Dear readers, please let me begin with this little preamble 🙂
As some of you might know, I am not a native English-speaker. Even though I learnt my lessons very seriously at school, my English can sometimes be approximative !(also, I am French and we don’t have the reputation of being the best language learners, do we? ^^).
I would be super grateful if you, English experts or native-English speakers, had any remarks/suggestions to share about this article. If you feel too shy to comment, you can send me an email at masha@email@example.com. Infinite thanks!
Enjoy your reading ❤️
How to handle a relationship with a food addict? How to help and support him or her ? What is the best way to behave with a loved one with an eating disorder?
Obviously, a person with an eating disorder experiences everyday pain and suffering. However, loving and caring about someone who is a food addict often generates feelings of unbearable helplessness, guilt and, sometimes, (legitimate) exasperation.
Do you feel like, no matter what you do or how hard you try, everything seems to be wrong ? Does your loved one blames you sometimes for not doing the right things ?
Before anything else, always keep in mind that none of this is your fault. The hurtful words he/she might tell you are only the result of his/her anger, discomfort and despair. They are not the reality. You are not responsible for your loved one’s eating disorder, as much as he/she isn’t neither.
As a former bulimic, I have suffered a lot, but I also caused a lot of pain to my close friends and family, mostly by being ignorant of the problem. The thing is, eating disorders take so much space in our lives, that we can hardly take care of others properly.
My most precious piece of advice :
Give your loved one nothing but a comforting presence, without judgment or any attempt to help.
1. Don’t judge
The trick with ED is that, to all appearances, it seems pretty simple to get rid of yr when you don’t experience it yourself. You can feel like the food addict doesn’t make any effort, or just messes up with his/her life.
The reality is that food addiction is not a second-class or a lighter type of addiction. Nor is it the consequence of a lack of willing.
Experiencing food addiction is not easier than going through any other kind addiction.
If bulimic or anorexic people had a way to act otherwise, the definitely would.
You may have noticed that in other fields of their lives, they seem to do very well. Why couldn’t they just use their energy the same way to free themselves from food addiction?Because not only is ED stronger than willpower : it has actually nothing to do with it. And most of all, it is not a bad habit, nor a sign of laziness.
Even though you don’t really understand what the problem exactly is, just refrain yourself from judging.
Keep in mind that your food addicted loved one is doing everything he/she can to keep on living.
2. How to help a person with an eating disorder ?
The best way to help a loved one who is a food addict is to stop trying to help.
You don’t have to fix him or her, and you can’t fix him or her. And actually, there is nothing to fix.
There is nothing but things for him or her to learn, starting with knowing, understanding, and loving him/herself more. And that can’t happen when you have the feeling that something in you needs to be fixed.
As difficult as it might be to accept, from now on you should stop trying to help your food addict friend, if this is what you’ve been doing so far.
Every time you are tempted to give advice or to suggest something without having been invited to – abstain yourself – even if you are just trying to be nice.
« Yes, but obviously, this person needs help ! »
She does, indeed, but not just any kind of help. Always keep in mind that all eating-disordered people are nutrition and health experts. If they just had to implement common sense rules to get rid of their troubles, they wouldn’t be bulimic or anorexic anymore.
Most of all, do your best never to give commonplace advice. Generally, every sentence including « why don’t you just…. » is a useless and hurtful attempt to talk sense :
« What if, instead of having a bulimic crisis, you went out for a walk /tried to workout? »
« If you can’t prevent yourself from having a bulimic episode, why don’t you just eat healthy food instead of caloric food ? This way, you wouldn’t gain too much weight. »
« What if, every time you are tempted by food, you tried to drink a glass of water ? Did you know that we often think we are hungry, while actually we’re just thirsty ?».
« When you feel about to have a bulimic crisis, why don’t you just call me instead ? I will prevent you from going for it ».
Or, even worse – and I really hope you never say things like these – criticism :
« You really make no effort »
« Get a grip ! Shake a leg »
« Stop stuffing yourself down »
Of course, these kind of reactions result from benevolent intentions. However, far from being comforting, they create nothing but distance between you and your friend.
3. Advice, especially not asked for, damages the relation and creates distance
– Most of the common sense health and fitness pieces of advice are irrelevant for people with ED. Right before having a bulimic episode, a bulimic person feels a peak of anxiety, nervousness and despair, that only food will take away. She is very far from the « drink a glass of water » or « take a little walk » kind of advice.
I am not saying that these suggestions are irrelevant in general. But applied to a food addict, they are like suggesting putting a little bandage on an open wound.
All these common sense tips are really well known by food addicts, who just can’t understand why, while they seem so efficient for everyone, they don’t work for them. Every time you remind them rules such as these, you trigger a feeling of despair and worthlessness.
– The second thing you should keep in mind is that advice, when not asked for, makes the relationship oppressive. The person who receives it feels misunderstood and tends to trust you less.
In any kind of relationship, especially if one of the parts suffers from an eating disorder, we are not supposed or expected to give any kind of advice at all. This is not our function. The only things recommendations create are a useless stress and, sometimes, encouragement to go further in a way that is not the best for the person who gets the advice (like defending the idea that eating disorders can be erased by focusing on eating habits).
« But he/she is the one asking for my help ! »
Yes, sometimes bulimic people will ask their friends or family for help. When they do it, it is exactly in the same way as cigarette addicts ask their friends to prevent them from smoking the next puff, and then do everything to get rid of them… Because this is not the way to solve an addiction.
So, even if you loved one asks for any kind of help that is not just attentive listening and emotional support – « next time I am about to have a bulimic episode, prevent me from doing it, ok ? » – don’t commit yourself to help. Just comfort him/her and remind him/her that you will be there when he/she needs you.
4. Be comforting, but take care of yourself first
– Play down the situation, remain cool, try not to pay too much attention to what is going on. Don’t give the addiction more space than it already takes in your loved one’s life.
Even though you have the impression that he/she is wasting his/her life or messes up, always remind yourself that bulimic people have a huge survival instinct. Bulimia is not a destructive behavior, it is a way to stay alive. Even though food addicts can mess up, sometimes for very long periods of time, they still want to live deep inside, and sooner or later they get their momentum back. I promise this is not going to last forever.
The only thing that would require real attention would be, obviously, a critical medical emergency (for example, extreme and dangerous thinness due to vomiting, that would require a medical assistance that he/she couldn’t or wouldn’t get him/herself). For every other situation, just let your loved on do his/her best.
– Living with a food addict can be very hard. Having a very peculiar personality, we sometimes are real pushers away (these are my ex-partners’ words… probably quite appropriate). Sometimes, we can suddenly get very distant for no apparent reason (however, we DO think we have good reasons, but this aspect requires a whole pack of dedicated articles).
So, always put your own wellness first. This is your job to do that. This is how you can be the most helpful. Food addiction results in high anxiety, which makes it impossible to take care of others. Your loved one is so obsessed with his/her own pain that, for the moment, he/she is not able to have completely healthy relationships. Even though he/she is certainly an empathic person, his/her way to interact with others is biased and distorted by rigid beliefs.
Don’t let your loved one’s anxiety and pain tarnish your own zest for life. There is no better way to be helpful than to glow with your own joy and let him/her deal with his/her emotions, without judging or trying to change anything.
Seeing other people being happy can hurt at the moment (« what is wrong with me ? Why is everyone so happy but me ? »), but in a long-term perspective, it gives inspiration, good vibes and energy to feel better.
5. To sum up : Keep eating disorder at distance
I know it can be unbearable to see a loved one hurting himself and to read someone writing : « don’t try to do anything ». I imagine that, when you have a bulimic kid or partner for example, it is very hard to give up on trying to help him/her and preventing him/her from having bulimic episodes. However, I promise that giving advice about his/her eating habits will do nothing but create a distance between you two. Let you loved one take care of this part of his life without interfering, and always remember that he/she is always doing his/her best.
– If you really want to help, try to maintain a good atmosphere at home if you live with your loved one, try to make it a cozy and reassuring place. In any case, be attentive and understanding, and try to remain joyful and detached.
– Don’t worry too much. Even when you have the impression that your loved one is stooping low, don’t worry excessively. Just be here for him/her and try not to express your anxiety to him/her.
– Don’t bring up the addiction topic. If your loved one brings it up spontaneously, remain attentive and empathic, but don’t give any advice. If he/she asks for advice, just say something like : « I understand that what you’re going through is extremely difficult. I believe it is almost impossible to imagine how it is when you don’t experience it yourself. I know that you are doing your best to get rid of this addiction. Know that I am here for you whenever you need me. » You can still talk about it, but make sure to pick an appropriate time – for example when you are both having a relaxing, nice time together – and be curious and comforting, never judging. Ask questions, seek information (on a « how do you feel » way », not a « what if » way). When the time is good for a talk, your loved one can give you many precious information about how to deal with his/her bad moments.
– Don’t give nutritional advice.
– Never ever try to prevent someone from having a bulimic episode (isolating and eating, optionally vomiting).
I really wish this article gave you hope and tips to improve your relationship with your loved one. Please feel free to share any impression/suggestion/question on this article, or any experience of relationship with a food addict in the comment section. You can also send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friendly and warmly,