How To Support Someone With An Eating Disorder

This is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic counseling. I am only sharing from my own personal experience about things people did (or didn’t do) that helped me on the path to recovery, and also things I wish they had known to do, that I couldn’t express or ask for myself at the time.


Many of you have already heard or read my story, but I’ll provide a brief synopsis here for any newcomers. When I left for college in August of 1991, I traveled some 400 miles from my hometown in Connecticut to Charlottesville, Virginia. I had only visited the campus on one previous occasion as a junior in high school. When I arrived, I knew not one single person. And – to top it off, I was a walk-on player for the university field hockey team, a Division I program. As a walk-on, you have to earn your spot. There is no financial support or guaranteed position. I remember the day my parents and sisters dropped me off at the athletic hall for my first team meeting, gave me hugs and wished me luck, and then drove off. Deep breath. On my own. Not a clue.


I thought I was up to the task, and for a while, I kept afloat and did a decent job keeping pace with school, hockey, and social events. But as time went on, I encountered one challenge after another: a terribly mis-matched roommate situation, a ridiculously full course-load, feeling under-qualified and out of place on the hockey team (everyone else knew someone, or had a sister on the team), feeling inconsequential at this HUGE university, loneliness, homesickness, the Freshman 15, and some significant family-related stress. All these things combined led me to look for something I could control. The calorie-counting habits and exercise obsession started off fairly benign, but quickly exploded into something that became more than I could manage. Anorexia took over. Bulimia came knocking. Exercise was my drug of choice. And I became someone I didn’t recognize or even like.


Maybe you know someone like that. Or maybe it was, or is, you. I realize every individual is unique, and what works for one may not work for another, but here are some things that benefited me the most:


1 – Keep the obvious to yourself. Hearing someone tell me I was “so thin” or “not eating enough” made me want to crawl into a hole and die. I knew I had a problem but didn’t want anyone else to draw attention to it. I was embarrassed at who I’d become and by the habits that enslaved me. As best as you can, treat the individual and speak to her or him like a healthy, well-functioning person.


2 – Invite them to do things that don’t involve food. When you have an eating disorder, food is incredibly complicated. Food plus social interaction is really asking a lot. Instead of a lunch date, suggest a walk, maybe a movie (bypass drinks and popcorn), or maybe meet at the bookstore. Anything but food, if you can help it.


3 – When food is involved, set a healthy example. I clearly recall a period of time when I did not have the faintest idea what normal was. I no longer felt hunger, and I never felt full. I literally had to re-learn the whole process of nourishing my body with food. What does a normal meal look like? What portion size is normal? How often should I be eating? What does healthy look like? I realize it’s near impossible to eat or enjoy a meal like a “normal person” when your friend picks and pokes at her food, pushes it around her plate, drinks 3 glasses of water and then declares herself stuffed, but do the very best you can. Keep things light and expectations low.


4 – Be patient and understanding. Continue to include them in as many events as you can, even if you know they will decline the invitation. Express regret that they can’t be there, and make a point of saying something to the effect of, “Maybe the next time then?” And then, keep inviting. Chronic isolation is something to be avoided.


5 – When the time is right, invite a conversation. Watch and listen carefully for a sign that the individual is ready to talk about what’s going on. If he or she initiates the conversation, do a lot of listening, some gentle questioning, and remain as steady emotionally as you can be. Resist reacting in a way that would suggest astonishment or disgust. Just be that neutral sounding board that allows them to work through the situation. I guarantee their story has a lot of layers. Just help them peel back the first one.


6 – Encourage them to seek help. Help may or may not come in the form of a professional. It didn’t for me. I opted to go it alone, and I’m convinced that my stubbornness simply prolonged the misery. Looking back, I think I would have benefited most from a guided support group of others facing the same kind of struggle. Just people to talk to, in a controlled and healthy environment, who understood what I was doing and the thoughts I was having. You could be the person to help your friend find the doctor, therapist, or support group they need most.


I hope this has helped someone in some way. I know it’s helped me just to reflect for a bit and write it all down. Next I’ll be working on a similar post from the perspective of the person with the eating disorder, focusing on what he or she can do to return to a state of good health. As always, I invite your feedback.