If you or your loved one is in need of support, resources, and treatment options for an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association at (800) 931-2237 or visit their website here.

There are many different eating disorders and within those there are many different variations. This article is not one size fits all, but I hope it brings more awareness and insight to what it means to be the friend with the eating disorder, and how to be the friend to the person with one.

My eating disorder isn’t something I parade around. I don’t like having it and I don’t like talking about it. Very few people outside of my immediate family are aware of it, and even that took awhile. That being said, if you know a friend with one or see the signs, I want you to know how to navigate it and be there for that person.

I am anorexic, but mine is not based on body image. Mine comes from stress and food has become a “reward system” based on my own opinion of my productivity. When I’m extra busy and extra stressed out, food is the last thing on my mind. I push it away and refuse to eat until I feel like I’ve earned it with my work. That can lead to days or weeks with barely anything in my system. It also means that when I’m not as stressed out, I am more than likely at least eating two small meals a day. Mine comes in waves, but my unhealthy relationship with food does not. Skipping breakfast and lunch most days doesn’t phase me and I don’t snack. I’m used to my hunger and that slight feeling of maybe passing out all day is comfortable to me. I am aware that it is not normal, but am clouded by my own sense of normalcy.

So what should you do when your friend opens up to you?

Listen to them when they explain it.

Every person with an eating disorder has a different experience with it. When they try to sit there and explain their mindset and triggers, don’t assume you understand because of what you’ve heard about someone else. Let them tell you about theirs without any assumptions. It truly is an entirely different beast for each person.

Don’t guilt us.

If you’ve found out we haven’t eaten that day, the worst thing you can do is make us feel like failures. It is normal for us to skip meals or think eating once a day is more than enough. Our brains have been rewired, we don’t consciously know it’s wrong when we get to a certain point. Don’t get angry at us when you’ve found out we haven’t eaten, just encourage us to start small.

Invite them out.

This is the most subtle way to help. There have been days where I know I won’t be eating a lot. Most of us are comfortable in our hunger. Our stomachs rumbling doesn’t phase us. If you’re going out to eat, shoot us an invite. We’re more likely to eat in front of people than if left to our own devices. It makes sure we’ve eaten without it needing to be a big conversation, and deep down we appreciate it.

It’s okay to compliment me.

When you think I look pretty, tell me. You don’t have to bring up the weight loss during a bad week or that you think I’m looking “healthier” during a good week. Compliment the things about me that don’t change based on my disorder. 

If you’re not sure, ask.

Should you text me asking what I ate that day? Is it okay to talk about your weight loss or body around me? These are all tough questions and my best advice is to ask. My friend would look at me and say, “do you mind if I show you my before pictures?” or  “Can I talk about my transformation?” etc before doing it each time. Giving me the warning was always helpful, because everyone is different, and sometimes it bothers me and sometimes it doesn’t. Each person has unique things that bother them, so just be upfront and ask what that person is comfortable with. Other people’s weight loss journeys don’t bother me, because mine is stress based. For so many others, that is not the case.

Don’t assume.

From the outside looking in, you would have no idea I struggle. I run on an empty stomach, I post photos of meals that I’ve cooked that I barely touch, and I give off the impression that everything is fine. The truth is, it varies day to day and unless I’ve told you, you wouldn’t know. Because mine is stress based, the less stressed I am, the more likely I am to eat. Don’t think I’ve gotten past it because for one day I’ve eaten a huge meal or three meals. We have good days, that doesn’t negate our struggle.

Know that it took a lot to tell you.

It takes a lot before a person can realize they have an issue. For me it wasn’t until I almost passed out twice in one week and skipped “that time of the month.” I reasoned with myself until I couldn’t and then sought help. So many people struggling still haven’t sought help, because it is incredibly hard to admit there is a problem. We think there’s no way we’re really struggling or that the way we’re handling it is temporary or normal. Our brains are more confusing to us than you would think. For us to tell you, it took us accepting our own reality and knowing we would need a hand to hold through one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced. Please don’t take that lightly or brush it off.

It isn’t your job.

My disorder isn’t your job to fix. It is something I deal with that I trusted you with and let you in on. I may need to talk about it sometimes, or be distracted from it, but it is in no way your fault that I deal with it, nor is it your burden to carry. My bad days aren’t a sign that you aren’t helping. Just having a friend I know I can turn to is good enough.

In general, never comment on someone’s weight when you don’t know their story. Never bring up that someone is looking “healthier” when you don’t know their lifestyle. So many people struggle with a bad relationship with food, and comments that seem complimentary are often enabling to those that struggle. You wouldn’t know about my struggle if you looked at me. You can’t glance my way and know what I deal with daily, and those comments help me rewire my brain to accommodate my disorder.

The best thing I, and so many others, can have during this is a friend that sits down and listen sometimes. Thank you for being that for someone else.

If you or your loved one is in need of support, resources, and treatment options for an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association at (800) 931-2237 or visit their website here.