02 Sep 2022

Six things your loved one may want you to know about eating disorders and recovery


Do you think your loved one might be experiencing an eating disorder? Here are six things they may want you to know – from someone who has been there.

Written by Butterfly Pathfinder, Emma

After years of feeding the illness that deprived me food and air and life, I am now fully recovered from Anorexia Nervosa.

I was diagnosed with Anorexia at eleven years old, back when MSN was the height of technological advancement and the sealed section of a Dolly Magazine was the most salacious content a pre-teen could access. My eating disorder was my everything, until the nothingness that came with following it to the depths again and again slapped me in the face.

In 2019, I committed to full recovery.

My eating disorder was my best friend, professional, significant other and parent, but I only managed to beat it with the help from all the above. I am fully recovered because I worked hard and because my hard work was supported by the incredible people in my world.

My people were intrinsic to my recovery, which is why I want to share the following list with you this Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week (BIEDAW). Without support, any sort of intervention is made more difficult. Isolation breeds disorder and disorder feeds on isolation, so we need people to break the cycle.

By sharing six things your own loved one may want you to know about eating disorders and recovery, I hope to support your fight and encourage early intervention. But before I do, I want to use that italicised ‘may’ as a little disclaimer. This list is a collection of thoughts informed by my lived experience and personal insights.

I talk and read and write recovery, but I do not know everything about the process or your person. Every eating disorder is unique, just as everyone’s recovery is.

It is not all about the weight

On the surface, my eating disorder was about weight. I was bullied into losing it, diagnosed after losing too much. Weight became the most important metric in my life and, for a long time, the only answer I had as to why I was unwell. Eventually, I realised that weight was just a distraction.

My focus on it kept me sick, and kept my treatment stuck in a numbers game. Moving beyond the weight allowed me to move beyond my illness, and the stereotype that society tends to perpetuate.

So, if you think your loved one may have an eating disorder, look past their physical appearance.

They need to know that their looks have no bearing on the severity of their struggle, and they may also need you to unpack your own beliefs around weight and shape. Refrain from commenting on their appearance but also go deeper than the skin-deep aspects of an inherently mental illness.

Support comes in many forms

There is no right way to help someone through recovery because there is no right way to recover. Here, your person may want you to know that support doesn’t have to fit into a particular box or mode.

What I required from my people as a child was a world away from what I needed as an adult, even though the distinction between the two was often blurred by the number of supplements I hurled across a room (if you are my psychiatrist reading this, that reference is for you).

Instead of throwing lukewarm beverages at each other, here are some ways you can support your person whilst preserving your relationship and health as much as possible.

  • Eat (adequate) meals and snacks with them
  • Accompany them to appointments, visit them in treatment
  • Provide financial assistance where appropriate/practical
  • Distract and keep them company between meals
  • Be open to listening and validating their struggles
  • Look after you amidst the chaos

Above all, keep reminding your person that they are not failing by struggling. That life will be there on the other side of recovery and that fighting for a full life IS something to be applauded.

There is a difference between ‘ED’ and ‘Me’

I remember moments where I would be almost outside of myself, watching on as I protected my illness above all else. And I guess my eating disorder was the devil, but I held tight to the idiom ‘better the devil you know’ until I no longer knew myself without it.

Which may be the same for your person. It can be so hard to see the human behind the illness, for the individual themselves and for those around them.

So be gentle on yourself and try to strengthen however much is left of your person.

Remind them that their eating disorder is wrong when it warns they will be nothing without it, and that everything good comes from recovery.

It is bad enough

If your person has an eating disorder, it is bad enough. That’s it. That is the only marker of severity that we need to act on and acting as soon as possible is always the best way forward. As such, try to avoid giving currency to the narrative that something else needs to happen before your person seeks help.

There will always be another something. No one goes into recovery ready, because complete readiness is a myth eating disorders hover in front of their captives. Your person may tell you that they will get help, once they are ‘sick enough’. That they will commit to the process once they have lost x, done y, feel z. Whatever the version, it is their eating disorder stalling. And we don’t have time for empty promises in this life.

Being sick is not a choice…

Eating disorders tend to emerge from a perfect storm of factors; there is no one cause, and it is never a case of someone simply coveting illness.

Your person may want you to know that they are not weak for struggling, nor are they selfish or stupid for staying in the struggle.

If eating disorders didn’t serve a function, they wouldn’t exist and multiply. I wouldn’t be writing this, and we wouldn’t have seen such a proliferation of disorders across the pandemic.

In times of upheaval and uncertainty, eating disorders offer control and safety. But there is no control in being unwell, and there is no benefit in staying with the thing that only makes your world safe by shrinking it entirely.

… but recovery is

This last one may not be something your person wants you to know right now, because recovery doesn’t always feel like a choice.  Sometimes, recovery feels like the last thing you want to do, or the last thing you will ever be able to do.

I spent half my illness sure that full recovery would be my ruining and the other half adamant that I would ruin every chance at recovery I got until I died. I put off recovery because I was scared and skeptical but putting off recovery only puts off the inevitable; at some point, we must all choose to fight.

Which is what I want you and your person to know, during this Body Image and Eating Disorder Awareness Week and always. The fight is worth it, and I would choose to fight all over again for the life I now get to live.

Further reading
Get support

If you or someone you know is experiencing an eating disorder or body image concern, contact Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673), chat online or email support@butterfly.org.au 

Confidential and free support is available 7 days a week, 8am-midnight (AEST).

Search Butterfly’s Referral Database for eating disorder qualified health professionals closest to your area.

Related tags: biedaw Body Image and Eating Disorders Awareness Week eating disorders Lived Experience Recovery