Topic Tuesday: Recovery
“Tips for Helping Loved Ones in Eating Disorder Recovery” (By: Jessica Smith)
I’ve been navigating my recovery journey for about fifteen months now, and I’ve encountered my fair share of bumps along the way. While I’ve received unwavering support from friends and family, sometimes the words spoken can be less than helpful. Despite being well-intentioned, certain comments simply never feel welcome or positive, no matter how I process it inside my head. An offhanded remark can stay with me for a week, negatively impacting my recovery and my mindset.
Because of this, I’ve learned to teach others how to speak to me during this tender time of fresh recovery. I’d like to share with you a list of helpful tips for the friends and family of those recovering from an eating disorder, and I pray the message is enlightening and informative. Feel free to share this list with those who care about you, and it can help make your journey just a little bit easier.
Ways to Help a Loved One in Eating Disorder Recovery
1.) Avoid comments about his or her body.
We live in a culture where it is socially acceptable to comment on another person’s body. We assume we know someone’s health status simply by observing the body’s shape and size, and we deliver compliments on one’s body as an effective means of lifting self-esteem. This is a social construction that we must try to unlearn. For me, a comment on my body is never positive. While deep into my disorder, compliments on my size and athleticism reinforced my ED voice’s message to stay small at all costs. Now that I am recovered and in different body, people like to tell me I look “healthy” or “womanly.” While logically I know being healthy is a blessing, my ED brain twists it into something negative, since my ED’s ultimate goal is to be as small as possible. So, I twist “healthy” into “fat.” Fat is absolutely nothing to fear, but eating disorders are illogical.
There are many ways to compliment someone without highlighting the body. Reveal the character traits you find enjoyable. You could mention how nice it is to spend time together, laughing and creating memories. Ask about his or her opinion on social events or inquire about upcoming trips out of state. Literally, anything else. Your loved one will appreciate your efforts. This can be difficult to unlearn, so have compassion for yourself. If you slip up, apologize and pivot the conversation. We are all learning together.
2.) Don’t comment on what the person is eating or is not eating.
Unless you are a part of the treatment team, there is no reason to make observations about what a person in ED recovery is eating. Highlighting what someone is or isn’t eating can send them into a shame-filled downward spiral that lasts for hours or days. Eating while in recovery can feel blissfully freeing, or it can feel like you are having a mini panic attack with every bite. Sometimes you feel both in the same day.
When I was in early recovery, I had a friend bring a dessert to a hang out. I became very anxious about this particular dessert, but not for the reason you might expect. I simply didn’t want it. I wasn’t restricting…it just didn’t sound appealing at that moment. Had the dessert been any other type of dessert, I probably would’ve partaken. I became anxious because I felt I didn’t have the freedom to decline them without raising alarm bells in the minds of my friends. They care for me, and declining treats could certainly be cause for concern. I ultimately decided to stay true to my own desires and declined the dessert when offered. My friend raised her eyebrows and asked me, “Are you suuuuure?” I interpreted that as accusatory-as suggesting I was acting in a disordered way. While this interaction seems quite innocent and can vary depending on one’s perception…that is precisely the point. A seemingly harmless question rocked me. It would have been best for my friend to have simply said “Okay!” and moved on. I felt a great deal of shame in that moment, but the silver lining was that I opened up to my friend and let her know how I was actually feeling.
Rest assured your loved one is doing the best he or she can, and recovery is not free from ups and downs. If you have ongoing concerns or notice a dramatic change in behavior, I’d suggest voicing your concerns to someone on their treatment team (therapist, healthcare provider, or dietician.)
3.) Continue to include the person in all kinds of activities, even though they may decline.
Eating disorders are by nature very isolating. The sufferer begins to decline formerly loved activities in lieu of exercise or disordered behaviors. A person with an ED tends to avoid situations involving food as it can cause a great deal of anxiety. For those in recovery from their ED, entering back into the world in a non-disordered way can be scary and quite intimidating. It can take some time to feel strong enough to go to a party or even a simple lunch with a friend. Don’t be discouraged or take this personally. Continue to invite your loved one, and over time he or she will again find joy and freedom in these types of activities as the anxiety lessens. You will see glimpses of their former selves emerge! This is a wonderful part of recovery, but they rely on you for continued encouragement and opportunities to re-engage with the world. At first, it may be best to initiate activities that don’t involve food, but continue to include him or her even if it does (parties, wedding showers, etc.) Being around my friends and sharing meals without engaging in disordered behaviors has been one of the highlights of my recovery process. I am so grateful for my friends and family who did not give up on me.
4.) Focus on the PERSON, not the eating disorder.
