“I have a friend that’s struggling with an eating disorder and I don’t know what to do, what to say or how to help. Do you have any advice on how to approach this?”
I got asked this question recently. I had been asked it before, but this time I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would answer. What would I have wanted? What would have made me feel comfortable? What questions would get me to open up? Most people avoid eating disorders like the plague because they don’t know what to do or say. Not everyone is called or equipped to intervene, but if you feel you are, here is what I think an ideal intervention should look like.
Invite the person over to your home or somewhere comfortable, quiet and safe feeling. Preferably not a restaurant as that can be stressful and triggering. Sit down and just ask “how are you?” Don’t let the person say “I’m fine.” They are not fine though they will try to convince you they are fine with their dying breath. Pay attention to your posture, eye contact, and position. This can make a difference in the person feeling safe enough to share. Try to get the person to open up on their own through intentional questions. Maintain eye contact and show that you really want to hear their answers. Be prepared for potentially long silences while they figure out if you are safe enough to share and if they are brave (or desperate) enough tell you. Don’t be discouraged if the person won’t answer. They are having a mental battle going on between their voice of reason and their eating disorders voice. If they seem to be uncomfortable and struggling inside then don’t be afraid to say something such as, “I know you’re trying to be brave and hold it all together, but I see what’s happening to you. I see the state you’re in and I’m concerned, because I care about your well being.” Something along those lines, said with sincerity, will break down the wall they have built up to protect themselves and their eating disorder. Some of the best things people did/said to me were some of the hardest for both them to do/say and me to hear.
Bottom line, let the person know you’re a safe to confide in. Let them know you care. Let them know that while you may not fully understand, you want to. Show them through your words and actions that you love them regardless of whether they have it all together or not.
Finally, know that conversation is hard for both sides, but so very needed. It might not seem that way when the person you are trying to help pushes you away, avoids your questions, and acts like you are the last person they would ever want to be with in that moment. Rest assured it’s not you; it’s them (or their disorder). There is more to them than meets the eye. They may clam up, push you away, or insist that they’re fine, but with every part of them (inside & out) they are crying for someone to notice, someone to save them from themselves and their mind. I know I felt so completely invisible, alone and bound up. I got angry at anyone who tried to help me because I was terrified of what they wanted me to do or share, but at the same time I desperately wanted someone to walk with me through my mine-field of a mind. I wanted someone to listen, someone to understand, someone to help me. Sometimes I just wanted someone to sit with me when my eating disorder voice was so loud I couldn’t think about anything else. My mind was a terrifying place. Anorexia is incredibly hard to deal with because you are not dealing with one rational mind. You are dealing with two very different minds in one. One of them is rational and the other is irrational and anxiety driven. Everything is contradictory, a battle between yourself and your mind. I can’t describe it, but it’s not something you want to walk through alone, which is why having someone intervene the way I just described is so desperately needed.
So if you have a friend who’s struggling, continue being a friend. Love them. Sit with them. Listen to them. Pray for and with them. Then pray for and with them again, because Jesus is the only one who can save them from themselves and shine light upon the darkness reigning in their mind.