Caring for Someone
Although someone with an eating disorder will almost certainly need professional help, families and friends can provide invaluable help and support during recovery. Long-standing friendships may also come under pressure because of the changes in behaviour that accompany an eating disorder.
The person with an eating disorder is likely to experience periods of depression, anger, hopelessness and despair. Home may feel like a battleground with parents or partners feeling that they have become the enemy. It is important to remember it is the disorder that is taking over, and not the person who is changing.
The frustration you, your family and friends experience almost always includes conflicting feelings of helplessness, despair, sympathy, anger or resentment. You may feel that you should be able to help because you care for the person who is suffering - but you simply don’t know what to do or say, perhaps because the person you care about is still not ready to admit they may have a problem.
You may feel very guilty about their disorder - but instead of soul-searching for the reasons the eating disorder developed, concentrate on recovery instead and be positive, try to gather useful information and plan what to do next.
The sooner help is found, the better the outcome is likely to be. Be supportive when treatment is offered and recognise that it may take some time before the combination of treatment, people, and the sufferers' own attitude results in moves towards recovery.
Preventing the situation from becoming worse may not seem to be a very ambitious goal but it is the first step to take. You can then try to help things improve. However recovery is a step-by-step process that will include the odd step backwards as well as forwards. Being able to communicate without being judgmental or arguing is important. No relative or friend can single-handedly make someone recover, but your support is invaluable. What you say or do can influence the recovery of someone with an eating disorder.
Trying to talk to someone you suspect has an eating disorder can be a daunting prospect. Recovery is so much more difficult in an atmosphere of secrecy or denial and the disorder will not go away by itself, so although talking about it may be difficult, it can often be an essential first step.
When you first talk about your worries and concerns, try to prepare what you will say, and how you will say it. Find a time when neither of you are feeling angry or upset and somewhere you will not be interrupted. Try to explain that you have noticed the changes in their behaviour, that you are concerned and want to help.
Remember it’s not about food, it’s about feelings, so don’t talk about diets and weight loss. Be honest about your own feelings and encourage the person you are helping to be honest about theirs.
You will also need help and support, and Beat is here to help. Call our helpline or visit the message boards for a bit of support. However, be careful not to swap roles with the person who is ill. Don’t allow them to start acting as your carer, supporting your own distress and confusion. You should not allow them to be overburdened with your feelings as it is likely they will already be contending with guilt and other difficult emotions.
Life must go on - try not to allow eating disorders to take over normal, everyday activities or to affect other relationships especially within the family. It can help if you try to keep something in your relationship which is unconnected with the eating disorder or food. You must look after yourself and show the person with anorexia or bulimia that taking care of your needs is acceptable. If you are a member of the sufferer’s immediate family it is very important that you take part in family therapy sessions if they are offered as part of treatment.
Communicating with anyone and not just someone with an eating disorder means being a good listener and trying to understand what they may be struggling to say. Show you love and accept them for the person they are. Agree to disagree to avoid arguments and don’t get hung up on issues such as commenting on their appearance.
For the family there are practical things you can do to minimise anxiety at mealtimes. You and the person with the eating disorder can plan the menu for the following day, taking into account the kind of food that they might be willing to eat. Agree who will do the shopping and try to share the food preparation. If the sufferer is likely to binge consider reducing the amount of food kept in stock.
It is important that you agree on behaviour that will and will not be tolerated. This helps to establish clear boundaries. Things that you normally take for granted, like leaving food around or having a set of bathroom scales can cause problems for someone with an eating disorder, so try and identify these potential difficulties and discuss how you can deal with them together. Be united in your support as a family or circle of friends, in order to prevent the eating disorder splitting the family or friendships.
Everyone who recovers from an eating disorder tells us how important it was to have unconditional love and support from those who care about them, even when they knew their behaviour was quite difficult to understand.