A Glamour magazine story featured on MSNBC has raised a question not often discussed here: How do you best support someone who has an eating disorder?
When Tom Cramer’s wife Meg developed anorexia nervosa as an adult mother of two young sons, Cramer admits he didn’t know how to handle her illness.
My arrogance also made me think that I could fix things. As an engineer, I identify an issue and find a solution. “I can handle this,” I told myself. There was, after all, a simple answer: Meg needed to eat more, and I thought I could persuade her to do that.
But as Tom finds, “anorexia does not have an on/off switch.” The more he pushed his wife to change, the more she pushed back, he writes. It would take his wife’s hospitalization before Tom realized the problem was about much more than food. And in order to understand his wife’s illness more, Tom embarked on a week-long experiment to starve himself, with some surprising results.
I was exhausted and irritable; my head ached constantly. I’d lie in bed at night and think, I am so hungry! How does she do it? How can the voice Meg hears be so powerful?
But by day three, I began hearing the voice too: “Come on, you can do it. Don’t give in. You’re better than that.” When I refused food, I had a sense of victory. The longer I resisted, the more powerful I felt. When Meg was admitted to the hospital, I thought that she had failed and allowed this to happen. Now I understood the seduction of the words in her head, how they could override the most basic human survival instincts.
Luckily, Meg Cramer recovered and is now at a healthy weight today, although she says she still struggles with vestiges of anorexia. As Tom aptly sums up, “We don’t say we’re over anorexia, we say we live with it.” In the world of eating disorder recovery, this is a milestone, indeed.
In an article sidebar, Tom Cramer gives some helpful advice (below) for friends and families of loved ones battling an eating disorder:
1. Express your concern without blame. “I must have told Meg a million times, ‘This would all go away if you would just eat,’ ” says Tom. Instead, the Cramers’ therapist, Anita Sinicrope Maier, advises using “I” and not “you” language: “Say, ‘I love you and I am scared I will lose you.’ ”
2. Seek professional help. “I wish I’d called a doctor before Meg wound up in the E.R.,” Tom says. “With the support of an expert, maybe I could have gotten through to her sooner.” Ask your own doctor for a referral or contact The National Eating Disorders Association at 800-931-2237.
3. Show unconditional love and support. Nagging, criticizing, threatening — all of these may just push someone with an eating disorder away. Provide consistent support and understanding, experts agree, and she’ll be more likely to turn to you when she’s ready.
The blog Hungry for Hunger (now accessible by invitation only) posted some stellar advice last November. Read Charlynn’s take on some of the recommendations at Disordered Times. ANRED also has posted helpful do’s and don’ts here.
To this list I would add (from my own experiences):
1. Respect privacy. Be aware of the eating disordered person’s condition and progress, but don’t make it seem as if you’re watching them like a hawk.
2. No one needs a food monitor. Don’t be “helpful” by pointing out which foods are healthier and which aren’t – there are no good foods and bad foods. In fact, don’t make any comments period on what your loved one does or does not eat at all. And never try to force someone to eat. While you may be successful, it may lead the eating disordered person to embark on dangerous compensatory measures to rid themselves of the food.
3. Talk about other things. We are much more their our illnesses, and discussing other things not only helps remind the disordered person that life is more than food and weight, it probably comes as a welcome respite for someone who spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing on these things already.
4. Research the disease and arm yourself with knowledge – it shows the disordered person that you’re genuinely interested and helps you understand their struggles. Join a support group of others struggling with the same issues you are or if one doesn’t exist, start one up.
5. Don’t be patronizing. While people with an eating disorder may not be making rational and healthy decisions due to malnutrition and the disease, they are not stupid or ignorant. Treat them as active participants in their recovery.
6. And most importantly, provide a good role model. Examine your own eating habits – Do you diet constantly? Do you make self-deprecating comments about your body, even in jest? Do you make judgments about others based on how they look or what they eat? None of this is even remotely healthy or encouraging for either yourself or your loved one trying to recover from an eating disorder.
What would you add to this list? How do you best support a loved one struggling with an eating disorder?