The information below is an extract from 'First Steps Out of Eating Disorders', written by ABC's Chief Executive Jane Smith and Dr Kate Middleton. To purchase the book, visit our Shop
Many people who develop eating disorders are life’s ‘copers’ – they tend to be very independent and get on with things on their own. Accepting help and support from other people often doesn’t come naturally and might even feel like an admission of some kind of failure.
"I find it hard to rely on other people. I try not to bother other people and mostly I keep myself to myself. I support lots of other people and I don’t want them thinking that they need to be looking after me. But treatment has helped me to realise that my eating disorder developed because it was too much to cope on my own all the time. I know I am going to have to get over this and let people help me – one step at a time."
Letting Others Support You
Letting others help you in order to tackle and eventually overcome your eating disorder is probably the first step you will take on the path to recovery. Of course, building up relationships with medical or therapeutic professionals is invaluable, but so too is having a network of support from others when the weekly or fortnightly sessions with professionals are over. In fact it’s often those times in between sessions - when you are trying to put into practice the advice from the professionals working with you - that people find they need support the most. Loneliness, isolation, low mood and depression and issues with self-worth are common features of an eating disorder and you may well be someone who struggles to think of yourself in a good light or to remain motivated and on course. Having someone to remind you of your good qualities, someone who likes you and loves you despite your eating problems, and who reminds you that you can get through this and recover, is invaluable.
Over to you: Who is there who you could call on?
The first step in getting support from other people is knowing who you could ask. Think about the people in your life at the moment who might be able to help you. They might be people who could answer your questions or who would give you space to talk – perhaps people who are older than you such as relatives, youth leaders, teachers, etc. Or they might be people more ‘on your level’ – people you would spend time with and whose company you enjoy. You might think that right now you couldn’t ask some of them for support, but don’t let that rule them out – instead write a list of possible people and try to avoid ruling them out before you have even written them down!
Next, look over your list and choose a few people who you know you can really rely on. Can you do anything to enable them to support you? Maybe you need to tell them what is going on and admit that you have a problem you are struggling to overcome? Could you arrange to meet somewhere so you have space to talk? You might want to try to arrange a regular get-together with someone, so that you know you have predictable space where you can talk things through. Remember, you’re not looking for a bunch of amateur therapists! These people are friends – some of them may provide more than others in the way of advice, but the main thing is connecting with them and sharing something of yourself and your journey.
When you have decided on a few people, write down their names and then think about what actions you need to take in order to start to build on this supportive relationship. Do you need to arrange a coffee with them? Or perhaps write them an email? Note down anything that you plan to do in order to develop this friendship – this is the first step in your plan to start to build on your support networks.
For those caring – what can you do?
There’s one common question that those supporting sufferers as they work towards recovery often ask and it’s this: ‘But what can I do?’ Watching an eating disorder from the outside is very hard and can bring up all kind of emotions like despair, anxiety, frustration, and even anger that this person who you love is going through something so hard and cannot see themselves the way you see them.
Don’t forget how important simple practical support can be. This might involve driving to appointments, collecting prescriptions, helping with shopping (which can be a long and difficult task during early recovery in particular), being with them during mealtimes or when challenging things or accomplishing goals like eating out. You can also help the person you are supporting to keep up a social life that does not revolve around the eating disorder – because they may have become quite isolated.
Who are you?
Perhaps the most important thing to ask yourself when caring for someone else is what your role is and your relationship to the sufferer? Who you are in relation to them makes a big difference in how you will be able to support them. Think about your role and the practical implications it has. Sometimes the people who might seem to be in the perfect position to help someone are actually too close and find it very difficult to bring up the subject of what is going on. Particularly very close relationships – for example if it is your partner or spouse who is struggling – can very easily become dominated by the eating disorder, and you may want to try to keep your relationship separate from what is going on. Don’t be afraid to admit the natural limits to your role – whatever it is – and think about who else might be in a good place to offer support in a way that is different from yours.
I am really worried about my friend. Should I say anything?
This can be a tricky position to be in and how much you are able to do will depend on how close you are to the sufferer. You may even have guessed that there is a problem rather than being told. If this is the case then respect their privacy and resist the temptation to confront them. If you do they will most likely react defensively and with fear and you will have lost the opportunity to help. Instead support them by being a friend. Meet up with them and enjoy shared interests. Where you can, talk to them about their life and how they are feeling generally. Give them time and space so that if they want to, they can share more of what they are feeling.
Of course, if you are very concerned, and if you feel that it is possible no one else knows, you may have to talk to them about their eating disorder, but be very gentle and non-confrontational. You might want to try writing them a letter or card rather than talking face to face, and then invite them to talk to you if they want to. Help them to take steps such as seeing their doctor, and be there for them throughout treatment – whatever the outcome. Beware of well-meaning offers that you cannot keep up, like inviting them to live with you or to eat every meal with you. Remember that recovery is a long road and might involve many ups and downs – be prepared to see it through with them and don’t offer anything that you might not be able to keep up.
Above all though, just be a friend. For someone with an eating disorder, having someone who will listen without trying to advise or ‘fix’ them is often one of the most important means of support.