Supporting The Supporters (The Loved Ones of Those With Eating Disorders)
An eating disorder is an illness that affects every aspect of a person’s life: their physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. Beyond the individual, eating disorders are illnesses that impact those around the sufferer; they are a burden carried by the family, friends, and supporters as well.
Going through the experience of struggling with an eating disorder is a hell I would not wish on my worst enemy. Perhaps the only thing worse than that hell is watching someone you love go through it and having to learn the painful lesson that we cannot fix people; we can only love them.
My eating disorder, while unpleasant, served a useful function for me: it is a coping mechanism that gave me something (short term benefit over long term costs). For my family, there was nothing it offered them except, years later, the meaning they chose to take from it and the lessons we learned as a family on loving each other through ups and downs and all our faults. My family and friends were and continue to be my advocates, my nurses, my therapists, and my supporters in a system that did not offer much to patients (and still needs improvement); it has even less to offer families. The following suggestions for supporting the loved ones of those with eating disorders come from the lived experience of my parents. These are their suggestions.
Having a loved one with an eating disorder, especially if you are the main caregiver or supporter, can be an isolating experience. Isolation occurs for many reasons, such as lack of time but also occurs because often people do not know how to help. My husband and I would like to share three ideas of how to help the family, friends, and caregivers of those with eating disorders.
The first suggestion we would like to mention is listening. Real listening to our problems was supportive. Many people were helpful in this regard but some were not. Colleagues were especially helpful because they asked questions and listened without judgement, whereas sometimes closer friends and family gave unsolicited advice. Though we knew people were trying to be helpful when giving advice, unsolicited advice was not needed. We were already feeling guilty and comments such as “I would just make her eat” made us feel even worse. An alternate comment might be something like: “I know this is hard but you will get through this. If there is anything I can do to help, please ask.” This not only acknowledges what we were going through but encourages efforts to continue supporting the person and provides hope for a future. Saying “I’ll give you a call in a week to check in” and doing so would also be helpful.
The second suggestion is about nurturing hope. Caring for someone with an eating disorder is exhausting and it is easy to lose hope. Words can give or take away hope and we only received words that took away hope. No one ever said she would get better except for one health professional. Friends, family, and coworkers all said that she would have this disorder for the rest of her life. While we realize that is a possibility, it is also a possibility that she will get better. It is especially hard to remain hopeful for a loved one’s future when you see them struggling for years and years. However, we personally need to feel hopeful in order to have the strength to continue to support our daughter. We wish others could have nurtured that hope. We wanted to hear “She’ll become a stronger person because of it” or “Your daughter will get through this”. It did not have to be true; it just needed to be something that kept us hopeful. It is darn depressing without hope and we did not need to be depressed.
The third suggestion is about relationships, especially with friends. We became very isolated from friends and family because:
Our daughter did not want others to know about her condition nor be discussed with others
Time was at a premium because there were many extra appointments
Meal support was time consuming, and
The anxiety that fueled her eating disorder was worse when we had friends over so we stopped having people over (probably not what we should have done but one learns from mistakes plus we didn’t know then that anxiety was a precursor to the disorder)
While we understand how hard it is to maintain relationships that are one sided during this time, we encourage you to try to maintain relationships with caregivers and supporters. It might be different than what you are used to but sending a quick text or email, calling up for a few minutes to chat, or asking them out for coffee would have been things we would have loved. Maintaining relationships is so important on so many levels but is particularly important for persons who are supporting those with eating disorders. Those relationships nourish the soul; allowing caregivers to maintain perspective and clarity of purpose.
Though hope, listening, and maintenance of relationships were importance to us, everyone will need different things. Ask your friend or family member what they need. They might be able to tell you but if not, we hope these suggestions give you a place to start.
-D. & J. Ritchey