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some ways of supporting someone with an eating disorder
(contains general discussion of eating disordered mentalities and brief mention of some disordered food choices)
I used to have very disordered eating and I was very unhappy and now it’s a lot more manageable. like I still have trouble with food and my body sometimes when I’m stressed, that’s just how stress manifests for me and I think that’s probably for life, but it’s so much better than I ever ever thought it could be. every time I think I’m “recovered” something else changes and my relationship to all of this stuff gets a little better. I can’t believe the thoughts and behaviours I used to believe I was just stuck with forever.
part of this is because of working really hard but a huge part of it is because I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive people in this time. it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing, I had to choose who I was going to listen to and who I was going to be around, I couldn’t do the work if I wasn’t supported in it, etc. but I really am so so fortunate in the people around me. I particularly wanna single out my BFF lorena, who really stood out as doing pretty much everything right, it’s almost spooky. I thought I would write down some of the stuff she did. not every person is the same and this won’t be helpful for everyone but this is a good starting point, I think. (a lot my other friends did these things as well, but some of them only she did, and all of them she was really onto and took a leading role in encouraging other people around me to do.)
- gave me almost unconditional positive regard that didn’t focus on my appearance. I know that there is nothing I could realistically do that would make her think I am an idiot or worthless or that my value only lies in my body. but I also know that I’m loved for reasons, not “just because”.
- gave me absolutely unconditional positive feedback about my appearance. by “unconditional” I mean she didn’t make the common mistake of saying stuff like “it’s fine, what are you talking about, you’re actually pretty thin, you could put on another ten, twenty kilos easy before you had a problem” or “it’s fine, I actually prefer girls with a little meat on them”. she always says stuff that is specific — that colour is a great colour for you, that skirt style is very cool and sexy on you, you look great — without an implied risk of failure should your body change.
- this one should go without saying, but: never commented on my weight except if I brought it up. never complimented or insulted me for losing or gaining weight. on this note, please, please, never tell someone they “look sick” or “don’t look sick”. for one thing, you just can’t tell if someone has an eating disorder from their body alone. for another, this will often feed into an internal narrative of having to look a particular way for their feelings to be valid.
- didn’t tolerate negative self-talk, especially stuff that by implication put down other people. “I feel really shit about my body today for these reasons” was okay. “I’m fat and gross” was not. so it’s about changing my thought patterns, but also making a supportive space for other people. it’s a boundary for her, too. she’s often been insulted based on her body type and it’s not rhetoric she wants to hear from her friends.
- but also: wasn’t afraid to bring stuff up with me, wasn’t constantly walking on eggshells and afraid of triggering some fatal reaction. it is important to be sensitive about what whether you say can trigger someone, but it should be clear by now that not saying anything and letting someone destroy themselves is also destructive. plus people with eating disorders often feel fraudulent, like they cannot have a legitimate problem because if they did they would be thinner/better, probably they are just sadsacks who can’t cope with a normal diet and exercise regime. I have heard this even from people who were clearly very sick, they are always comparing themselves to somebody else. if you notice something seems askew with someone you’re close to, bring it up with them. show them that you can see. don’t let them keep feeling crazy and alone. (this goes for anything.) the main thing I’d say is to just make sure you comment on their behaviour, not their body.
- supported me to get a decent amount of nourishment any way I could, even if it seemed crazy. this is a difficult line to walk because you generally don’t want to indulge compulsions, that’s how they get stronger. at the same time, if someone isn’t properly nourished, it’s going to have an effect on their mental health — there’s ample evidence that the mental state associated with eating disorders can be triggered by food deprivation, rather than the other way around. so like, if I could only eat at midnight, or I could only eat tamari almonds served in a china cup, not a plastic one, or if I was strictly vegan and gluten-free and sulphite-free, that was okay and not shameful and she’d try to make sure that kind of food was around. when we were living together and I was under a lot of stress with uni, she made sure that the five or six foods I would always eat were always in the house. so like, harm minimisation, I guess.
- at the same time, I was gently but persistently pushed to try to eat different things — any different thing. I was especially encouraged to sit and eat what everyone else was eating and reconnect with food as a social thing rather than a secret shame.
- didn’t make food and eating associated more with conflict and stress than it needed to be. didn’t freak out and cry and try to make bargains with me. didn’t bring up stressful issues or potential conflicts when I was eating or just about to eat. didn’t make a big deal about it when I did try a new thing (even though she was obviously thrilled).
- encouraged, in me and all her other friends, a relaxed attitude around food. she’s interested in food ethics but opposed to any rigid guilt-based consumer food politics, whether it’s focused on veganism, fair trade, organics, local or whatever else.
- similarly, didn’t indulge weird elliptical conversations about how people weren’t trying to lose weight, or anything, but just felt “purer” on their sugar-free gluten-free dairy-free diet. this is particularly a problem in leftie countercultures — wanting to be thin is shameful and giving into the media machine, so that feeling is often discussed in terms of food ethics or health. personally I find this actually so much worse, because it cements the connection between self-denial and purity/goodness.
- absolutely refused to allow in her presence any kind of embarrassing comment about what anyone else was eating of the “what is that? that’s gross! that’s so weird!” variety.
- absolutely refused to allow people to say certain foods were “gross” or “worthless”, full stop. (this isn’t just about eating disorders, but about shaming based on race and class — which of course is connected to mental health issues around food and bodies.)
- continued to read and educate herself about eating disorders so that she could exercise her own judgement rather than relying on my self-reporting. people with eating disorders often lie reflexively to conceal their disordered behaviour: outside research can help you spot some of that. on that note, a lot of “how to support people with eating disorders” guides that I’ve read on tumblr seem to really be “how to not create short-term stress for people with eating disorders” which shades very easily into “how to enable my eating disorder”. harm minimisation is really important and everybody is in a different place but at the end of the day recovery is difficult and painful, having an eating disorder is difficult and painful, there’s no getting around pain so you might as well live.
- just generally encouraged everybody to be positive about all bodies and all food but especially bodies and food that maybe don’t get a lot of support from most places you look, and actively redirected conversations that were contrary to that.
- encouraged me to do cool things with my body like play sport (if I wanted) and have sex (with people who were good to me) and sit under waterfalls.
- noticed how I was doing, listened to me sincerely, but without suspending her critical faculties. this is about empathy; don’t try and pour your heart into supporting someone you don’t really care about. they’ll know, sooner or later.
- demanded that I respect her and her boundaries, too. it’s not good for people you’re supporting to feel like they don’t give anything back. you’ll end up resenting them and they’ll end up feeling like a burden. give them the opportunity to help you, when it’s appropriate. know your boundaries and keep them as best you can. don’t feel like you have to put up with someone treating you badly just because they’re suffering and you love them — you are important, too. plus in the long run a good thing to do for people is to demand that they be a good person who treats others well. I know that I’m not just a massive drain, that I have mutually supportive and loving relationships with a number of people, and it feels really good and I’m determined to keep it up by taking good care of my mind and body.
- treated everybody like this, not just me. a lot of people have problems with food and bodies and even if it doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day lives that much it’s still something to be aware of. it’s not always obvious who has a problem with food, it could be anyone. treat everybody with respect and sensitivity.
ok that’s all for now but I would be keen to know what other people think. one thing I have noticed is that I didn’t really have a problem with bingeing as such, or with overexercising. I’d be really keen to hear from people with those issues about what helped for them.