Lately, a lot of people in my life have commented on my recovery progress. (And understandably so, as I’ve reached a point where many long-held ED behaviours are being successfully challenged.) The comments come from a place of love, but unfortunately the ED doesn’t give a damn what the motivation is. It’s incredibly good at taking any and all comments (no matter how positive) and twisting them to deliver a message that’s the complete opposite of what was intended.
I shared my frustration at feeling this way with Matt—I didn’t want to feel bad every time someone tried to pay me a compliment—and he told me to write about it and let people know what to say (and more importantly, what NOT to say) to someone recovering from an eating disorder. His reasoning was sound: how else are they meant to know?
Anyone with a friend or loved one recovering from an ED will know “being there” for them is a tricky business. Things you would normally say and do suddenly take on a whole new (and unintended) meaning and can end up detrimental to recovery. The “laws” I’m about to lay out work for me—and I know for at least some others with EDs—but every case is different. Remember, you can always be honest with your loved one and ask them about what kind of comments make them feel bad and from there adjust your language and work on addressing the issue.
Law 1: When in doubt, zip it
As a rule of thumb, don’t comment on the appearance of someone with an ED whatsoever. This one can be difficult to understand—and it certainly wouldn’t be the assumption. When you see your loved starting to look like their old, healthy self again it’s hard not to shout for joy, encouraging and praising their recovery success.
But even innocent comments like “You look so much better” or “You’re looking healthy” are jumped on by the ED and translated so that all we hear is “You are fatter than you were”.
Instead, focus on the other positive effects of recovery. Comments like “You seem like the old you again” and “You’ve got the light back in your eyes” are so encouraging and give me the motivation I need to keep pushing through what often feels like an impossible journey to recovery.
Law 2: Eyes on your own plate
Again, a blanket statement is called for: don’t comment on what anyone is eating. Food (particularly the fear of) is at the core of most eating disorders, and commenting on the type, amount or variety of food on the plate of someone recovering from an ED will almost always mean trouble. Your well-meaning remarks like “Good on you for eating an entire sandwich” or “Nice work, that’s a big plate!” will result in our questioning whether we’re eating too much (ending with thoughts of future compensation by restricting or exercising).
And unless you’re part of someone’s immediate support team, steer away from mentioning how little someone is eating as well. Food is a touchy subject, and best left to the professionals and core circle of support.
Law 3: Everyone is different
As I mentioned earlier, each individual’s triggers are different and I encourage anyone who is supporting someone through an eating disorder to have an open conversation and find out what you should and shouldn’t say to your loved one.
This has been extremely beneficial to me. I find it really helpful when Matt, my parents or medical team say that I still have a ways to go in recovery because my body is not at its healthiest and is not functioning at its best. For me this kind of statement encourages me to keep ticking off my goals and eating.
In the same way I find it helpful when my support team lets me know when they think I could have eaten more at a meal, or if I should have finished a meal, because it makes me (positively) question how much I’ve eaten, and in many cases results in me eating more to ensure I’m satisfied.
However I do want to stress that these are just for me! Just as it’s important to learn a loved one’s preference in movies, jokes and leisure activities, it’s critical to discover the best ways to encourage your child/partner/sibling/parent/friend to keep recovering!