Nothing my friends or family could say throughout my recovery felt very helpful. My eating disorder immediately dismissed any comment that was said with sincerely supportive intentions. It can be extremely difficult for our supporters to understand what is “right” versus what is “wrong” to say to their loved one experiencing anorexia recovery. While it’s unreasonable to expect perfection from our supporters, it is perfectly reasonable to keep having conversations regarding triggering statements AND what comments would be helpful instead.
“I would have never known that upset you. I am so sorry.” – My mom, after I recovered. And after I was finally able to articulate what I needed from her throughout recovery.
She was at a loss of what to say, what to do, the right questions to ask, how to help. Occasionally, I was good at telling her when I was hurt or when my anorexic side was triggered by her comments. However, I was always NOT good at telling her what she could have said instead.
Never ask your loved one “why?”
When you ask us WHY, you ignore that the eating disorder is an extremely complex mental illness that is a result of factors outside of our awareness (biological factors, for example). This makes us feel like becoming anorexic (and experiencing all of the painful consequences from it) was something we consciously chose for ourselves.
ASK US THIS INSTEAD: “what is this like for you?” This shows us that you want to learn more in an empathic way. It shows that you’re willing to place yourself in our position, which we understand isn’t an easy or an enjoyable one. We feel less alone when you stop asking why, and start asking us about our experience.
Never tell us to just eat a burger
This ignores the fact that anorexia is so much more than the food. This minimizes any emotional distress we are currently experiencing, and makes us feel like you are attempting to give us an easy solution rather than sticking with us through the long haul. And that’s exactly what it is: recovery is a process. A burger every night for dinner certainly won’t make it go any faster.
ASK US THIS INSTEAD: “how do you want to challenge yourself this week?” More often than not, our challenge will involve food. However, the wording of the statement has a less direct focus on food. You’re placing the option in our hands as to how we want to challenge ourselves, or if we are going to at all. A perfect follow-up statement if your loved one says they would actually like to challenge themselves with pizza: “I would love to eat pizza with you.”
Never tell us we would look better with more weight on us
Again, this minimizes the emotional component to the disorder by strictly focusing on appearance. Anything appearance-related: AVOID AT ALL COSTS. I cannot make my point more clear. Anorexia strips away our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Any comments, even if they are meant to be positive, will not help if we do not personally believe them. Even if we are near a healthy weight, please do not tell us we are looking great. We will feel like we can “stop” our recovery at that point, even if we still may have a few more months of weight restoration to go. Please do not tell us to simply gain more weight. If it was that easy, we would have a long time ago and saved ourselves the visit to a treatment facility.
SAY THIS INSTEAD: “you have a great deal of life in you, I can’t wait to see how much more life you have when you are recovered.” This makes us feel like a human being. This can hopefully give us something to look forward to. This will remind us to keep progressing just to discover what we can possibly become without anorexia.
Never tell us what we need to do
Do not tell me I need to talk to a therapist. Do not tell me I need to eat my meal. Do not tell me what I need, because during the initial points in recovery, I didn’t even know what I needed! This creates pressure to progress quicker than we may be ready to. This makes us feel like we are on a time schedule of “getting better,” which may ignore a lot of the anorexia-fueling aspects that work to maintain our disorder. When these are ignored, you better expect that they will surface later and will have to still be dealt with if you want to achieve long-lasting recovery. When you tell us what we need to do, you’re assuming what we need in the moment. When you tell us what we need to do, it feels like our experiences can be generalized (and they most definitely cannot be).
SAY THIS INSTEAD: “what do you need from me right now?” You’re letting us be the educators. You are also helping us develop a greater sense of self-awareness and ability to self-advocate simply by asking us what we specifically need. Whether or not we answer, by merely asking you have already planted the question in our head, which automatically forces us to think about our needs.
Never NOT say anything at all
Does that sentence even make grammatical sense? Let’s just go with it. Silence ignores the seriousness of the disorder. Most of the time, all we (or I) really need is just to talk. Silence is appropriate when you’re listening to our experiences, listening to the way we describe our emotions, or hearing fully what it is that we need. By remaining silent when your loved one is clearly seeking support, you create the feeling that they are a burden and that the eating disorder itself is not something to be concerned with.
SAY THIS INSTEAD: “I’m proud of you for telling me about your anorexia. That had to be so hard for you.” The conversation will continue from here. The main point is to continue having the conversation about your loved one’s recovery. Over, and over, and over again. This is an ongoing conversation. It may feel exhausting at times. It will most definitely feel frustrating. The last thing your loved one needs is to feel that they are being silenced, which automatically makes their experiences feel reduced to something that is not worth being talked about. You and your experiences are always worth the conversation.