Tuesday, June 16, 2009

What to say to someone with an eating disorder

Where do I begin? There is so much I could say about our culture, how we find it perfectly okay to make comments about another's appearance when we greet them. I really want to get to the point today and give you some really concrete language to remind yourself and your friends and family to use when talking with a loved one in eating disorder recovery.

You may have been told by care providers: Don't mention his/her appearance. WAAAYYY easier said than done, I know. But it is essential. Why, you ask? Well, basically if you say something like, "You look so healthy." The eating disorder that is the powerful force that has inhabited your loved one is going to hear: "You are fat, you have gained so much weight, you fat pig." I know, this sounds incredible, but it is true.

So, again, the skills build on one another. If we can stick with keeping our loved one and the eating disorder separate, then we can know that it will be the eating disorder, not our loved one who hears something negative and destructive.

In interviewing Kitty Westin yesterday to write her story for my upcoming book for families, by families: Just Tell Her To Stop: Families Surviving the Crisis of an Eating Disorder–Moving From Fear To Hope (new working title), she shared a story with me that she heard from another family. Kitty hears from families all over the country about their challenges with eating disorders and she had such wisdom to share with me and this person about what to say when a well meaning friend or family member makes a comment about the appearance of our loved one in eating disorder recovery. This woman, I'll call her Jane, shared with Kitty that her close friend was so happy to see that Jane's daughter had gained some weight during her treatments for anorexia. She came into their home and saw Jane's daughter and proclaimed, "Oh, wow, you're getting a girlish figure again!" Now this friend, really was happy and so glad to see this progress towards reclaimed health, she meant no harm. But, it was very damaging to Jane's daughter.

Kitty's words of wisdom were for Jane to go to her daughter in private and ask her, "What did your eating disorder hear when my friend said that?" Then listen to the horrific lies the eating disorder told her. Ask what else was heard. Then ask, "What do you know that she meant?" LISTEN AGAIN. Then ask what she needs to do to take care of herself. Remind her that the stronger voice needs to be heard. Also remind her that the comment gave the eating disorder more ammunition.

Looks easy on paper, but it is harder to do in the moment. Especially when your heart stops and your mind races to thoughts of years of more therapy to cancel out that one comment.

We'll never be able to train all of our family, friends and neighbors about what to say. So it is about empowering the person in recovery to take back her power from the eating disorder.

I'd love to hear how you have found effective ways of coping with unintentionally destructive comments.

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