I wanted to write this post quite a long time ago because many people told me that they know someone with an eating disorder but do not know what to do and how to react. The topic is super delicate. And even though I have gone through bulimia, I am not sure which is the best approach. People are different and we have to take that into account. However, there are a few things that everyone who has a friend with bulimia should know.
Consciously or not
Very rarely a person with bulimia will admit that. Anyway, if this happens, firstly, he or she obviously is aware of the problem and has decided to start recovery and secondly, it means that this person has a great trust in you to share this. So be grateful and don’t criticize him/her. Ask how you can help, but don’t give advice, show understanding and support.
More often we see that someone has a problem without realizing it. Or at least without sharing it. The question then is what to do to help him/her and how to react. I know that the topic is absolutely taboo, but don’t worry, there is almost no one who is comfortable talking about this. However, even if the conversation might be a little awkward, if we want the best for our friend with bulimia, we have to talk to him/her.
When I had bulimia, no one ever knew I had a problem. However, if someone had tried to talk to me about it, my initial reaction would probably have been negative and I would have become defensive. However, the idea that someone cared about me would have had a positive effect on me, even subconsciously.
The awkward conversation
Here are the steps you can take if you are about to have such a conversation:
- Educate yourself about the eating disorder. Find out what bulimia is, what are the causes, and the effects. The more you know about the topic, the better;
- Choose a quiet place to talk. Be honest and share your concerns, but never point a finger or blame. Do not give advice. Moreover, do not use phrases such as “Just stop” or “Just eat.” This would only make the person step back and feel even more misunderstood;
- Arm yourself with patience and be prepared for a negative response or denial. The topic is extremely sensitive for people with bulimia and in most cases, they feel a lot of guilt and shame for their behavior;
- After sharing your worries, wait for the person to talk, but do not force him/her. Even if it means leaving the topic open and talking again in a few days or a week;
- Show that you are ready to help without criticizing. Don’t feel sorry for him/her and don’t show that the problem is super serious and there is almost no way out. Let it be clear that you believe recovery is possible;
- Encourage the person to seek professional help. Offer your friend to find the right specialist and even accompany him/her to the first appointment.
General principles and tips
There are a few common principles that should be followed in the company of a person with bulimia in order to avoid worsening the problem:
- Do not force the person to eat, to work out or to stop working out, do not exert any pressure;
- Don’t get angry or frustrated with the person’s eating habits and decisions;
- Avoid topics that are related to diet, weight loss, weight, and appearance;
- Don’t even comment on your own weight;
- Don’t try to convince the person how good he/she looks. No matter what comment you make on their appearance – positive or not, it is almost certain that it will be misunderstood.
When I used to tell somebody that I want to lose a few pounds, usually one of the following scenarios played out:
“Yes, you can lose 1-2 kg and you will become perfect.” – what I heard: “You’re fat, you have to lose weight if you want to look good.”
“Well, you’re tall, it’s normal to weigh more.” – translated in my head: “It’s okay that you’re fat, you have a height that will save you from looking so awful.”
“You are ok” – I heard “You are fat”…
So…there is no right answer. Just try to avoid the topic.
- Do not follow diets and lead by example. Model a balanced relationship with your own food and exercise.
Unfortunately, there are cases when a conversation would not help. However, an eating disorder can be very dangerous. It can be life-threatening. If you think that the problem is out of control and the person’s life is in danger, I would advise you to seek professional help, even if your friend with bulimia doesn’t want that. A doctor can decide to admit them to specialized treatment.