Eating Disorders Recovery: 11 ways to support a friend

Posted 29/08/2017

Now, everybody is different so do not assume these ideas apply to your friend – but you can use them as a starting point for discussion. If you are suffering from an eating disorder, I hope the ideas here will help you to articulate to your friends how they might help you. One thing I have learnt this week is that we are surrounded by kind and caring people who are ready and wiling to help, but unless we guide them they do not know how. Many people are scared of making things worse, so not reaching out doesn’t mean they don’t care - be brave and guide them and life will almost certainly improve.

Hold their hand

You need to check this as some people shy away from physical touch, but for many of us, during recovery, the sensation of being physically close to others is hugely reassuring. Having our hand held or being cuddled can make life feel instantly better. Eating disorders can make people appear very sick and frail and can tend to result in people shying away from big cuddles and other physical contact. This can feel really isolating. So reach out and hold your friend – but check your friend is okay with it first. If you are far away, telling your friend you are holding their hand in our thoughts can also be reassuring. When they face difficulties just remind them – I’m here for you. I’m far away but you’re in my thoughts and your hand is in mine.

Send text and picture messages

Messages via SMS, facebook messenger, whatsapp and other similar services can be just brilliant. They can be short and sweet and little photos or videos of what you are up to or things that have taken your interest can act as the most wonderful distraction for a friend trying to keep their mind away from difficult thoughts and feelings. People sometimes feel guilty for continuing with their life whilst their friend is suffering and their life is on hold. Do not feel guilty. For most people who are ill, reminders of the real world will motivate recovery, will remind them of the world, will give them a distraction and will give them a context for their conversations with you and with others if they see you face to face or talk to you on the phone.

Humour is good.

Don’t expect a reply though – make it clear that no reply is expected so there is no pressure. Little and often is good even if you’re getting no replies – but do check that your friend is happy to be receiving the messages periodically and also be sensitive to times they may be asleep and messages might wake them.

Send a card

Post is a wonderful distractor and concrete proof that someone is thinking of you. It takes little time to pick and send a card but cards will be enjoyed and treasured by many who receive them. You might send a get well card or a card full of words of support and inspiration if you want to, but just as pleasurable to receive is a simple card that shows your friend was in your thoughts. Think of something that would have made you both smile in easier times and send a card related to that – humour can be a wonderful thing in dark times and people often think we can’t laugh when we’re ill. We can but people often don’t think to try to make us smile. It’s nice to smile, it gives us strength.

Share a book

If you’ve enjoyed a book, pass your copy on to your friend. If they’re up to reading, it will give them a chance to escape into another world for a few hours and it will give the two of you something to discuss. When we’re ill we often have precious little to talk to friends about as we are doing very little other than trying to keep our heads above water from one mealtime to the next (this really is the most draining full time occupation) so having a ready source of discussion is most welcome.

Suggest a meal

This seems so unlikely that I almost didn’t include it but my friend Laura suggested a favourite meal to me that she said was the one thing she could always manage to eat when times were hard and it motivated me to try a new food and to share that pleasure with her (it is on this week’s shopping list Laura!) When we’re recovering from an eating disorder we will think about food a lot and some people will welcome discussions about food and may still seek pleasure in food. If your friend is able to tell you what foods they feel safe eating at the moment you could use this as a guideline. This won’t be a good way of supporting everyone so be guided by your friend. It worked for me.

Eat with them

Ask your friend if they’d like you to eat with them. For some people this would be their idea of unmitigated hell but some people begin to really enjoy food within certain boundaries during recovery. Eating out can be a challenge which we become ready to take on and something we can be more ready to fight for if it comes with the pleasure of a friend’s company. Work with your friend to understand exactly what will feel comfortable and make sure you have lots of ideas of things to talk about to help distract them whilst they’re eating and ensure you have time to be with them after the meal too. That can be a difficult time full of guilt and shame, a friend to distract us or walk with us or reassure us can help. Your friend may have unusual rules around food or may eat very slowly or seem quite emotional whilst eating. Be prepared for this, but if they say they would like you to eat with them, please try not to let these difficulties put you off supporting. It is a huge show of trust if your friend asks you to join them during a meal of any kind.

Watch a film together

Sometimes your friend may want company but not have anything to say or not have the emotional capacity to have a conversation. Suggest watching a film together – go to the cinema if they are up to it, or go to their house with your favourite DVD.   If you are not nearby, watch it ‘together’ by synchronising your viewing and perhaps chatting via messenger during the film. This can be a lovely way of being with someone without the pressure of their physical company or where geography prevents you physically being there.

Lend them a box set

Distraction is a very important part of recovery for many people and for some that can be readily found through TV. If you have a box set you especially enjoyed, lend or recommend it to your friend. It is another way of finding common ground for conversation too.

Walk or drive together

Go for a walk or a drive with your friend. When we walk or drive with people it can help them to relax and open up a little more easily than when we sit together. Walking and driving are also great distractions for difficult thoughts and feelings even if they are done in companionable silence.

Make a ‘mix tape’

Of course, mix tapes are a thing of the past, the modern day equivalent is something like a spotify play list. My friend John sent me a spotify play list this morning and I listened to the entire thing beginning to end knowing that he was thinking of me. I enjoyed the music, but more than that I enjoyed knowing I was in his thoughts. You might choose to tell your friend why you’ve chosen each song. You could put together a play list which is specifically designed to change their mood, perhaps your friend is struggling to sleep so a classical play list might help, or they are anxious and calming music would be good or their mood is low so something cheerful and upbeat may work for them. Or perhaps there are songs that have specific memories relevant to your friendship. Everyone always loved mix tapes, they’re such a special way of showing you care and a playlist can do the same.

Send YouTube video links

Sending your friend videos can be a great way to distract or inspire. My friend Joe has sent me lots of different videos at moments when I’ve needed them. In particular I was inspired by a clip from the West Wing that he sent me which told me that when we open ourselves to others, we may find someone who has walked this path before and can help to guide us and Joshua Prager's TED Talk which helps us accept that we are a different person when we have suffered a trauma (such as a mental health issue) and helps us consider that this might be a good thing.

My friend Alice, on the other hand, has done a great line in sourcing short videos to make me smile when I feel I’ve forgotten how. These often arrive at difficult points in the day, such as mealtimes.

Contributed by Dr Pooky Knightsmith Hesmondhalgh 

You can read the original piece and all of Pooky's posts on her blog In Our Hands