By Rabbi Shea Hecht
[Click here for Part I.] It’s extremely painful to see someone we care about struggling with an eating disorder. The illness is all-encompassing, causing them to view every aspect of life in the context of what has or has not been eaten that day. If left unchecked, an eating disorder can and will destroy physical, emotional and mental health.
As parents, siblings and friends, we cannot sit silently and let someone we care about harm themselves. On the other hand, involving ourselves in this battle can be overwhelming. What is the right way to help? Will we only make things worse? What can we do?
Off the bat, we have to understand that even with our most loving and committed intentions, we cannot “cure” this sickness or make it end. That’s something that we’ll have to leave to responsible professionals and, ultimately, to the suffering individual. However, with thoughtful and loving involvement, we can help a friend to make sound decisions about their health.
An approach that can encourage someone to break the cycle of self destruction and reach out for help is one that I will refer to as “Near and Far.” Essentially, we can encourage our friend, in a loving and supportive way, to get professional help (Near); and deny the rationale and self-image that fuels the illness (Far). In other words:
First of all, it’s important to stay cool and relaxed when speaking with her about your suspicions. Even though it’s difficult, do not let yourself get frantic or upset. If you are too upset to contain your emotions, it is simply the wrong time to talk.
Explain to her in a direct way what it is that makes you believe that she has a problem. Without talking down or taking an accusatory tone, speak explicitly about changes you’ve observed in her behavior or disposition. Emphasize that as a parent, friend, sibling etc. you’re concern is only for her own health and happiness.
Your goal should be not just to air your suspicions that she has a problem, but to recommend specific help. Do some basic footwork as to what therapists, clinics or support groups are out there so that you’ll be able to suggest a specific course of action.
Do not say anything about her physical appearance, whether in a positive or negative way. No matter what, she will understand everything you say in a way that validates her obsession with her self-image, and this will only fuel her illness. For the same reasons, don’t get into the hard details of calories, nutrition etc. You simply cannot win.
Do not put forth any demands or issue ultimatums: stress and shame are what drove the illness in the first place. Throughout her struggle, she has trained herself to deal with bullying, shame and pressure. There is little, if anything, you can do to “force her hand.” It will take much patience and persistence before she starts to come around. There’s no “silver bullet”.
Do not give in: Someone with an eating disorder is a “master of manipulation.” She may unexpectedly shift the blame for her condition to you, or perhaps try to ridicule your “naïve” desire to get involved. She may ask you to help her keep her illness secret. Do not accept any responsibility for her emotional or physical ailments – your role is not to be a punching bag or a crutch, your role is to encourage her to seek professional treatment.
It’s important to come to terms with the fact that we cannot heal our friend’s illness. That is something that demands much time, professional help and a supreme effort on their part. Our job as friends and family is to help her to imagine a better life for herself and lovingly encourage her to seek out the professionals that can help her to heal.