Trigger warning: This blog talks about eating disorders and disordered eating.
Eating disorders have long been a rather taboo topic, and so it often means that when faced with one, few know how to navigate it.
It is also common for the person with the eating disorder to be hesitant about receiving help. This could be for a multitude of reasons — some believe that they do not need help and are in fact not sick, others just do not want help.
There is a reason for eating disorders having the highest mortality rate amongst mental illnesses, it is a dangerous and wicked illness that thrives off of the comfort it provides its sufferers.
When I was in eating disorder recovery between, 2018 and 2019, I believed both of those things: I simultaneously believed that I wasn’t sick at all and did not warrant help, yet, also knew deep down that I was sick, but wanted to stay as such. It seemed easier than recovery.
I am happy and grateful to be able to say that I did recover from my eating disorder and was officially discharged from care in the summer of 2019. But it wasn’t an easy road, and recovery is certainly never linear. One thing I am certain of, however, is that I would not have been able to do it without the support of friends and family around me. I am, and always will be, eternally grateful to the people who stood by me at the hardest times.
Before I list some of the ways in which I felt best supported, I want to disclaim that recovery looks different for everyone, therefore it is unlikely that these will resonate with all. Everyone’s journey is different and that’s okay.
The balance between comfort and firmness
I recognise this may sound like the criteria for finding a new sofa, but let me explain: My parents were with me during mealtimes, which could take up to 3 hours to get through, and they managed to find a way to both comfort me during my rollercoaster of anger and sadness, whilst also not letting me ‘negotiate’ my meal.
At the beginning of my recovery I use to bargain, it would often look something like this: “I’ll eat all the blueberries if you let me skip the toast” or “if you remove one filling in my sandwich, I’ll eat all of it”. It was a method of pseudo-recovery and a way for the eating disorder to remain in control. Rather than giving into my (and the eating disorder’s) demands, my parents would recognise why I was feeling upset and angry, but would not budge on my meal plan. Rather than making me see recovery as me vs them (as my eating disorder led me to believe), they showed me that it was in fact me and them vs the eating disorder. Of course, it was difficult for me to fulfil my meal plan requirements, especially at the beginning, but it would have been a lot harder to fully recover if I knew I held bargaining power over what I ate.
It’s not a big deal (unless I want it to be)
I will never forget the Christmas of 2018, I had been diagnosed at the end of November, and it was my first year without an advent calendar (something I had always loved).
Christmas dinner was something that my family and I were anxious about. A setting where the focus is food was, at the time, my worst nightmare. All my mum asked of me, is that I eat the Christmas dinner that she put onto my plate herself, and I did so without much fuss. Nothing was expected of me when it came to dessert.
As the various cakes, yule logs, ice cream, and other sweet treats filled up the table, I had a moment where I felt my pre-eating disorder-self had returned. I saw the cheesecake and wanted some. So, I leant over to my mum, who was sitting next to me, and whispered asking if I could have a slice of it. She said “of course” and handed me a slice, returning to her conversation.
She acted like it was completely normal (which, realistically, it should have been). By not making a big deal out of my unprompted want for the cheesecake, it did not become an overwhelming moment for me. I ate the cheesecake without anxiety or expectations.
Fast forward to four months later, April of 2019, I was doing well with my recovery and was sticking to my meal plan consistently. We were out at a restaurant (something that used to overwhelm me with anxiety), and I willingly ordered a slice of chocolate cake. My family and I celebrated the moment, something that I would not have appreciated during Christmas. But as my recovery progressed, I began to associate pride with how much I was eating, not how little. Having my family celebrate alongside really made me want to continue with recovery.
No Social Media
Before I was diagnosed by doctors with my eating disorder, my parents had already recognised that something was wrong. I had agreed to delete all social media off my phone for a few months, and I didn’t end up returning to it until the spring of 2019.
My Instagram especially, was contributing to my eating disorder. With a quick-paced algorithm that inundated me with weight loss tips, different diets to try, and pictures of models, it was essentially fuelling the already out of control fire.
By not having an easy tool to compare myself to others, or to fall back into the dieting mindset, it helped me stay focused and on track with recovery. I know that if I were to have had access to this damaging, my recovery would have been a lot harder.
Having an eating disorder is essentially having an obsession with food, weight, exercise, and body image. At least, that’s what it was like for me. My mind would never shut off unless I was asleep, and I struggled to think of anything else. At school I’d be comparing my body to everyone else’s in class, I’d be thinking about how little I can eat in order to make the thirty-minute walk home from school without collapsing, or how to discard my food without anyone noticing.
When I first started recovery, my mindset was the same, except for the added anxiety because now I had to get better.
So, I was grateful whenever I could tune out my thoughts and be distracted by something else entirely. For me that distraction came in the form of watching some of my favourite shows during mealtimes (shoutout to Horrible Histories for getting me through most of my recovery). I had to take the emotion out of eating to ensure that I did in fact eat, so I used to focus on shows or films and mechanically eat the food: bring food to mouth, open mouth, bite, chew, swallow, repeat. It was very robotic, but for a while it was the only way I could do it.
When I started to stay in school for lunches, chatting with friends or members of staff who were helping support me during school helped. I’d often just ask that we chat about anything other than food, again it helped ground me in the present instead of overthinking about what I was eating.
These are just a few things from the very long list of ways in which I was supported during my recovery. BEAT, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, also have a section of their website dedicated on how to support someone struggling with an eating disorder. And it has some great advice that I’d recommended looking at.
Eating disorders not only impact the life of the person struggling with one, but also effects those that are part of the support system.
There is not one tried and tested method to support someone, and what works may change overtime as you recover. My message for those who are supporting someone with an eating disorder is that you are not to blame, and you cannot be expected to get it right 100% of the time, but most importantly, make sure you’ve got a support system in place for you too.