What to Do (and What Not to Do) When Confronting Someone With an Eating Disorder, From a Recovering Anorexic

Try to remember that this stubborn person you are confronting is not your loved one. It's the disease, speaking unfairly on their behalf.
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Publish date:
October 5, 2015
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eating disorders, anorexia, intervention

Regardless of how you approach them, interventions aren't fun for anyone involved. There are, however, some steps I believe can be taken during this painful meeting to up the odds of your loved one seeking medical help.

I suffered from Anorexia (as well as a wicked addiction to exercise) from ages 18 to 23. While my college peers were out playing beer pong, I was at the grocery store studying Nutritional Facts labels like it was my job. I dropped 60 pounds in a matter of months and became severely unhealthy. Looking back now, it was undoubtedly the most miserable time of my life.

Thankfully, I eventually got out of this mess. I worked with a very kind and patient psychiatrist to find the reason for my issues (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as it turns out). I went through the lengthy process of finding a medication that’s right for me, and I am now living as a fully functional and (mostly) normal human being.

My mother finally put the pieces together one day after seeing an especially sickly photo of me. I was always cold and refused to take my jacket off when I was at her house. I was tired every day and could barely keep my eyes open. I didn’t have enough fuel in my system for even the most mundane activities.

She immediately called and simply said "Your father and I are coming over." As soon as she walked into my apartment, she pulled out the photo. In it, my cheeks were hollow, my mouth barely smiling, and my eyes had lost all signs of happiness. This was not me. This was not the life I was meant to live.

After a lot of crying and apologizing for keeping my secret for as long as I had, I gave into their intervention and began my road to recovery.

Occasionally, a friend who knows of my past will ask for my advice. They will notice that a friend of theirs is exhibiting eating-disordered behavior, and they want to hear how I was approached, and if I would have wanted it to have happened differently. Looking back, I’ve found that certain reactions from people actually fed my sickness and prolonged my experience with Anorexia.

First came the compliments. These came as I started to lose weight, but didn’t yet look like the malnourished pre-teen I would eventually resemble.

“I would kill for legs like those,” from the female gas station attendant.

“You are so tiny!” from a coworker.

If you think there’s even a small chance that a friend or acquaintance is suffering from unhealthy eating habits, don’t compliment them on their weight loss. I would live off of these compliments for days after, and it only proved to me that the misery I was putting myself though was worth it.

Inevitably, the negative comments were next. Even though people probably had good intentions, statements like “you’re too skinny” only fueled the fire. When a stranger would comment on my body in this way, I would become enraged. How DARE this person tell me how I should look.

This anger eventually transformed into depression, which was the catalyst for falling victim to an eating disorder in the first place. The vicious cycle continued.

Regardless of how you approach them, interventions aren't fun for anyone involved. And, believe it or not, they don’t even always work. There are, however, some steps I believe can be taken during this painful (but usually necessary) meeting to lessen the blow on your loved one and up the odds of them seeking medical help.

An intervention is not a time to reunite with long lost cousins or old neighbors. The only people that should be present during the intervention are those who the person absolutely trusts. My parents were the sole members of my intervention, and this was enough to work for me (I don’t have siblings, but they would be good attendees as well). If I would have walked into a room full of ten people, I most likely wouldn't have even stayed to hear what they had to say. It's easy to overwhelm someone in an already fragile state.

By all means, DO NOT start the intervention with threats. People always bring up the “bottom line” when talking about interventions, referring to what you, as a friend or family member, are willing to do in order to force the sufferer get help. A lot of times the bottom line for an addict is, “I will no longer help you financially” or “We can't be friends anymore.”

An eating disorder is not like any other addiction. When people are addicted to drugs, for example, they often resort to stealing or other hurtful actions toward their loved ones in order to fulfill their addiction. An eating disorder is different in that the only person you’re directly hurting is yourself. If you threaten to cut us off, we will just sink even deeper and ultimately give up hope. If you feel you need to go this route, at least save it as a last resort.

The scariest thing about an eating disorder is that is that it takes control of you and essentially holds you hostage. When I was suffering, I was a stranger occupying the shell of a human who was once caring and thoughtful. Even though the real me would have immediately accepted help as soon as someone suggested I may have an issue, the eating disorder victim in me fought to deny it at all costs. I was dismissive, frustrated, and just plain mean in the beginning of my intervention. This reaction is to be expected. In our mind, the worst thing that can possibly happen is for us to lose control. Which is exactly what happens when you go into treatment.

Try to remember that this stubborn person you are confronting is not your loved one. It's the disease, speaking unfairly on their behalf.

Having an eating disorder is embarrassing. It shouldn’t be, but there is still such a stigma attached, it’s hard not to feel that way. I am an independent person, and so at first, it killed me to know other people knew about my sickness. I was disappointed that I couldn't handle it myself.

Luckily my parents let me be the one to come out with my story when I was well on my way to recovery and finally felt I had the strength to talk about it.

People with eating disorders cannot help that they are sick. They are simply trying to abide by the strict standards that their brains have set for them. So when you interact with someone with an eating disorder, treat them as you would treat someone with any other sickness. Don’t forget that they are still the same person you knew before, they just may need your help in remembering that.

Every case is different, but there is one thing I’ve learned in my experience that will always hold true: You can’t fix someone who doesn’t want to be fixed. But you can love them and root them on from the sidelines until they do.