Today marks the beginning of Eating Disorders Awareness Week. A staggering 200,000 people in Ireland are affected by eating disorders. That means that each of us is likely to know someone who has been affected.
Bodywhys – the national voluntary organisation supporting people affected by eating disorders, – has shared this informative article on how to recognise and understand an eating disorder in a loved one and what you can do to help.
How to recognise an eating disorder in a family member
Bodywhys receives calls and emails from parents on a regular basis. They range from information requests, to crisis situations. No call or email can be described as a ‘typical’ example of an eating disorder. Each situation is different and many relate to adult children, not just teenagers, this includes men and boys. Some parents also express concern that their son or daughter is in the early stages of eating disorder, or that they have relapsed following recovery. For parents and family members, the emotional impact of an eating disorder is often profound. Many experience feelings of worry, hopelessness, uncertainty, frustration and guilt. Some have described a feeling of having to ‘walk on eggshells’ when an eating disorder becomes a part of their family’s life and household.
Relationship with food
Eating disorders are serious and complex mental health illnesses, which have significant impact on someone’s quality of life, as well as their physical and emotional health. They are characterised by a severe disturbance in eating behaviours and are, in some cases, fatal. When someone develops an eating disorder, their relationship with food changes and becomes self-destructive. Initially, they may start to restrict and monitor their diet. At first, this may seem unremarkable. Over time, however, these behaviours can escalate, become rigid and start to consume a person’s thinking. Aside from changing their diet, some individuals use excessive exercising and other compensatory behaviours they feel compelled to engage in. Some of these problems may not be obvious to others. Due to feelings of shame and guilt, eating disorder behaviours often remain hidden for a long period of time.
Relationship with others
An eating disorder can lead to problems in a person’s body, with how they think, how they perceive others, relationships, their behaviour and it can lead to a fear of social situations. A key sign of an eating disorder is a change in personality. Someone who was previously outgoing and confident may become withdrawn and isolated, their moods may become unpredictable. This is due to overwhelming eating disorder thought patterns they are experiencing. Unrelenting eating disorder thoughts will demand that a person comply with the ‘rules’ of the eating disorder. Such thoughts are not visible to others, but are highly disruptive. A person will feel conflicted as one part of their mind may feel OK, whilst the other is preoccupied by the eating disorder.
Understanding an eating disorder
It is important to stress that an eating disorder is not anyone’s fault. An eating disorder can develop for a variety of reasons, sometimes as a response to an incident, negative feelings or feeling out of control, changes such as a new school, bullying, moving to college or experiencing a relationship break up. An eating disorder can be understood as a coping mechanism and as a symptom of wider underlying issues. Control is a word used regularly by individuals who contact Bodywhys. Controlling food can be a way of coping, a way of dealing with feelings or aspects person’s life that feels so out of control. An eating disorder can be very disruptive and destructive, both physically and emotionally. Individuals may become trapped in a ‘vicious cycle’ without the ability to find alternative and healthy strategies to cope and recover.
Supporting someone and recovery
Denial that there is a problem or resistance to talking about the issue are commons response when speaking with someone affected by an eating disorder for the first time. Open communication is at the centre of supporting someone affected by eating disorder. Talking about how they are feeling and being honest about your concerns is important. Refraining from discussing specifics around food can help to facilitate open dialogue. It is also important for parents and family members to seek support as they care for someone. As with all eating disorders, the psychological issues and emotional distress underlying the physical symptoms must be addressed for long-term recovery to be possible. The support needs of an individual affected by an eating disorder will vary from person to person. Some may require medical help, psychotherapy and informal supports such as a support group. It is possible to fully recover from an eating disorder and to lead a life that is not controlled by intrusive and disruptive eating disorder thoughts and feelings.
If you or someone you know is living with an eating disorder, organisations like Bodywhys are there to help. MyMind can provide counselling for eating disorders. Please know you’re not alone.