Catherine Silver LCSW

Therapy for Individuals, Couples & Families

My "_______" Has An Eating Disorder: 7 Things You Need to Know

If you've found yourself reading this, it is probably because someone you love has an eating disorder and you have a lot of questions.  While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, I find that it is important to start with the basics.  You first need to understand what an eating disorder is and, more importantly, what an eating disorder is NOT.  There are many myths about eating disorders and before trying to understand what is driving the engine, it’s important to clarify some of the common misconceptions.  Below are 7 things to keep in mind as you embark on this journey:

 

An eating disorder is about way more than food and body image.

At it’s core, an eating disorder is an unhealthy coping skill. The person is using food or body obsession as a way to distract from pain or discomfort.  It’s important to know that this is not something that is done consciously, especially in the early stages.  They themselves might not even understand what exactly they are trying to cope with.  This brings me to my next point…

 

It is not a choice.

Because this is an subconscious process, no one makes the active decision to have an eating disorder.  It’s a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors that come together in a perfect storm.  Just like how some people are prone to substance abuse while others are not, some will be more prone to disordered eating.  An eating disorder is not an issue of vanity nor is it something that you can reason your loved one out of.  Chances are your loved one has a ton of shame around their food issues.  Deep down, they know that their eating disorder doesn’t make sense, that the thoughts are irrational or that the behaviors aren’t healthy.  The frustrating thing about an eating disorder (for everyone involved) is that despite knowing all of this, the person is still pulled towards the mindset and behaviors.

 

It is not the same as an addiction.

Many people will liken an eating disorder to an addiction (as I just did in my last point) but it’s important to understand that while there are many similarities, there are also huge differences.  One major distinction between the two is that someone who is recovering from an addiction can completely avoid their triggers.  An alcoholic never has to set foot in a bar again.  They don’t need to keep alcohol in their house nor do they have to associate with people who drink.  Obviously, that’s not possible for someone with an eating disorder.  Essentially recovering from an eating disorder is learning to use one’s “drug of choice” in moderation.  It’s about starting and stopping oneself multiple times a day.

 

You can be a “normal” weight and still have an eating disorder.

I cannot stress this enough.  The general public hears “eating disorder” and they automatically think of someone who is underweight.  While this is definitely the reality for some, the vast majority of people with eating disorders are within a healthy weight range.  This often leads to people minimizing the severity of the eating disorder and can also be a barrier to seeking professional help. 

 

They never come alone.

An eating disorder is never just an eating disorder. It is almost always accompanied by an underlying issue, whether it’s anxiety, perfectionism, trauma or low self-esteem to name a few.  The need for support doesn’t go away when the eating disorder behaviors abate.  As a matter of fact, your loved will likely need more support as they learn new skills and tools to manage whatever it was that their eating disorder was numbing out.

 

Recovery looks different for everyone.

A key part of someone’s treatment is looking at what “recovery” means to them.  Someone might get to a point where they have stopped their eating disorder behaviors, but they still find themselves obsessing over food or hating their body.  Or maybe they haven’t had any urges in a while and then all of a sudden, they slip.  Eating disorder recovery is not all or nothing and it is not a linear path.   As a supporter, it is important to understand that recovery is a complicated process that takes time and a lot of patience.

 

For many, professional help is necessary.

As a supporter, you are not your loved one's doctor, therapist or nutritionist and trying to take on that role can be problematic and ultimately dangerous.  Eating disorders are complex and they deserve treatment that is equally as sophisticated.  While the road to recovery is a long one, with the right help it is possible.