by Doreen M. Chamberlin
Please read this in the spirit in which it is intended. If you have said or done any of these things, this is not personal. (Honest!) My hope is to give you the confidence to say something to that person who might need to hear encouragement, so that you don’t fear saying the wrong thing…and you don’t inadvertently trigger your friend with your good intentions.
Please, take heart. All of these things have been said/done to and around me since I started recovery. I am still here. They are not fatal blows.
But for someone in early recovery, words that are meant to be strengthening or even “funny” can set someone with an eating disorder spinning back into the self-destructive behaviors that we are trying so desperately to leave behind.
Having embarked whole-heartedly upon this journey called recovery, I have decided to embrace the weighty (ha!) tenet of candor in all of its forms.
To that end, and in the hopes of helping both you, my comrades in recovery and those who care for and love us,
6 ). “You look SO healthy now!” (This well-meaning statement can also be delivered as, “You look so much better than before” or “You don’t look like a prison-camp survivor anymore or, “Wow, you look like a woman now….” you get the idea).
The difficulty in hearing this is that intellectually, I understand what you are telling me and that you are trying to offer support for my efforts, but what I hear, no matter how well-intentioned and carefully-chosen your words are, is confirmation and a shining spotlight on my biggest fear.
“You are gaining weight”.
In early recovery, I am struggling with almost every single meal not to feel uncomfortable. Forcing the food in when all I really want to do is run headlong back into my eating disorders’ arms and return to the “comfortable” restrictive state that makes everything feel “better”.
Early recovery, especially the rapid weight-gain phase, is fertile ground for relapse because it doesn’t feel good or healthy.
It feels really, really bad.
My “skinny” jeans don’t sag anymore.
My “man jeans” aren’t loose-fitting, reflecting the state of my hard-earned loss of curves.
I don’t see what you see.
I don’t believe you.
Please, instead, ask me, “How are you?”
I might not be able to articulate how I “am” to you in a way that makes sense, but I will feel supported by your question which reflects genuine concern for me, without rendering judgement on the size/shape of my body.
Ask me if I am still going to counseling.
Ask me if there is anything you can do to help support me where I am in this moment.
In early recovery, I am walking the tightrope from illness to wellness but it feels more like a free-fall into a hell I have been trying to avoid (quite successfully).
The very condition (gaining weight) that my recovery demands.
5). “Should you be eating that?”
OR, “WOW! you were hungry!”
In fact. Say NOTHING about what I am or I am not eating. Or how much or how fast I am eating it.
Or how unhealthy or “bad” you might think it is.
In recovery, I am trying SO desperately to normalize my eating. I have been counting calories, restricting, purging, reading labels, hiding food, chewing and spitting it out, over-exercising to compensate for eating “bad” foods, (or any food), for so long that any food I put into my body during early recovery, no matter how “toxic” or “non-organic” or “un-healthy” you might think it is… won’t do NEAR the amount of damage to my body that I have been doing to it in the years preceding recovery.
Not even close.
And when when I was in treatment, part of the protocol was to help eliminate the food-police inside my head that arrested any attempt at eating normally.
So, if I am eating anything, and especially if it’s something you might consider, “bad”, please please please don’t comment on it.
Sit down next to me and have one/some too to support me.
My Anorexia voice (Olivia) is angry when I am eating “taboo” foods. Because it is a sign I am recovering.
Help me fight her.
If I am eating quickly, it is probably because I really don’t want to eat (because I am upset or sad or anxious, etc) but I have to because I continue to adhere to the structured eating plan during early recovery, until I can eat “intuitively”, like you do.
If I am eating “a lot”. Please don’t comment on that either. In fact. If you are eating with or around me. Please don’t comment on anything that has to do with the food we are eating.
Talk about politics, or Deflategate, or the weather. ANYTHING but the food we are eating.
And while we are at it, please be sure that you are eating with me. And if you can muster it, eat as much or more than I am.
Eat as fast as or faster than I am.
Don’t leave half of your meal and tell me you are on a diet or stuffed or that you “ate before you came”….
I need you to eat normally. Even if you don’t want to. Even if you aren’t hungry. Even if you think the food in front of you is un-healthy.
It gives me permission to as well.
4). “You don’t look like you have an eating disorder”
People with eating disorders are tall, short, emaciated, normal weight and obese. You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.
The media “standard” for Anorexia Nervosa is Karen-Carpenter thin. But by then, it is sadly (as you know) too late.
Restrictive behavior, purging, over-exercising, etc. are actually reinforced and rewarded in our culture, if someone is losing weight in the effort to gain health.
We cheer on the efforts of a person who uses great “will-power” to lose weight until they begin to enter the dangerously-thin stage.
We don’t recognize the disease until someone is emaciated.
When a person who is considered “obese” is losing weight (by restricting…purging…over-exercising, etc.) they are encouraged by our culture to continue.
As if weight-loss = health.
But if a person who is obese is using all of the same faulty coping mechanisms that I was and is losing weight because of it, why do we have to wait until he/she is emaciated before they are considered, “sick”?
We don’t wait until tumors are in advanced stages to start treating them. We don’t wait until people with MS are so debilitated that they require wheel chairs or other assistance before we treat them.
