven important things to remember:
1. Eating Disorders Are Never A Choice
No one chooses to suffer from an illness, whether it's physical or mental. When it comes to eating disorders, one of the biggest and most damaging misconceptions is that we choose to have the illness because we're vain, we're desperate for attention, or some other ridiculous reason. The true causes behind eating disorders are extremely complex and there's no neat, tidy explanation for what triggers a person's anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder. Although the exact cause varies depending on the person, eating disorders are the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
Once we are diagnosed and receiving treatment, however, it is absolutely our choice to engage in the hard work of recovery. There's a lot of empowerment in realizing that we have the ability to use all the resources available to us in order to make a full recovery — and I always appreciated when my friends reminded me of that and held me accountable when I was being lax about my treatment. Remind your friends that they are strong and they deserve to recover — but also remember that relapses and setbacks are common, so be patient with us.
2. It's More Than OK To Ask Questions
We don't expect you to immediately understand everything about the illness — especially because it involves a whole lot of distorted thinking and irrational thought patterns. Although no one will ever know what it's like to live every day with an eating disorder unless they've suffered from one themselves, asking thoughtful questions shows us that you care and that you want to understand as best you can. And it helps you identify our patterns so you can check in when you see us going through a rough patch. In college, a few of my friends even came to a few of my therapy sessions with me so they could gain some insight by listening to my therapist and asking her questions. This extra effort to understand meant the world to me.
3. Please Avoid Discussing Weight & Calories In Our Presence
Unfortunately, it's super common for women to discuss weight and calories in social and even professional settings. We've all heard it — when a woman dares to indulge in anything more caloric than a salad, she's basically expected to preface it with a phrase like "I know I shouldn't..." or "I'll make up for it tomorrow." People without eating disorders frequently discuss dieting and weight — and, personally, I always found this incredibly triggering. Now that I'm recovered, it no longer triggers me like it used to, but it simply makes me sad because there are so many better, more important thing we should be talking about.
Although I know no one in my life meant to be insensitive, I couldn't help but feel as though some of my friends were speaking without thinking when they talked about calories or weight in front of me. When someone is recovering from an eating disorder, we're fighting every day to move away from the dangerous focus on numbers — and it's really hard to do this in a society that's obsessed with weight. I'm not saying that you have to walk on eggshells around us, and I know that slip-ups are inevitable, but my friends who made a huge effort to not focus on weight, calories, and appearance around me set an amazing example for me. Our conversations reminded me that I should focus on important goals and dreams, rather than how sinful it is to eat dessert or skip a workout after a long day.
4. Respect Our Privacy When Talking With Mutual Friends & Acquaintances
Ideally, eating disorders and other mental illnesses would not be stigmatized — and I sincerely hope that someday we live in a world where that's the case. But since that's not the current reality, don't just assume that your friend has told everyone what they are going through and therefore it's fair game to discuss among mutual friends. Most of the time, this comes from a well-intentioned place rather than the desire to gossip — you're concerned and you want to talk with mutual friends about how best to help. But before you do so, talk with your eating disordered friend and make sure you're super clear about who they have told and how much information they've shared with other friends.
If your friend wants very few people to know about their illness, that may leave you feeling as though you have no one to turn to when you're stressed about how best to help. Try talking to friends or family members who don't know your friend at all — you deserve support, too, and most people know someone who has suffered from an eating disorder, so they can offer you advice without compromising your friend's trust.
5. You Need To Take Care Of Yourself, Too
Of course, part of being a good friend is being there for someone during their ups and downs — but you don't have to be the saint in the room who compromises her own well-being because you feel responsible for our health. Everyone deals with their eating disorders in different ways and sometimes a friend may end up calling you constantly for support. If it takes an emotional toll on you, it's OK to establish boundaries and gently tell your friend that you sense they need more help than you can provide.
For example, you can explain that there are certain times of the day that you really can't take phone calls due to work or other obligations, but that you're happy to check in at the end of the day. If you sense your friend simply doesn't have enough support, urge them to discuss this with their therapist so they can strategize about how to get through the day. A lot of the most amazing friends are caretakers by nature, but just remember that you'll be a better source of support if you look out for yourself, too.
6. Healthy Distractions Are A Great Way To Help
The eating disorder takes over our bodies and minds, and it's hard for us to think about anything else when we're in the throes of it. I always found it really helpful when my friends suggested we plan fun activities, outings, or weekend trips that would help take my mind off my eating disordered thought patterns.
Of course, it's not a magical cure that makes the thoughts disappear for a weekend, but even a brief reprieve can be so beneficial. It also helped remind me that there's so much to live for — from little things like a fun afternoon exploring art galleries to a weekend away in a new city, it helped me remember that life has a whole lot to offer and I would never be able to fully enjoy it if I was physically and mentally consumed by the eating disorder.
7. Your Support Means So Much To Us
Just as the causes of eating disorders are complex and multi-faceted, so are the reasons we recover — but a major factor is the support of friends. I had the most amazing therapist in the world and great treatment, but I couldn't have recovered if my friends hadn't been there supporting me, holding me accountable, and reminding me through actions and words that I needed and deserved to recover from my illness. It's a true gift to have friends like this and, even if you don't always feel like you know the perfect thing to say or do in every scenario, please know that the fact that you stick by us during our roughest moments means the world to us.