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How To (Really) Talk To A Friend With An Eating Disorder, From A Recovered Anorexic-Bulimic

Talking to a friend with an eating disorder

She heads to the bathroom after every meal. You notice that he’s always “too busy to eat.” He or she doesn’t want to do the things that used to make him or her happy. You honestly didn’t think it would happen. Somehow, someway, one of the people you love most in the world might have developed an eating disorder — and you’ve never felt more hopeless.

More than anything, you just want to help. Sometimes, however, that “help” might come off wrong. As someone who suffered from anorexia and bulimia as a teenager, I know how confusing of a situation it is. The thing is, it’s not just confusing for the person suffering, but for everyone involved. The cold, hard, scary truth is that eating disorders don’t just affect the person counting calories or purging food. They affect family, friends, and loved ones as well. The problem is, while you’re watching your friend go through this, you have no idea what to say. Sure, you’ve done research, but everything seems so clinical. You don’t want to spout off statistics or make your friend feel uncomfortable. You don’t want to have an intervention or make your friend feel cornered. You don’t want to make him or her feel more alone than he or she already does. But unfortunately, unless you’ve personally suffered, it can be easy to say the wrong thing.

So, I’ve decided to break it down. Here are some things you should and shouldn’t say. Hopefully, with this information, you can start a conversation that is genuine, real, and accomplishes good. I know it might be hard, but this could be the first step needed to help your friend recover and become healthy, and even save his or her life.

Things That Could Help

  1. Hey, I’ve noticed that your eating habits have changed. I’m sort of starting to get worried.
    Full disclosure: Your friend might get defensive. It can feel shameful and embarrassing to be called out. Let your friend know that you’ve noticed changes without making him or her feel cornered. While you don’t want your friend to feel attacked, you do want him or her to know that it isn’t unnoticed, and that you’re concerned. 
  2. I’m always here for you.
    Honestly, just showing that you’re there makes all the difference in the world. Sometimes one of the hardest things for someone with a disorder to do is to speak up. By letting your friend know that you’re there to talk to, no matter what, you’re opening a dialog that can go a very long way. 
  3. Last week when you went to the bathroom after dinner, it sounded like you were sick, and this morning it happened again. I’m concerned.
    I’m going to be honest, I hated hearing this. It made me feel upset and “found out.” But I needed to hear it. By realizing that other people knew, and that my actions were hurting them, I began to realize that I couldn’t continue hurting the people I loved. Plus, by providing a specific example, it’s harder for your friend to avoid the topic or brush it aside.
  4. I know it might be a sensitive topic, but I love you and I’m always here for you to talk to.
    Help get the conversation going. Let him or her know that it’s okay to talk to you. When your friend does open up, be sure to let him or her speak. Avoid judgement and control your responses. Don’t make your friend regret talking to you by telling this person that he or she is gross, crazy, or “out of control.” Listen and ask kind, calm questions.
  5. Listen, I love you so much. Can we talk? I’m getting really worried and I want to make sure you’re okay. I would be devastated if anything happened to you.
    Show your concern, and let your friend know that this is affecting you, too. 
  6. I want to help you any way I can. And I want you to be healthy. I’ve noticed that you seem really concerned about your weight lately. Would you consider going to a doctor or a nutritionist? I’ll even go with you. I just want to make sure you’re managing your weight the best way possible.
    Show that you care about what your friend cares about: weight, food, and control. By offering to go with your friend somewhere and being his or her support, you can help ensure that your friend takes the steps needed to get help.

Things That 100 Percent Won’t Help

  1. You’re not fat.
    The thing is, your friend doesn’t see what you see. No matter how many times you insist that he or she is or isn’t something, it wont matter. It will only make your friend feel angry, misunderstood, and alone.
  2. You’re so skinny.
    Again, that doesn’t matter. Stay away from “you” statements and try to stick to “I” statements, such as, “I feel like you’ve been losing a lot of weight, quickly. I want to make sure everything is okay and you’re being healthy.” See the difference?
  3. You’re killing yourself.
    And you’re an asshole. No, no, no, no, no.
  4. Just eat, it’s not a big deal.
    But it is a big deal. This person might literally not be able to. It can be hard to grasp from the outside, but he or she might be repulsed by food. Or the thought of keeping food down. Or at the thought of putting food down. No matter what it is, it is a big deal, so don’t underplay it just because you don’t understand it.
  5. You need to stop.
    Your friend doesn’t agree. And by saying that, you’re making him or her feel like you’re taking away control. 

It might be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do, but opening up the dialog with a suffering friend could make all of the difference. Know that you’re not alone in this, and if you need more guidance, contact a healthcare professional. Together, we can make a difference. By standing by each other, supporting each other, and helping each other, we can be the change. Someday, we’ll all know that beauty isn’t determined by the number on the scale, the definition in your abs, or the muscle on your body. It’s the way you laugh at the most inappropriate times, the way you smile when you hear your favorite song, and the look on your face when you do something you truly love. That’s beauty. But until we’re all on the same page, it’s your job, as a friend, to pick up your loved ones when their wings have trouble remembering how to fly. #HealthyIsHot

If you (or someone you know) are struggling with an eating disorder, call (630)-577-1330, email anadhelp@anad.org, or visit the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders website and helpline for more information.

To take a confidential, eating disorder screening created by the National Eating Disorders Association, click here.

Image via Shutterstock

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Rachel Varina

(yeahokaywhat) Aspiring to be the next Tina Fey, Rachel spends her free time doing nothing to reach that goal. While judging people based on how they use "they're" vs. "there" on social media, she likes eating buffalo chicken dip, watching other people's Netflix, and wearing sweatpants way more than is socially acceptable.

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