Eating disorders (EDs) are disorders related to eating. There are several forms, the most well known being anorexia, bulimia, hyperphagia, and more recently orthorexia.
Today, this mental illness affects more than 3% of the population in France, mostly teenage girls and young women.
Unfortunately, this disease does not only happen to others, and it is possible that someone close to you (family or friends) is affected by this disorder. If this is the case, it is likely that you want to help this person. But how do you do this?
When you don’t have an eating disorder yourself, it’s hard to understand someone who has trouble eating normally. It is so natural to eat! We tend to just want to tell them to eat their fill, not to throw up, to just make a little effort. But in reality, what is going on in the patient is very complicated.
So how can you help this dear person that you see threatened by eating disorders?
A person who has an eating disorder is first and foremost a person who is suffering. The TCAs are a mechanism put in place by the patient to adapt to a situation that is too painful (trauma, anxiety, malaise…). Therefore, the CAT is first of all a symptom, and it seems complicated to stay focused on food only to help a person who suffers from it.
Either your loved one is aware of his or her problem and you can address the subject together. We will see how.
Or the person is not aware that he or she has a problem, and in this case the first step will be to help him or her become aware of it.
Here are some tips to help you deal with your friend’s problem and help him or her as much as possible.
First of all, there are two possible scenarios:
- Recognize the signs
Keep in mind that an eating disorder can appear in many forms. You don’t have to be skinny or overweight to have an ED. Moreover, the person in question may seem to eat quite normally at mealtimes, which does not mean that he or she will not engage in pathological behaviors out of sight.
Thus, rapid weight gain or loss is an obvious indicator. However, if nothing is physically apparent at first, unusual behaviors can alert you: systematically leaving the table to go to the bathroom during the meal or right after. Drinking a lot of water during the meal. Wanting to be in charge of your meal (cannot stand being served by others). Drastically increasing physical exercise. Weighing oneself often. Trying to avoid communal meals…
If you are concerned about a behavior, go and ask around. This will help you better understand what your friend is going through, and it will also show that you care. The most common OCDs:
- Anorexia nervosa: obsessive preoccupation with appearance and weight, which leads to drastic food restrictions.
- Bulimia nervosa: occurs in the form of a binge. Excessive and repetitive ingestion of food. Binge eating, which can last from a few minutes to several hours, is often followed by some action to compensate for the binge, such as self-induced vomiting, use of laxatives, intense exercise, or episodes of anorexia.
- Hyperphagia: daily ingestion of more food than the body needs, leading to inevitable weight gain (because no compensatory pathology).
- Orthorexia: obsessive need to have a healthy and balanced diet, rejection of all foods perceived as “unhealthy”.
- Discussing the subject with the person concerned
If you decide to talk to your friend about it, it is because you are concerned and want to help him or her. In this case, the first thing you need to be careful of is being accusatory. If you use a reproachful tone (“you’re too thin, you need to make an effort, it’s not a real problem…”), the person in front of you may become defensive and shut down. On the other hand, since you cannot know what your loved one is going through, talk to him or her about your own feelings: “I’m worried about you, I wish I could help you, I have the impression that something is not right…”. Your goal is to put the person in front of you in confidence. Don’t be afraid of being judged or scolded.
On the other hand, never bring up this subject during a meal. This would automatically place your friend in a judged position, which will be very unpleasant and counterproductive. Instead, choose a quiet, intimate time away from food.
- Listen to
As mentioned earlier, having an AUD is often a sign of a deeper problem. If your loved one wants to talk to you about their feelings, emotions and difficulties, whether or not they are related to eating, listen. Sit back and offer a sympathetic ear, refraining from making any comments that might make you itch. Once the person has confided in you, offer your support without judgment. Keep in mind that an eating disorder is a serious mental illness, and that “doing a little bit” is not enough to get through it. As a close friend, you are not in a position to “save” your friend, but it is essential that you be there.
- Should we keep it a secret?
What if a friend confides in us but makes us promise not to tell anyone? This is a very complicated question. Telling someone would be a betrayal of trust, and not telling anyone would be a risk of making the situation worse. Ideally, the person in difficulty should be encouraged to seek help (especially from a specialist) on their own. If this is not the case, it is necessary to advise according to the situation. If the situation worsens to the point where your friend’s health is in danger, it will probably be necessary to notify people who can take care of him or her quickly.
- Encourage seeking help
Healing from an OCD is a long and difficult process for the sufferer. Keep in mind that you are not a professional! Even if you were, you would not be able to treat a loved one. For this reason, the best thing you can do is to encourage him or her to go to specialists with whom no emotional relationship will interfere.
It is often difficult to motivate someone to see a therapist. But remind them that there is no obligation to try.
- What not to do
Finally, here are some things you might be tempted to do, but should avoid:
- Don’t try to compare yourself to your friend: this person already feels terribly alone and misunderstood. Comparisons like “look, I’m bigger than you and I’m fine” won’t help them and will only make them feel more misunderstood.
- Don’t try to set up stratagems to make him or her eat: “if you eat this we’ll do that, if you gain a little weight you’ll make me really happy…”. Your friend is not stupid, he or she is ill and will just feel that he or she is not taken seriously and not understood in the problem he or she is facing if you behave with him or her as you would with a 5 year old child.
Eating disorders are serious illnesses that can have dramatic consequences on the lives of those who have to deal with them. The worst thing you can do with this kind of problem is not to take it seriously. The patient will only feel more guilty about his or her discomfort and more isolated.
As a family member, it is also your duty to help the person take his or her mind off things and breathe. Don’t hesitate to suggest activities away from food, where you can spend some time relaxing together.