... From an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or any mental illness?
What do you say? How do you communicate to them that you are there, and that you care?
One important first step I would tell my family and friends is to accept that probably won't understand everything that I'm struggling with, or everything that I've been through. Eating disorders are confusing, hard to understand, and defy most of the logic that there is. My experiences probably won't make a whole lot of sense to you, and that's OKAY. There are certain things in life that really, truly won't make sense until/unless you've lived it. I'd prefer someone say to me, "I don't understand what you've been through, or how you're feeling, but I'm here," rather than have someone pretend they get it. It's usually pretty obvious when someone is pretending to understand, and can do more harm than good if you say something meant to "help" that actually turns out to be a huge trigger. (The "I tried to give myself an eating disorder so I know how hard it is" example sticks out in my mind here).
Let's talk about triggers. I know that in this socio-political climate this word has been used to attack/belittle others, and has unfortunately lost a lot of its true meaning. A trigger, for me, is something that causes me to get so uncomfortable, upset, and anxious that it triggers intense eating disorder thoughts and the urges to use behaviors skyrocket. Just as everyone's eating disorders are different, so too are their triggers. It would be too difficult to list out anything and everything that I find triggering, as some things are slightly triggering and some things are really awful, and I know that list is changing every day. I find that a good rule of thumb would be to avoid the "big 3", if at all possible. The big three consist of talk about: food & diet, body, and exercise. If you feel that might be too difficult, think about it like this: how much more fulfilling and enriching will your conversations become when they don't revolve solely around those three things? Something to think about.
Eating disorder recovery can also be a very confusing and stressful time for your loved ones. They are essentially working to re-train their brains against a devastating mental illness, while also working to restore normalcy on the physical side of things. From the outside looking in, it may seem like a strange thing--your loved one's treatment plan. You may be perfectly fine going more than 4 hours without eating, never including snacks in your day, or exercising regularly. But, you also (presumably) don't have an eating disorder. In recovery, it is so important that we follow our treatment plans set out for us by our team of professionals. It may seem "unusual" or different for you, but for us, it's just as important as following through with medication or anything else that may be "doctor's orders". This again comes back to understanding, and recognizing that just because our recovery looks different than your lifestyle, there's nothing wrong with either way of doing things. It also may mean radically accepting that you may not totally understand all the components of our treatment plan, or WHY we're doing the things we're doing. Again, that's OKAY.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to help someone who is recovering is to be there and reach out. This again may vary from person to person, as some people may love to hear from you everyday and some people probably prefer it less. It may mean that you simply give them a quick call or shoot them a text message saying, "Hey, how are you doing? How's everything going?". It could be as easy as reminding them that you are there for them when they need you. As someone in recovery, I know intuitively that I have a really fantastic support network, but on the days where I'm really struggling, my mind is the furthest thing away from reaching out to those people. It means the world to me when someone reminds me that they're there for me. It also doesn't help that I'm really good at pretending everything's okay, and keeping things to myself. I've personally benefitted from people asking me, "Okay, how are you, and don't be a hero and act like everything's great if it's not. How are you, really?" Those times when people reach out remind me that it's okay to not be okay every second of the day and that I truly have support in my corner.
At the end of the day, everyone's experiences with mental illness, eating disorders, and recovery is different. Everyone has their own ways that they need and prefer to be supported. The most important takeaways are to show compassion, recognize your own limitations and remember that they are normal and okay, and talk with your loved one. What works for one person may be the worst thing in the world for another, so talk to them. Make it so there is a platform to have a conversation about their experiences, if and when they want to share them with you. And remember, I am so grateful to have you supporting me through one of the hardest things I'll ever do. It may feel intense and overwhelming sometimes to support me, but it means so much that you're there and not giving up on me. I see your support, and I thank you.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.