This is continued from Myths & Meanings: The Why Behind Eating Disorders…
Treating eating disorders and the disordered eating spectrum over the last decade has taught me about the immense importance of community when someone is seeking recovery. Many of my clients came to see me after they had been approached by a concerned friend, loved one, coach, teacher, or other important person in their life. It may have taken them a while to make it to my office, but the journey towards healing and wholeness often began with someone lovingly reaching out and expressed their love and concern. Below are myths and meanings related to spotting signals of an eating disorder and helping a friend get the care she needs…
MYTH: Until my friend is in the hospital, her eating and body issues are not that serious.
MEANING: People with eating disorders can be underweight, normal weight or overweight. It’s impossible to diagnose anyone just by looking at them. Eating disorders are also extremely difficult and costly to treat. Early intervention is absolutely crucial to hopefully decrease the intensity and duration of treatment and suffering. When someone is in the hospital, many choices are lost. We need more people to lead the way and challenge the fear that encourages staying silent, not getting involved and looking the other way. Minimizing, denying and rationalizing dangerous behaviors only perpetuate this deadly illness.
Speak up and share your concerns with your loved one when you observe:
- Drastic weight loss/gain or regular weight cycling
- Erratic mood swings/anxiety/depression
- Consuming obsessions and preoccupations with food, body image, exercise, dieting and what others think
- A loss of joy in activities that used to be energizing such as school, work or sports
- Frequent trips to the bathroom
- Frequent physical concerns such as stomach/GI pain, sore throat, chills, swollen glands, overuse injuries, joint pain
- Abuse of over the counter medicines, prescription drugs, alcohol or illegal drugs
- Isolation and disconnection from usual community
- Secretive or unusual food behaviors
- Negative self-talk or self-loathing
Eating disorders thrive on disconnection and fear. Speak up. You never know. You may be saving a life.
MYTH: If I share my concerns with my friend about her disordered eating behaviors, I will ruin our friendship.
MEANING: It can really be really scary approaching someone you care for with your concerns about her health and well being. But staying silent when you are seeing behaviors that are destructive is like colluding with the problem. It will take a lot of courage and a sound mind to risk a relationship in order shed light on the harmful behaviors you are witnessing. Remember, you are not responsible for changing the behaviors of your loved one. Someone can only change if she wants to change, but do not underestimate the power of sharing your heart—even if it is not well-received initially.
Also, do not be surprised if your concerns are met with resistance and rejection. She may even react with anger and denial. There is a lot of shame and pain that goes along with having an eating disorder. It is also important not to rush the person, and instead recognize that it will take time for the person to make lasting changes. Show compassion for the pain and confusion that the individual is experiencing while encouraging your loved one to see themselves as more than their eating disorder. Use “I” statements as you:
- Focus on feelings and your relationship, not on weight and food.
- Share your specific concerns based on your observations about your loved one’s well being.
- Communicate only when you can maintain a neutral demeanor. Think about the best time for you and your loved one to communicate so that you are setting everyone up for success to be heard, even if there is conflict. Avoid power struggles about eating or their other destructive behaviors.
- Empathize with feeling out of control, ashamed, unhappy with your body or your own struggles with perfectionism or people pleasing. While you have a different story than your friend, connect on shared emotional experiences, reducing the shame of the eating disorder.
- NOTE: Avoid comments about looks. Comments about weight and appearance only reinforce their obsession with image and the numbers on the scale.
MYTH: I cannot break a promise I made to keep a secret about my friend’s eating disorder.
MEANING: Being a person who is trustworthy is a highly valued character trait. But secret keeping is only appropriate when keeping that secret does not do harm to self or others. Secrets like these can:
- Be a burden, wear you down and are isolating
- Leave you feeling trapped and stressed by your value to keep your word
- Negatively impact your own emotional well-being.
Breaking a promise that is motivated to help someone is important and necessary. Remember, eating disorders perpetuate secrecy—and a secret that hurts someone is not a secret, but rather about control and fear. Reach out and find someone safe to carry this burden with you and move towards an action plan to speak up to your friend in need.
Stay tuned for the final part of my series, where I will highlight different resources and types of care available to those struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating…