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Every individual has most likely struggled with their body image at one point or another in their life. As sad as it is, this is incredibly common. When overlooked by others, sometimes it can lead a person down a path to something more serious. Eating disorders currently engulf at least 30 million people of all ages and genders in the United States (ANAD).
With eating disorders being so common in the states as well as in all places around the world, it is likely to know someone who has struggled or is struggling. With less medical research and more individualism between cases, knowing how to help a struggling person can be difficult. As a person who has struggled for eight years and recovered with help from incredible professionals, I have some tips on how to best comfort, encourage, watch, and know the signs of an individual with an eating disorder.
Step 1: Confront with Care, Notice the Signs
This may very well be the hardest part of helping your person. No one who is seriously struggling with addiction (yes, having an eating disorder can feel as horrible as being addicted to a substance and is similar in nature) can easily come to terms with the fact that they are in fact struggling. Do not confront a struggling person as if they have committed a crime. It may seem obscure and maybe even insane to many that someone would deprive and harm themselves. Remember one thing especially, they cannot help it. The physical harm that you see on the outside is a reflection of inner problems. If your girlfriend pushes away her lunches and is skipping dinner, start to ask her little questions. Be persistent. Ask things such as, "Are you sure you're eating enough to have energy?" or, "Have you had breakfast and lunch today?"
Here are some habits and phrases you should watch out for in regards to behavior. Some of these things people say without any dangerous eating habits. However, they tend to be a good indicator of a problem when they are repeated constantly.
- Cutting food up into little pieces to make it seem like it has been eaten, throwing away meals, skipping meals, spending long periods of time in the restroom after meals, obsessive laxative use, eating excessively large portions quickly, eating large amounts of food that people would not normally eat, spending large amounts of money on food or dieting medicine/programs, refusal to go to the doctor or dentists
- (Always or often saying) "I already ate," "I can eat a lot and not gain weight, I swear," "Sorry I was in the bathroom for so long, my stomach was hurting," "It's just I.B.S.," "I ate way too much," "I look so fat," "How many calories are in this?"
Once you are able to pinpoint behaviors and you have done your research on possibilities of what the habits could mean, then start to talk to the individual about their dangerous habits that might lead to an eating disorder. Do not assume anything. It is already shameful enough for that person and a doctor or therapist will be able to put them in their place. You cannot diagnose them yourself.
Step 2: Get the Right Kind of Help
Depending on the seriousness of the eating disorder or habits and type of disorder or habits, the correct kind of help can be hard to find. Scheduling an appointment with that individual's doctor, or even establishing a relationship with a local therapist or nutritionist, is a good place to start. Working with all three can make amazing progress. Keep in mind that good eating disorder help is difficult to find and not the cheapest. Insurance may or may not cover certain types of therapy. Look for local support groups that meet and discuss eating disorder problems. If you are unable to afford or get any other help, that will still make a difference.
Also keep in mind that the individual may be horrified at the thought of getting help or changing. Provide your uttermost support or talk to a family member who is able to do so. Remind your person that the eating disorder is not them. They will be loved the same when they recover, but not getting help could have horrible consequences on their body.
Step 3: This is Recovery, It Will Have Ups and Downs
Congrats! Let them know how far they have come. Some people are never able to get to this step. It can take time but it is rewarding and beautiful. Do not stop offering support or checking up on an individual just because they are getting medical support. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to kill off an eating disorder. Just because habits go away, doesn't mean they will stay away. The process is all about learning healthy coping mechanisms instead of harmful ones. Stay informed about your person's treatment and work with it. Be prepared for a relapse; relapses are a part of recovery.
I hope after reading this that you as a helper are more aware of your options. Whether you are struggling or helping, know that you are not alone! I am so thankful for my incredible parents, friends, therapist, and nutritionist for teaching me how to eat. Best of luck to you in your journey, there is always hope!