5 things you should never say to someone who has struggled with an eating disorder
The INSIDER Summary:
• It's hard to know who has struggled with an eating disorder.
• There are certain comments that offend people who have struggled with an eating disorder, and comments that can trigger them.
• For example, don't tell people they don't look like they have an eating disorder, or ask if they're all better.
An eating disorder is an isolating illness - I was anorexic for 10 years before I admitted I had a problem and decided to seek professional help.
It can be hard to know who in your life is dealing with an eating disorder, so it's always a good idea to be cautious in regards to how you speak about mental illness, eating disorders, and eating and body image in general.
Here are a few things that can be offensive to or can trigger those who are struggling with or have struggled with an eating disorder.
An eating disorder is not a mental illness.
I will never forget the time that someone (who had never dealt with an eating disorder) tried to convince me (an anorexia survivor) that eating disorders are not classified as a mental illnesses.
That person, like many others, thought of eating disorders as a phase or a fad, something that people need to just "get over." That couldn't be further from the truth.According to the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Tom Insel, "recent research on eating disorders supports the proposition that these are serious mental disorders with significant morbidity and mortality."
Insel goes on to say that eating disorders have a biological basis, and that they're comparable to addictive diseases, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
You don't look like you have an eating disorder.
A common misconception surrounding eating disorders is that everyone who is dealing with one should be skin and bones. In reality, there are multiple different kinds of eating disorders and they all manifest themselves differently in their victims. There is no one way an eating disorder victim should look.
While I was going through treatment for anorexia, my therapist would often tell me that an eating disorder is about the eating, but also not about the eating. What they meant was that an eating disorder is as much about the mental toll it takes on its victims as it is about the physical toll.
Plus, there are many physical side effects of an eating disorder that aren't necessarily visible. For example, eating disorder victims often develop osteopenia, which is the early onset of osteoporosis, a bone disease characterized by weak and brittle bones.
I wish I was anorexic.
This one really makes me cringe. Women sometimes say it when they're in the throes of wishing they were skinnier. As if an eating disorder would just bring them to their ideal weight and make them happy.
As someone who is recovering from a 10-year battle with anorexia (and still talking to a therapist years after having started treatment) this is incredibly offensive. It reduces a life-threatening mental illness to a quick fix for weight problems.
I wouldn't wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy; don't wish one on yourself.
Wow, you eat a lot.During the thick of treatment for my eating disorder, I was eating three large meals a day, plus three snacks and three nutritional shakes. I was very self conscious about the amount of food I was taking in. While I don't have to eat as much now, I still have to make sure I'm eating full meals and snacks throughout the day to maintain a healthy weight.
Commenting on how much an eating disorder victim is eating can be a big trigger. It can plant that seed of guilt in their head for consuming a lot of food. That can then lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as purging or restricting.
It's good to keep in mind that different bodies need different amounts of nutrition to remain healthy. What seems like a lot to you might be just what someone else needs to maintain a healthy weight.
But you're better now, right?
This is something I hear a lot since I'm in recovery from my eating disorder. Just like an eating disorder is complex, so is one's recovery from it. As my therapist often remind me, recovery is not a linear journey.
It's been almost three years since I started treatment, and I still have days where I know I don't eat enough or I have negative thoughts about my body.
Full recovery is definitely possible for eating disorder victims, but it's not an exact formula. Treatment doesn't automatically lead to recovery. And recovery doesn't necessarily mean you're "all better" and that you'll never have unhealthy behaviors or thoughts again.
I like to think of recovery as work in progress, and when someone asks a question like this, it makes me think that I'm somehow falling short because I can't answer, "yes, I'm all better."