So how come Insurance doesn’t kick-in for Anorexia until Amenorrhea sets in or BMI is dangerously low?
You can’t tell by looking at someone if they have an eating disorder, anymore than you can tell by looking at someone if they have diabetes, or STDs or early stages of Cancer.
If you tell me that I don’t “look like I have an eating disorder”, I’ll believe you.
This very well-meaning statement triggers my thoughts of failure, so that recovery begins to be equated with failing (at my eating disorder).
It scares the hell out of me when you say I “don’t look like I have an eating disorder” because now you think I am “well” because I have gained weight.
Part of the reason for having a body that looks desperate for help when I was in the darkest stages of Anorexia, is to use my body to signal to you that I need help.
Because I wasn’t strong enough to do it with my voice.
If you are starting to learn about eating disorders, you know by now that gaining weight is the beginning of recovery. All of the work of changing behaviors/thoughts/feelings that drive the eating disorder take many months and even years.
If you tell me I “don’t look like I have an eating disorder”, I might want to go back to the weight where I do look like I have an eating disorder, so you won’t stop supporting me.
3). “I wish I had your will-power!”
Or “I need to lose a few pounds”
Or ” If you think you’re too fat, what you must think of me!”
I don’t have will-power. I have a disease.
I don’t see you as “fat” or needing to lose five pounds. In fact, when I am sick, I can’t even “see” you. I am only interested in being the “smallest” in the room.
But I can’t see me the way you do either.
At some level, when you admit to me that you have no will power, it reinforces the thought that I am “special” in some way. I have the power to restrict and lose weight like most people can’t.
This makes me special. It gives me an identity.
If you are actively trying to lose weight, I will want to join you because I am hearing you tell me (you aren’t) that I need to lose five pounds.
I will want to join you (and beat you, if I am being honest) at the weight-loss game. I’m really good at it.
For a very long time, and maybe even for the rest of my life, because of my predisposition to Negative Energy Balance, I cannot engage actively in “weight loss” efforts again.
I won’t stop at a healthy weight. I don’t know how to yet.
2). “Whoa, she has really gained/lost a lot of weight!”
“Did you see her ass!? It’s huge/hot/tiny” “She is SO anorexic!”
“She’s got a nice ass/legs/boobs”
Here is what we hear:
“Whoa! You have gained/lost a lot of weight!” (This is a trigger for me no matter which way it goes.) “Your ass/legs/boobs are HUGE!” (Hers is “hot”… tiny…. better than yours).
“She is SO (much better at being) Anorexic (than you are!)”
“You couldn’t possibly measure up to her”.
Commenting (positively or negatively) on others’ bodies is always going to be interpreted by those of us in recovery as something we have to compete with or measure up to.
It will always be interpreted (when we are sick or in early recovery) as your way of telling us that we are not good enough.
Our eating disorders demand that we have the nicest (thinnest) ass/legs/boobs in the room. And we never believe that we do.
When you comment on someone else’s assets, this feeds our insecurity in the most brutal way because you, who love me, are validating (unknowingly) our negative thoughts about ourselves.
If you are my partner/family/friend and are with me in a public place when I am in early recovery, please don’t “notice” someone elses’ body parts either with your eyes (I see you) or verbally. It wakes Olivia in a way that continues to torment me long into the night…and sometimes days later….long after you have forgotten that we even had an outing together.
One day I will be able to appreciate someone else’s strong or lean or fit figure again. It won’t always be like this.
In the meantime, be present with me. Notice the smells in the air, the sounds of the sea or people buzzing by.
Point that out to me instead, because it has been awhile since I could even tune into it for all of the noise of the eating disorder in my head.
1). “Just eat”.
“The only thing you have to do is eat to recover.”
“Why can’t you just eat?”.
Recovery IS about eating. But it isn’t easy.
And it certainly isn’t the only thing I need to do to recover I have to fight daily to:
Exercise once a day only.
Replace the calories I burn when I exercise Eat breakfast
Eat morning snack
Eat mid afternoon snack
Reach out to people instead of my eating disorder behaviors to deal with stress.
Be honest with people about where I am moment to moment.
Be honest with myself about the amount/type of food I am choosing.
Be honest with myself and my loved ones about my choices when I am alone.
Not to “body-check” or compare as I regain to my normal range.
Telling me to “just eat” is like telling someone with Diabetes to “just process the sugar in your body”. Or telling a person with Cancer to just concentrate really hard on destroying the invasive cells. Telling me to “just eat” blames me for having this disease. It assumes that I am not eating by choice. I want desperately to “just eat” like normal people do.
I want to not be obsessed with thoughts of caloric intake/output.
In early recovery, eating was torture. It took away the one coping mechanism that without fail, always up until now, quelled the anxiety and pain and emotion, so that I could function in a world without this disease in recovery.
Instead, bring me a cookbook or a favorite recipe and eat some of what you made with me.
Go out to breakfast with me, and if I eat pancakes with butter and syrup with a side of toast and butter/jam, have some too.
Ultimately, the best thing that you can do to support me (and those you love with an eating disorder) is not to give up. Ever.
And if you don’t know what to say or do, just ask me. “How can I support you where you are right now?”.