80% of people with eating disorders recover (with help). Here’s what you can do if someone you love is struggling.
Like that dude you drunk-texted one time who won’t lose your number, eating disorders don’t just go away on their own.
You work and work and slowly get better and sometimes get worse before you get better again, and then one day you notice that you ate a donut and the world didn’t end.
If someone you love is currently going through eating disorder hell, remember this: Recovery isn’t easy or fun, but it is possible and it is worth it. You can’t recover for someone, but there are steps you can take to support them through the process.
Here’s what you can do.
Recovery 101: Going Through It
There’s a popular children’s song called “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” about (spoilers) some people going on a bear hunt together and encountering several obstacles on their path.
Uh-oh! A river, a cold, deep river.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
We’ve got to go through it!
Like a river in your path, you can’t go over or under an eating disorder – you have to go (you guessed it) through it. But getting through it is easier with someone by your side.
When I was struggling with an eating disorder, I was lucky enough to have a best friend who, admittedly, had no idea what she was doing but was brave and patient enough to stick it out with me. It wasn’t easy for her, and it isn’t easy for anyone trying to help someone they love through an eating disorder.
Why Is Eating Disorder Recovery So Hard?
Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. So no pressure there. And people dealing with eating disorders are typically pretty quiet about it. When you have an eating disorder, it becomes all you have and all you are. Giving up your secret means risking losing your security blanket, your identity, and your life’s purpose. So your ride-or-die might not be super enthusiastic about your help.
But picture them a year or ten years from now, eating a donut or some tacos or pad thai, not worrying about the number of calories they’re eating or what they’ll have to do to “work it off,” but, just, you know, living.
Recovery isn’t a gift you can give someone, but you can pitch in a few bucks.
5 Ways to Support Someone with an Eating Disorder
The cult joke about becoming a therapist is that it takes years of school to learn these two phrases: “How does that make you feel?” and “Hm…” Obviously, therapists do a lot more than that. But here’s the takeaway: Listen, first.
Nothing you can say will be as meaningful or helpful as the simple action of actively and empathetically listening to someone who’s struggling.
What does that look like in practice?
If someone does the hard work of letting you know that they’re struggling, sit back and let them take the lead. Ask them questions. Learn. Try this phrase: “What do you need from me right now?”
If you care about someone, it’s natural to want to solve their problems for them. Especially when the “solution” seems as simple as, well, maybe you could just stop throwing up after meals? Trust your friend’s experience – if getting better were actually that easy, they would have done it already.
Don’t worry about trying to fix their life for them. Don’t try to develop a treatment program for them based on a midnight google search. Just listen and see where it leads you.
2| Be a Friend First
Your friend’s eating disorder might feel like a third wheel when you hang out, but don’t let it take over your friendship. Feel free to check in with your friend about how they’re doing. Let them vent or ask for support when they need it. But it’s important to remember that your friend is a person who happens to be dealing with an eating disorder. They don’t need you to be their therapist – they need you to be a friend.
The best thing you can do for someone struggling with an eating disorder (or any other mental illness) is this: Treat them like a person, not a patient.
Talk about the same stuff you’ve always talked about – that podcast you both love, the trip you’re hoping to take soon, whatever. See if they’re up for the activities you used to like to do together or find other ways to spend time together while they work on their recovery.
3| Be Realistic
TV shows like to pretend that eating disorders (and the people who have them) are cute little projects for martyrs to take on. Oh and according to television, eating disorders can be developed and cured within twenty-five minutes. On TV, there’s always a magic word that fixes everything and saves the girl from herself (because men never develop eating disorders on TV). Or the person with the eating disorder has a rock-bottom experience, sees the light, and snaps out of it.
Eating disorder recovery in the real world is 100% possible, but there’s no quick and simple fix.
80% of people seeking treatment for eating disorders do recover, but it can take seven to ten years to get there (and sometimes longer). So, statistically speaking, your friend will probably be dealing with this for a while.
One of the best things you can do to support them is to take the pressure off. Don’t expect a clean-cut recovery within the week (or month, or year), but do what you can to help make the process a little bit easier. Be present. Celebrate the small successes – but only if your friend brings them up first.
