When Someone Tells You They Have An Eating Disorder . . .

Telling someone you love that you have an eating disorder is one of the scariest things you can do. There are so many unknowns in the situation: will they still love me? will they believe me? will they laugh at me?

However, hearing that someone you love has an eating disorder is also one of the scariest things you can experience. What does it mean? Will they be okay? Did I contribute to it? What do I do now?

You’re probably going to be afraid. You might get angry. You might cry. And you probably won’t know what to say. That’s where I come in. Having experienced some of the best and the worst responses to my “coming out”, I decided to write down some things you should and shouldn’t do when you find out a loved one has an eating disorder.

My Worst and Best “Coming Out” Experiences

The first time I told someone I thought I had a problem, I wasn’t ready to use the words “eating disorder”, so I broke the ice asking for help for depression. Unfortunately, I chose the wrong person to talk to. The response: There was no WAY I had depression. I was a hormonal b*tch who was responsible for causing that person’s depression. This was followed by a rant on why I was awful and selfish and a burden. As a result, I didn’t talk about my mental health issues again for about 5 years. By that time, I had to go into the hospital.

On the other hand, the BEST experience I had came about 15 years after the first, when I had to tell my dad I’d relapsed – again. His first question: what was I doing about it? I told him about the support group I’d joined, and the therapists I was looking into seeing. His next question: what can I do to help?

“I Have An Eating Disorder”

Now, you’re never going to have the perfect response. It’s never going to happen, so you can take that pressure off your shoulders right now. There are a few things you can do, however, to make things go more smoothly.

  1. Listen – You’re going to want to talk right away, but chances are your loved one (YLO, for future ease) has practiced EXACTLY what they want to say to you for days, weeks, or even years. Let them get though it. Your turn will come soon enough.
  2. Believe them. – If someone thinks they have a problem, chances are they have a problem. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes, and symptoms vary from person to person. YLO may not fit the mold of what you believe an eating disorder is. It doesn’t mean they don’t have one, and it doesn’t mean it isn’t deadly serious.
  3. Tell them it doesn’t change how you feel about them – Eating disorders are diseases of SHAME. Chances are YLO is judging themself for having an ED, so they’ll need to know you still love them. If your inclination is to hug, ask if that’s okay, then go for it.
  4. Decide if you need time to process, or if you want to talk now. – You may have lots of questions to ask. You may be blindsided and need time to regroup. There’s no wrong way to do this. If you need some time, consider setting a time to reconnect. “I just need a moment to breathe and think. Can we come back and talk about this in an hour?”
  5. Whenever you’re ready to talk, ask if it’s okay to ask questions. – Now, YLO may not have answers, and that’s okay, too. Make sure they know it’s okay if they don’t want to answer/don’t know the answer. Answers come with time. Try not make it about you, “Did I do this? Where did I go wrong?” They don’t need to feel like they have to comfort you right now. They have enough on their plate (so to speak).
  6. Ask questions, and listen to the answers. Here are some questions that may help:
  • What does having an eating disorder mean for you?
    No two eating disorders are alike, and no two people with eating disorders are alike. What you know about eating disorders from the media/that book you once read/that girl down the street will never encompass all that eating disorders are. This is a good opportunity to listen and learn from an expert.
  • Are you getting help/how can we get you help?
    Depending on the age of YLO, they may be capable of getting their own help, or they may need your assistance to get help. Depending on the type of eating disorder YLO has, you may need some combination of: an MD, a therapist, a nutritionist or dietitian, a hospital program, and/or a treatment centre. Eating disorders don’t get better on their own. People don’t “grow out of them”. YLO will need help. Early intervention is SO IMPORTANT. It will take a lot longer than you think it will, but recovery is possible.
  • What do you need from me?
    Sometimes, you will play a big role in YLO’s recovery, especially if you go through a Maudsley-based treatment program. Sometimes they’ll just need an ear. Or a hug. They might need you to help with groceries/cooking/meal support, they may not. Sometimes they will need financial support, as many treatment options aren’t covered by insurance. Be clear about what you’re willing/able to give, and respect their answers.

I know this is scary, but recovery from an eating disorder IS POSSIBLE. (I know – I’ve done it.) It takes a long time, but it’s possible. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself throughout the process, too. Read books on the subject. See a therapist yourself. Get help for your own eating issues, if applicable. If it’s appropriate/available, take advantage of family sessions with YLO’s therapist, nutritionist, or team.

For more information on helping a loved one with an eating disorder, check out my three-part series for friends and family.

Most importantly: don’t lose hope. You’ll need it.

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