Supporting a friend with an eating disorder

Posted 20/06/2018

My friend has suffered from an eating disorder since she was ten years old. No one really knows why it started but some events clearly led up to it. She was never overweight; in fact she has always been thin. But not in her eyes. 

I am her best friend and I love her. I care for her, but I can't help her. 

It took me a long time to realise that I can't cure her. No matter how many times I stay up late talking to her, no matter how much I reassure her, I can't cure her. Not even a professional can help her until she allows herself to be helped. One day she will be faced with the decision to either accept help or hit rock bottom. Yet sometimes it takes someone hitting rock bottom to accept help. 

I can't cure her. All I can do – all anyone can do – is listen, include her, and love her no matter what. 

But equally, you need boundaries. You have to protect yourself. Yes, it may not be you with the eating disorder, but caring for someone with anorexia can cause stress. I felt responsible for my friend for so long, would check what she was eating, monitor her actions, analyse everything she said. It drained me. I couldn't cope. I put a burden upon myself that wasn't mine to carry. Yes, do everything you can, but when you feel yourself breaking, stop. You can't help your friend if you aren't well yourself. It's okay to be mad at them, it's okay to cry, it's okay to be confused. It's normal. No one can cope. 

So if it's not your burden to carry, whose is it? Their parents, teachers, medical professionals. I remember the guilt I felt after telling my friend’s mum about her eating disorder. But that was what led her to recovery. She hated me for it at the time, but forgave me in the end. For me it got to a point where it was a case of tell someone and have her hate you but begin the road to recovery, or hide it away and she likes you but spirals ever downwards. 

What can you do then? 

  1. Tell someone – I told my head of year who was able to talk to my friend without having to disclose my name.
  2. Avoid topics such as food or appearance – this is really difficult when it's all your friend may want to talk about, but try gently changing the topic. 
  3. Include them – they may say no but you have shown them that you would like them to be there.
  4. Don't force them to eat – this may only cause them to be more secretive.
  5. Be aware they may lie – part of eating disorders is about lying. This can cause real trust issues, but it's important to remember it's nothing personal. 
  6. Tell them you are there for them – if they had a tough day, text letting them know they can call you if they want. But equally, don't force yourself upon them.
  7. Find someone you can talk to – you will probably be struggling too. Whether it's a friend, sibling, parent, or teacher, it's important that you talk to someone as well. 
Contributed by Emma