BTW, Here’s What Not To Say To Someone in ED Recovery
Some of the worst things to hear during eating disorder recovery are those well-meaning statements from friends and family, like, “You look so healthy!” or, “Wow, you cleared your plate last night!” Just don’t. In general, avoid commenting on someone’s weight or food intake, even if you mean it in a positive way. You can still congratulate them for setting up a meeting with a therapist, or making plans to visit a support group, or whatever steps they’re taking to get better, as long as you keep your thoughts about their food intake and body to yourself.
It’s worth saying again: Recovery is working and working and getting better, and sometimes getting worse, until one day you notice that things are, somehow, finally better. It won’t be quick or easy, but it will be worth it.
4| Treat Their Triggers Like a Bad Ex
For years, I would relapse pretty much anytime someone mentioned how little they had eaten that day or how they had lost weight recently. “I’ve only had a coffee and half a yogurt today” would turn into a challenge to eat less than they had.
The food I had already eaten that day (you know, for survival and whatnot) would transform into a boulder in my stomach, a reminder that I had failed (at starving myself to death), and I would get back on the wagon (to disordered eating and psychological pain). That other person – the one thriving on just a coffee and half a yogurt – would promptly forget the conversation ever happened, head out to Starbucks, and grab a latte and a sandwich, never the wiser.
I won’t pretend that triggers are logical, or that our response to them is reasonable, but they are real and they can cause damage.
No one expects you to be perfect when you’re talking to someone who has an eating disorder. But it’s worth it to have a conversation about what someone’s triggers are and try to avoid them while you’re with that person.
Some common triggers for people with eating disorders:
- Comments about food intake, including how much was eaten or the perceived healthfulness of the meal (e.g. “junk food,” “clean eating,” etc.)
- Comments about weight, weight change, or body type
- Comments about the relationship between food and weight (e.g. “bread makes you fat”)
- Nutrition labels on food packaging or nutrition information on restaurant menus
- Clothing labels, scales, measuring tape or anything else that quantifies weight or body fat
People can have all these triggers, some of them, none of them, or something totally different altogether. The best thing you can do is sit down with your friend and have an honest conversation about what words or environments make the recovery process more difficult for them.
Don’t expect to be perfect, but do have the courage to ask them to call you out if you say or do something that makes them uncomfortable. Then try again. Recovery is a learning curve for everyone involved.
5| Be Prepared
I’ll say it again: Your job here is to be a friend. These tips will help you support someone dealing with an eating disorder, but they won’t save their life if they really need professional help. You can’t (and shouldn’t) force someone into treatment.
Frothing at the mouth with helplines or your therapist’s contact information probably won’t win anyone over unless they’ve already decided they want to get help. But you can be ready with the information you need in case they do want to seek help.
Mental Health Helplines + Resources:
NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) Helpline: (800) 931-2237
- Mon-Thurs 9 AM – 9 PM ET, Fri 9 AM – 5 PM
- Text “NEDA” to 741741 for crisis situations
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Available 24/7
NAMI’s Top 25 HelpLine Resources
It’s up to the person struggling to decide if, when, and how to get help (assuming they’re 18+), but knowing where to start – who to call or which website to check out first – can help make the process a little easier for them when they decide they’re ready.
So, Why Choose Recovery?
If you’re reading this, thank you for doing the hard work of trying to help someone who needs you. I was lucky enough to have my best friend wade through the cold, deep river with me, and I’m closing in on four years free from an eating disorder. It’s been four years since I cried over the number of calories in a scoop of ice cream. It’s been four years since I forced myself to throw up after every meal.
More importantly over the past four years, I’ve graduated from college, worked for Disney, adopted a rescue dog, moved out on my own, been promoted (twice), quit my job and found a better one, started a blog, traveled across the country, and fell in love with my life.
And as a little bonus: Every donut over the past four years? Guilt-fucking-free.
I hope this guide helps you feel confident supporting someone through an eating disorder, and I hope you feel hopeful. With help, 80% of people recover from eating disorders. And the struggle is so, so worth it.