You might feel the need to check on your loved one often, particularly after an intense inpatient stay or during treatment. Or, you may feel like avoiding the topic altogether. Above all, don’t forget the human being underneath the diagnosis. Remember that your friend/partner/family member is a whole person with interests, passions, and desires. They may have gotten crowded out or pushed aside temporarily due to the ED, but they are still in there! Your conversations don’t have to center around the ED. On the flip side, it is certainly okay to ask, “How are you doing?” Allow their responses to be your guide, and offer yourself as a safe, non-judgmental place for those in ED recovery. Your efforts will go a really long way.
5.) Be mindful of how you speak about your OWN body and the bodies of others.
Diet culture maintains a strong, insidious presence in our culture. Cracking jokes about our bodies, discussing “problem areas,” and waxing poetic about the latest diet trend is as familiar as mindless observations about the weather. While I’d argue this type of conversation is detrimental to everyone, it is particularly detrimental to those in recovery. People in ED recovery are trying very hard to unlearn problematic ways of thinking: my body is not good enough, my body is so unattractive, my body should be changed in order to be acceptable, etc. They are also particularly attuned to how others view bodies and their general acceptance in our society at large. Your best bet is to avoid any and all commentary on your body or the body of anyone else. Because let’s be honest: what does that really matter, anyway? Your body is the least interesting thing about you.
6.) Refrain from “diet talk.”
Much like the above point, diet talk is everywhere. You can’t go a day without seeing a commercial, an Instagram ad, or a magazine headline purporting magical, life-changing effects of the latest cleanse, detox, or 30-day “fix.” Don’t even get me started on celery juice. Anyway, seeing as how these messages are ubiquitous and nearly unavoidable, try to be that safe place for your loved one in recovery. Be that one person who doesn’t seem obsessed with Whole30. The last thing a person in ED recovery needs is to discover a new diet that delivers false promises at the expense of one’s mental (and likely physical) health, all for the almighty dollar. The diet industry is, after all, a multi-billion-dollar industry that rakes in 60-70 BILLION dollars annually.
7.) Educate yourself on diet culture and the Health At Every Size approach.
The book “Health at Every Size” by Linda Bacon changed my life. I read it before I officially entered eating disorder recovery, and the information presented in this book was paradigm-shifting. I encourage everyone I know to read it, and I suggest you do the same.
“The Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) affirms a holistic definition of health, which cannot be characterized as simply the absence of physical or mental illness, limitation, or disease. Rather, health exists on a continuum that varies with time and circumstance for each individual. Health should be conceived as a resource or capacity available to all regardless of health condition or ability level, and not as an outcome or objective of living. Pursuing health is neither a moral imperative nor an individual obligation, and health status should never be used to judge, oppress, or determine the value of an individual.”
The Five Principles of Health At Every Size:
1.) Weight Inclusivity (All bodies are good bodies.)
2.) Health Enhancement (Support health policies and practices that improve and equalize access to information and services)
3.) Respectful Care (Work to end weight stigma and weight bias)
4.) Eating for Well-being (Promote flexible, individualized eating based on hunger, satiety, and nutritional needs)
5.) Life-Enhancing Movement (Support joyful movement for people of all sizes and abilities)
For me, the HAES approach forced me to confront some internal biases, the primary one being that I believed being fat was bad. Due to this internal belief, I felt if I wasn’t a certain size or appearance, my worth as a human being was less than. I am working hard to change my mindset and accept the fact that all bodies are good and have inherent worth and value. This book is backed in data that dispels the myths of our culture, specifically that being in a larger body is the root of many physical ailments. I highly recommend you delve into this topic, as it will challenge your own ways of thinking and provide the framework to support your loved one’s health and wellness for the long haul. (Information above can be found at www.sizediversityandhealth.
8.) Join a support group or find a therapist yourself.
Due to the complex nature of eating disorders, it can feel overwhelming when someone close to you is suffering or attempting recovery. While there is an abundance of resources available on the internet, it is wise to find a support group near you designed for those close to people in recovery or actively struggling with an ED. If you have the resources, it may be wise to find a licensed therapist for yourself (especially if you are a spouse, parent, or child of the one affected by the ED.) Have compassion for yourself, and do what you can to educate yourself and support your efforts. Your presence and love are powerful, and your loved one will be grateful even when they cannot say it.
About the Author
Jessica is a self-professed “hot mess mama” who resides in Old Hickory with a wily black cat, her easy-going husband, and their tiny dictator, Tucker (4 years old.) Having spent many years of her life battling serious eating disorders and a complicated relationship with exercise, she is now passionate about sharing the messages of hope, recovery, and freedom found in body positivity, intuitive eating, and in the Health at Every Size movement. Jessica is an alumnus of the Belmont University School of Nursing, and after graduating spent many joyful years working in pediatrics and intensive care. In 2014, she did what she deemed unimaginable and temporarily left her career to become a stay-at-home mom. She spends her days managing all the things while trying not to take life too seriously. Her hobbies include reading, photography, pretending to be a gardener, and avoiding writing in the third person.