Learn about their disorder
No matter where your friend is on their recovery journey, learning more about what they're going through is a helpful first step before approaching them.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses. They can manifest in many different ways and are often accompanied by a host of less-obvious symptoms that may seriously impact your friend's physical, emotional, and mental health.
If you have an idea of which eating disorder you think your friend may be struggling with, you can begin researching that topic in particular. If not, you can read more about eating disorders in general or a few you think may most likely be affecting your friend.
Looking into the prevalent myths and hard truths about eating disorders can help you understand what your friend is really going through. This can help you empathize with them, ask them more helpful questions, or understand the type of help they may need.
Talk to them
Talking to a friend struggling with an eating disorder can be tricky. The topic is extremely sensitive, and discussing it may make them particularly upset or defensive.
If this is the first time you're broaching the subject with your friend, you may want to:
- Agree on a time and place to talk. Somewhere quiet and private is best. Think of times when your friend won't be distracted by other obligations. This will all help ensure your words are heard, and your friend will be more likely to be open to what you have to say.
- Rehearse what you want to say. When discussing something this sensitive, it can be easy to be overwhelmed by emotions and say something you don't mean. Practicing what you want to say will help the conversation run more smoothly.
- Use "I" statements. Something like, "I have noticed you aren't eating meals with us anymore," helps keep the conversation observational and steers it away from blaming your friend for their actions. This is opposed to statements like, "You're not eating enough," which can be perceived as inflammatory and make your friend feel attacked.
- Ask open-ended questions: Examples include "How long have you been feeling this way," or "How do you feel?" But it's equally important to keep an open mind about your friend's answer.
- Prepare yourself for a bad reaction: Your friend may have any number of reactions to this conversation. They may feel angry or defensive that you brought up the topic and lash out at you. On the other hand, they may feel embarrassed and shut down completely.
The important thing is not to be discouraged by any reaction to this conversation. Remember all you learned about what your friend is going through to keep things in perspective. Take a breath, or walk away if you have to. Then, regroup, and try again.
Show them support
Once you've let your friend know your concerns, you must continue opening yourself up as a source of support. Cultivating the type of relationship where your friend feels safe honestly expressing themselves is key.
To help build and maintain this type of rapport, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be honest. Don't hold back any concerns you may be having for your friend at any point in their recovery. Likewise, don't be shy to let them know how proud or happy you may feel for their progress. However, keep in mind that not everyone recovering from an eating disorder is OK with comments about their progress, so it may be best to ask about boundaries and triggers.
- Be caring. Watching a friend struggle with an eating disorder is extraordinarily difficult. Try not to let your frustrations leak into the conversation. Remember everything they're going through and all the hard work they're putting in, and approach these conversations from a place of genuine care for your friend's well-being. It's important to remember that they're dealing with difficult emotions.
- Remove the stigma. Remind your friend, if you need to, that there's no shame in struggling with an eating disorder or talking honestly about that struggle. Remind them that you're their friend no matter what.
- Be there. What sounds like the most straightforward concept may be the most important. Responding to their calls or messages, listening to your friend, or even just sitting next to them in a difficult time can make a huge difference in their recovery.
Again, it's important to remember that recovery is an ongoing process and rarely represents a straight line. Keeping yourself open to your friend can provide a crucial point of stability along a difficult journey.
Actively help them
Discerning when or how to incorporate yourself into your friend's recovery journey actively can be tricky. Some people with eating disorders may want more help than others or feel more or less ready to receive outside suggestions.
In general, you'll have to use your best discretion to decide when to take these steps, but a few ways to more proactively help a friend with an eating disorder include:
- Reaching out. Your friend shouldn't always have to be the one to contact you. Keep up with them and check in regularly to remind them they're loved and see how they're doing.
- Helping them find professional help. Many people struggling with eating disorders may feel overwhelmed—or outright uninterested—by the idea of seeking help. As a friend, you can help encourage them otherwise. If the process of accessing treatment feels too tricky and complicated, offer to help them research some eating disorder treatment programs or providers or look into insurance information or other burdensome tasks that may present roadblocks.
- Find support services and groups for them. People with eating disorders deserve support, whether in the form of a friend or from a group of others struggling with similar body image or mental health disorders. Several eating disorder support groups are available for your friend online and in person.
- Spending time with them. No matter where your friend is on their recovery journey, they will likely appreciate knowing they're not alone. If they're open to spending time with a friend, it can be incredibly helpful to not just be there for them but with them.
If your friend seems resistant to seek treatment, you may want to consult a family member or other friends to more strongly encourage them to seek support. However, it is also important to respect your friend's autonomy and privacy, so make decisions to involve others carefully and ideally discuss this with your friend first if possible.
Take care of yourself
Regardless of how much you want to help a friend with an eating disorder, it's important to remember that you can't pour from an empty cup.
Equally important as supporting them is keeping your own well-being in mind. Helping someone struggling with something this serious can take a lot out of you mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Make sure you meet your physical and emotional needs and do not become burnt out by overextending yourself. You can work with your friend and other trusted individuals in their life to establish a care network so that they aren't relying solely on one person for support. Even as you offer time and support to your friend as they go through their recovery process, remember that you need and deserve time and care for yourself too.
Regardless, it's important to remember that, as much as you may want your friend to get better, the journey toward recovery is ultimately theirs to take. So if your friend doesn't feel ready to commit to recovery or starts slipping after a period of progress, it's important not to blame yourself. The process may be long, with twists and turns and even setbacks, but your support will be a big help to them, no matter where they are on the road to recovery.