As someone who has struggled with anorexia for over a decade, there are many things that need to change around the discussion of eating disorders. The diet culture that we grew up with has caused many to be ignorant of the truth of eating disorders, whether purposely or not.
Eating disorders can be a sensitive topic to talk about, but we need to normalize the conversation around mental health.
The more you make an effort to be open, encouraging, and nonjudgmental to your friend who is struggling with an eating disorder, the more they will find you to be a safe place. If you have a friend who is struggling with an eating disorder, this article is for you.
1. Helping and Encouraging
Maybe your friend has opened up to you about having an eating disorder, or maybe you suspect your friend is struggling with an eating disorder.
As someone who has grown up and been around eating disorders my entire life, including both suffering from one and family members having one, I have become aware of the signs and symptoms. Most individuals think anorexia or bulimia only includes those who are significantly underweight, but this isn’t true.
A person can have anorexia and not be underweight. This is because eating disorders are not weight disorders — they are mental disorders. The weight factor can come into play, but what we need to look at is the behaviors.
I remember the first person I told when I came to terms that had anorexia. It was my sister. She had already known from the genesis of my illness, and she later disclosed she had been praying for me for years to come to terms with my illness and to work towards recovery.
In this way, my decision to address the problem and enter recovery was an answer to her prayer. Throughout my entire recovery process, relapses, and restarted recovery process, my sister has always been there for me.
Was there yelling and fights? Of course, because recovery can be difficult at times, and it feels like your world is upside down. However, my sister still stayed by my side as I struggled and continued to support me.
As kind and supportive as my sister is, not everyone has been the same. I remember when I first disclosed my eating disorder to a few friends from college, and they weren’t supportive. My therapist had told me to build a recovery team.
This was to be those who would be supportive of my recovery, and I could reach out to them when I was struggling. After many texts and calls explaining my struggles, my friends from college ghosted me.
I suppose it was too much, which was understandable, but I’m not sure they knew how much that hurt me. Maybe you have been in recovery, and those you thought would be supportive weren’t supportive, and they didn’t even seem to care.
As someone who experienced this, I encourage you to be supportive of your friends with eating disorders and actually be there for them. Being a friend means you are there in the good and the bad.
If you are someone who is struggling with an eating disorder and all of your friends have ghosted you, my heart goes out to you. I know how much pain you are experiencing.
For the time being, your recovery team might just need to be your therapist, your doctors, and God. God was the main person who helped me in my recovery, and He will be with you too.
2. Avoiding Triggers
If your friend is struggling with an eating disorder, it is important that you are aware of their triggers and that you avoid doing anything to trigger them. Be careful with your words and be careful with your own behaviors.
Personally, I have been triggered by my family members and friends on more occasions than I can count. My first round of recovery was triggered back into active anorexia after a friend commented on my weight gain in a negative way.
Whether she knew she triggered me or caused me to be upset, I don’t know. She never apologized and never seemed to know she had hurt me directly. This alone caused me to once again fall back into anorexia.
Active recovery for me once again started, but yet again, many of my friends said more triggering comments. I’ve learned that it is impossible to avoid triggers, but if you are a friend of someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, don’t do anything to trigger your friend.
Moving past triggering comments, I’ve also been triggered by my friends’ behaviors. Talk of weight loss, active weight loss, and before and after pictures hurt.
For someone who is actively having to gain weight to get healthy, people close to you engaging in weight loss is nothing but painful and hurtful. You might think you are trying to help, but you really are not if you are hurting your friend with your behavior.
Those with eating disorders already have low self-esteem and a negative body image. It is not helpful to comment on people’s bodies. Whether a person has an eating disorder or not, don’t comment on their bodies.
If you only want to be around people who fit the “ideal” look and size of Hollywood celebrities, you need to ask God to help you refrain from thinking this way and refrain from being shallow. Even if a person might fit the ideal look of today’s society, they might be miserable and actually struggling with an eating disorder.
In the same way, don’t compliment weight loss and don’t condemn weight gain. You don’t know what caused either of these things. If you compliment weight loss, you might be complimenting the eating disorder your friend is trying to destroy.
If you condemn somebody’s weight gain, you might be condemning someone’s recovery. Be a wise friend and choose to help your friend rather than sending them in a downward spiral.
3. What if I Trigger My Friend?
If you trigger your friend, first acknowledge that you hurt them and apologize. Take into consideration that they might not accept your apology.
More likely than not, if they entrusted you with their recovery and struggles and you triggered them, they might not fully disclose information to you anymore.
It doesn’t mean they hate you, but it can mean that your relationship with that person won’t be the same at least for a while. Recovery is a fragile time for those trying to get better from eating disorders, and we need to do all we can to support their recovery rather than hinder it.
I know during my first and second rounds of recovery that, I struggled with suicidal thoughts at least every other day. I say this not as a sympathy card but to warn you since you are trying to help your friend with an eating disorder.
Those active in eating disorders as well as those who are active in recovery are at risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide.
Remember all of these things as you try to help your friend. There will be highs and lows in your friend’s recovery, but they are relying on you to be there no matter what.
Don’t be the friend who disappears, and don’t be the friend who triggers someone into being active in their eating disorder again.
As someone who has been there, I strongly encourage all people to be careful of what they say to all people. You cannot tell if someone is struggling with an eating disorder by just looking at them. Be nice to everyone and truly treat others how you would want to be treated (Luke 6:31).
Being nice to others doesn’t cost you anything, and in fact, it is what God wants you to do. To insult, to hurt, or to damage someone is to insult, hurt, and damage someone made in God’s image.
Educate yourself and learn all you can to help your friend, whether they are currently struggling with an eating disorder or if they are active in recovery.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Tetiana Soares
Vivian Bricker loves Jesus, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master’s degree in Christian Ministry with a deep academic emphasis in theology. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, reading, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, she is embarking on other adventures.