Caring for Someone with an Eating Disorder

eating-disorder1.jpgWritten by Ali Mariani.

“I’M NOT EATING!!” her voice was shattering and sharp. It cut through your skin, gave you the chills. You knew that she meant it. I knew that she meant it. We all knew that she meant it.

Nothing worked with her. Bribery, coercion, gentleness, honesty: we tried it all. We begged her to eat. We loved her; we wanted to save her. I know that’s not our job, but we wanted to save this one so badly. She is so kind, so smart, and so sweet. She tugged at our heartstrings.

The support staff tried sitting with her and her enemy for hours. The psychiatrist tried different techniques and medications. The therapist tried CBT worksheets about anorexia. Nothing was working. She was refusing to eat because we had taken away every free choice that she had.

Wake up at 7:30, practice morning meditation, and head to school. Do school work, meet with therapist, and meet with coach. Eat lunch. Attend group. Meet with psychiatrist. Eat dinner. Attend meeting.

We will call her Anna—this young frail girl. Anna was mad; she was really mad. We told her she was no longer able to write on the computer. Anna was a writer- Anna IS a writer. “Writing literally saved my life. I would be dead without writing.

Anna had a couple of novels completed by the age of 14. She wrote about pain, about illness, about hurt, cuts, and an emptiness that only an anorexic can understand. Anna was anorexic, depressed, suicidal, and anxious. Anna was also a writer.

I begin talking…“Let me tell you something about writers, Anna. They need to experience life- pain–”

“I have experienced ENOUGH PAIN!!!!” She yells out, and then begins to sob. She cries in the way that a young child who can’t yet be understood would cry. She yells out of desperation and pain and frustration and anger and all of the sadness and loneliness her disease brings her. Anna yells, and I hear her. I hear her pain, but I don’t understand it fully.

Anna will tell us that she is suicidal, that she has thought of all the different ways that she can kill herself. We won’t be able to send her to the hospital because she doesn’t have a plan. Anna will go back and forth between eating, refusing to eat, self-harming, and severe bouts of anxiety.

I sit with Anna for an hour while she falls asleep holding onto a small duck stuffed animal. Anna likes textured things. I sit quietly next to her, wishing I could give her the courage to eat. But I can’t. I can only sit with her—tell her I love her, and tell her that she will be all right.

And tell her that her writing isn’t gone—that she has all of her writing inside of her.

Caring for someone with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders is challenging. Here are some tips:

  1. Avoid making any positive or negative comments about their appearance. Individuals with an eating disorder often have distorted perceptions of their body and their appearance. It is best to stay away from bringing this up at all.
  2. Refrain from talking about food excessively or in detail. This can often be triggering for individuals with an eating disorder. Do your best to avoid excessive or detailed food-talk.
  3. Do not congratulate them when they do eat. This isn’t always the most helpful thing to do. It draws attention to the fact that they have abnormal eating habits.
  4. Avoid minimizing, normalizing, or attempting to relate. As with any mental health challenge, do not try to relate to this person’s eating disorder. Eating disorders are very serious disorders and are not the same as dieting, overeating during the holidays, or juicing. Eating disorders are mental obsessions and physical symptoms. If you try to relate to someone’s eating disorder, you may run the risk of making him or her feel completely misunderstood.
  5. Support them and love them by being present. It can be extremely challenging living with someone with an eating disorder. Often times, as loved ones or friends, we want so badly to help them or save them. At the end of the day, they have to save themselves. Know that your presence and love is enough.

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