How To Help Your Friend With An Eating Disorder Without Being An Ass

How to help a friend with bulimia

Photo: Grimesec/Flickr

Despite spanning 10 years, my eating disorder sometimes feels very far away. Just as with many things, I have tucked it elsewhere to keep myself safe from falling back and potentially worsening the existing consequences it left behind. Still there are days when I remember it clearly, even fondly; after all it was my most reliable friend and confidant for a decade. This was because I made it so, however, not because I didn’t have people who loved me.

In fact, I had numerous wonderful humans who tried to get me to stop binging, purging, and harming myself, but I refused. I refused for a long time–so long that I drove many of them away, but there were plenty who nevertheless helped in my recovery, whether it was by listening, encouraging my abilities, having faith in me, holding my hand in doctor’s offices, or simply believing me. We have gone over the many things you should never say to somebody with an eating disorder, so now, let’s talk about how you should (and should not) go about helping your friend.

1. Believe her.

When people do not take you seriously, it increases the insecurities you already feel. Reaching out to a friend, family member or anybody else is hard; when they believe you and truly try to understand where you’re coming from, it can make all the difference in the world.

And just a note, I will be using female pronouns for this story, but of course there are millions of men in the United States who suffer from eating disorders, so the same advice goes for any gender of friend you have.

2. Ask her what she needs.

She may say “nothing,” but this (A) shows you care about her personal feelings and (B) opens the door for her to come to you for help should she want it, immediately or otherwise.

3. Do not question her illness.

One of the reasons we desperately need more eating disorder narratives besides the thin, white perfectionist’s is because there are still people out there who believe you can’t have an eating disorder–at least, not an effective one–if you’re not skinny. There are women of all races, weights, sizes, abilities, religions, shapes, habits and ages who have eating disorders, and dismissing your friend’s issues just because they don’t fit a narrow mold of what an ED “looks like” will only make her feel worse.

4. Do not comment on what she’s eating.

I cannot tell you how many times multiple exes (and a few friends, too) would make negative comments on what I ate. Examples:

  • “You wouldn’t feel the need to throw up if you didn’t eat so much.”
  • “If you feel fat, you should probably stop drinking so much ginger ale.”
  • “That’s disgusting” (with reference to a quick meal I got because my blood sugar was low after I had avoided eating in front of my ex for an entire day, and when he said this, I immediately regretted eating at all).
  • “It’s so easy to eat healthy, you should do that instead of throwing up.”

Gee, you’re right, I never thought of simply eating healthy and the fact that I binge and purge isn’t remotely related to the manifestation of my PTSD. No, it’s simply because I one day said to myself, “Hey, eating healthy is hard! I should get an illness!”

Believe me, it probably took a fair amount of energy and stress to work up to eating in front of somebody else that day. Don’t make it even harder for her.

5. Also, don’t tell her to “just eat.”

For people with eating disorders, the idea of “just eating” isn’t the same as being hungry, walking to the fridge and consuming food. Instead, the eating consumes you, making it nearly impossible to “just eat” without any emotion attached.

6. Give her attention, but make sure it’s positive.

I had people in my life who thought I “just needed attention.” To be fair, this wasn’t entirely untrue; I did need attention because I was drowning in my illness. I was throwing up blood, causing my body permanent medical problems. I clearly needed some form of attention, but I could not articulate what kind.

The problem with the way a few people dealt with being close to me at the time–though I would never hold it against them, as it was a circumstance they never asked to be in–was the type of attention they would give me. Either they would encourage the disordered behavior, which I simultaneously loved and hated (because I simultaneously loved and hated myself, and saw the disorder as me), or they would yell at me if I admitted to having thrown up. This led to numerous tearful confrontations and, oftentimes, quite a bit of hugging later.

Nobody is built to understand why their loved ones do terrible things to themselves, so I know now not to find any of those people at fault; they just didn’t know how to cope with my frightening, dangerous and erratic behavior. But if you are currently in a situation wherein your friend is sick, don’t yell at her (and obviously don’t encourage her). When you chastise somebody for hurting herself, she feels more guilt–and that guilt leads to more disordered behavior.

Instead, sit down and talk to her. Ask her questions. As her to explain her feelings to you and listen. Which brings me to my next point…

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    • Lindsey Conklin

      this is really helpful. it’s hard to know what to do/how to approach such a sensitive subject and #11 is incredibly important too. I know a bunch of stories where it became a competition.

    • Misenhammer

      A lot of these rules also go for those w food addictions, an ED that I see represented basically nowhere (not to single this article out, I do mean essentially nowhere, anywhere there are ED talks). Those of us who have problems overeating often feel excluded from the ED conversation, as if our problems aren’t as real as those with problems undereating. I often get the sense that people feel soooo bad for those struggling with anorexia and bulimia, but for those of us w food addictions, its passed off as a matter of willpower. I oscillated between anorexia and bulemia for a while as a solution to my overeating problem, actually, and people were vastly more sympathetic during that time. I feel like all three are valid ED’s and the overeating was def my most prevalent problem. It is just as painful to be told “just stop overeating,” as if it were that simple. Just a thought.

      • Samantha Escobar

        Oh man, that is an excellent point. You are absolutely right and I feel like I should have definitely included that even though I certainly consider it an eating disorder and a serious illness. :( Thanks for pointing that out to me, f’real.

      • Misenhammer

        No problem! And just so you know, this list is really great and I only said anything at all because I KNOW thegloss cares about conscientious writing and would never exclude a group on purpose, and also I felt you specifically would understand my feelings (which you did, very kindly). If I thought you were just another unsympathetic b-hole (totes reading Bossypants again), I wouldn’t have even said anything, so… Thanks for helping create an environment where I felt comfortable speaking my mind :)

    • Kelly

      I’m a recovering anorexic and I fully expected this to be a bullshit list of all the crap people said and did to “help” me.

      I’m happy to admit i was wrong. This is great advice. Thank you for writing it. I’m sure it will help people.

    • regressionista

      Critically important topic. But I have to say that this article is uncannily similar to an article published on another website that showed up in my newsfeed earlier this week…

      • Samantha Escobar

        Huh! That is an interesting piece and I didn’t see it last year. I do feel I should point out that she had something 4 bullet points, though, whereas mine is 1800 words and takes up 14. Not to sound like a jerk, but while the concept is similar, I would not consider them to be uncannily so.

    • Adassai

      Why the female pronouns? Men have eating disorders, too. It’s incredibly easy to use the singular ‘they’.