Tracy Narins Welchoff, Ph.D.
Before approaching someone you suspect has an eating disorder, it is important that you educate yourself so as to be in the best position to help. This minimizes the chances of accidentally embarrassing or angering the person or, even worse, pushing him or her away. Eating disorders are much more complicated that simply being food and weight issues. Rather, they are a complex set of disorders can be made up of psychological, social, family, and biological factors. An eating disorder is not deliberate, even if it started out with an intention to diet. An eating disorder can start as a diet, but it becomes whipped into an out-of-control frenzy by these underlying issues and take on a life of its own.
When approaching your loved one, here are a few things to keep in mind:
• Avoid talking about food, weight, or appearance. Those are not the real issues.
• Assure them that they are not alone and that you love them and want to help in any way that you can.
• Encourage them to seek help and offer to facilitate this process.
• Never try to force them to eat.
• Do not blame the individual and do not get angry with them .
• Acknowledge the intense anxiety that is involved in the eating disorder. Often someone does not want to change his or her behavior but is willing to get help for the associated anxiety. This is a start.
• Be patient, recovery takes time.
• Mention your concern, but do not focus on your own feelings. This is not about you. Focusing on your own anger, anxiety, or stress will only cause guilt (but not change).
• Do not make mealtimes a battleground
• Listen, but do not be quick to give opinions and advice.
• Do not take on the role of a therapist.
• The person may deny the problem at first. Don’t argue, just emphasize that you care.
• Watching someone you care about suffering both physically and emotionally is frightening, frustrating, and confusing. No matter how concerned you are, you cannot force someone to accept help.
• Be careful what you say to the person who is suffering. Careless remarks will cause further pain, guilt, and withdrawal.
If you still aren’t sure how to proceed, don’t hesitate to consult with a professional.
Tracy Narins Welchoff, Ph.D.
Supporting a loved one through an eating disorder requires a great deal of time, energy, thought, and patience. However, it is important to remember that when a loved one is struggling, friends and family struggle too. It is hard to see someone you care about in psychological distress, at medical risk, and having difficulty functioning without being in a state of stress oneself. Even with the proper information, a positive attitude, and unconditional love, caregivers are likely to show signs of chronic stress if they do not pay adequate attention to their own well-being. With that said, here are suggestions to enhance caregiver self-care:
1. Do not feel guilty engaging in self-care while your loved-one struggles with a serious illness. It requires a lot of strength to be supportive, and by taking care of yourself in the process, you are increasing your ability to be helpful. If you collapse from stress and exhaustion, no one benefits.
2. It is important to have someone that YOU can talk to about your own stress. This is a hard time for you as well, and you need support. This may be your best friend, a trusted relative, or a therapist. Before talking to others, clear this with your loved one as s/he should have a say as to who knows about the eating disorder. If talking to a therapist seems like a good choice, talk to your own therapist so that your loved one’s therapist can focus on his/ her treatment goals rather than yours.
3. Educate yourself about symptoms, triggers specific to your loved one, and the treatment approach being used. This will allow you to be consistent with the treatment team and not give mixed messages that caused your loved one to have to “choose” who to listen to.
4. Take breaks from caregiving to recharge your batteries. Schedule time for yourself, even briefly, to clear your mind of problems. Take a bath, knit a scarf, watch a funny movie, go for a walk- anything you enjoy that will help you clear your head and return with fresh energy to be supportive.
5. Recognize your limits. You can support, listen, encourage, hug, etc., but YOU CAN”T FIX THIS. Ask your loved one what you can do to help, and then work on accepting what you cannot change.
6. Let go of feeling guilty for being angry, frustrated, disappointed, or having urges to give up. You are human, and this is difficult. Acknowledge your feelings, talk it out, write in a journal, or just plain scream when no one is around. Your feelings are normal because you CARE.
7. Pay proper attention to your own stresses and concerns. If you are having problems at work for example, don’t neglect this because the eating disorder is “more serious”. Your life is important too, and it is okay to reserve some of your time to keep it on track.
8. Eat, sleep, exercise, relax, and engage in self-care. You need to take care of YOU, no matter how selfish this may feel. Recovery from an eating disorder requires learning self-care, so be a good role model!
9. Find ways to interact with your loved one that have nothing to do with eating disorders or recovery. Go to a movie, visit a bookstore, play a game, or do whatever you used to do before the eating disorder invaded your relationship. If s/he is not healthy enough to participate in the “usual” activities (e.g. exercise), challenge yourself to find new ways to have fun together.
10. Reach out to other caregivers. It is healing for your loved one to connect with others going through the same thing, and it is important for you as well.
Please remember that your stress is real and that you are not alone. If these suggestions seem impossible or you don’t know where to begin, professional help is available.