NAMI Week: What Can I Do?

Welcome to National Eating Disorder Awareness Week 2014! I’m going to try to spend this week blogging about issues surrounding eating disorders and eating disorder visibility as my own small part of eating disorder awareness.

To start out the week, I want to try to make eating disorders a little less scary. Oftentimes when we try to shine a light on mental health issues, the average joe who does not have whatever condition we’re talking about gets overwhelmed. What am I supposed to do? If I see someone who seems like they might be dealing with this how do I help?

These are important questions because we are just scratching the surface of psychology and neuroscience, and for the most part we don’t have good understandings of the etiology of mental illnesses. It’s hard to tell someone what to do to help fight a particular illness when we don’t know what causes it. It isn’t like diabetes where we can promote healthier eating and more exercise. Eating disorders are complex beasts that can react negatively to almost anything you throw at them. So during this week of heightened awareness, what sorts of things can you commit to to improve relationships with bodies and fight against eating disorders?

To me, the best place to start is at home. We learn from each other and there are very few models of healthy body image and healthy eating. In a world filled with shitty messages about how you should treat your body and how you should relate to your body, the hard work of feeling at home in your skin is fairly radical.

Fight against Cartesian dualism and see if you can’t learn to see your body as an integral part of yourself. Practice less negative self-talk and judgments. Try engaging in activities that ask you to take up space, like dancing, and revel in taking up space. It may not seem like a lot, but your good mental health can be great for someone else. Some really concrete ways of doing this can be cutting out calorie talk. It’s one thing to say you want more protein and less sugar, but calories are actually really unhelpful at assessing the healthiness of a food and feed into diet culture.

Another thing to try to cut down on is “bad food” talk. Many people like to say things like “Oh I’m being so bad” when they eat something sugary or fatty. No, you’re not, you’re eating something tasty. There is no such thing as bad food and it is not a moral failing if you eat more fat or sugar than is maximally healthy. See if you can stop putting moral judgments on any food. It’s hard. You will see how ingrained size, food, and morality are. The more we can cut those ties the more we create a healthy environment.

But there’s a lot more to eating disorders than food and food discomfort. Obviously. So is there anything you can do to help create a positive environment that will help combat some of the underlying fears? YES! Something that I’ve noticed over and over with my friends and acquaintances who struggle with eating disorders is feelings of inadequacy, feelings that our emotions are bad and wrong, feelings that we will never be good enough or perfect enough.

A great thing to practice towards all people in your life is validation. Validation at its most basic is just letting someone know that what they’re feeling is real. It’s acknowledging their emotions and not passing judgment on those emotions. It can be as simple as saying “wow that sucks” when someone tells you they’re having a rough day. This can be done in conjunction with all sorts of other types of interactions like problem solving, but I’d suggest practicing validating all kinds of people for all kinds of things. You never know who needs it and it’s a good skill to get in the habit of doing. Your coworker says they’re swamped. Instead of one-upping or asking if you can help, start by simply saying “wow that sounds exhausting”. This may not seem like a lot but if you make a practice of it you can do a lot for other people by sending them the message that their feelings are valid, real, and acceptable.

Another good idea might be to educate yourself on some of the basics of mental illness. NAMI has some good resources. I would suggest in particular getting a basic understanding of depression since it’s one of the most common mental illnesses out there. A little bit of understanding can go a long way. Hand in hand with that it’s a good idea to keep your own mental house in order. If you’re struggling, be willing to see a therapist. Take some time to think about how you communicate and how you can improve your communication skills. Make sure you’re taking responsibility for your own emotions and learning about how to keep yourself stable and content. Tall orders yes, but the more we all work on these things the easier it is for people who have serious hurdles.

So say you’ve done all of this and made your best effort to keep yourself and your environment validating and fairly healthy. You’re paying attention to your friends and family, trying to be a helpful person, and you start to notice some of the signs of an eating disorder in a friend. They’ve suddenly become obsessed with food, they’ve started to isolate themselves, they avoid situations that involve food. They may have lost weight suddenly or just become secretive about their eating habits. You hear them making cruel remarks about their body. They start going to the gym ALL THE TIME, or eating huge amounts and then disappearing suddenly. You can tell their mood is down. What on earth do you do now that you’re faced with the real beast that is an eating disorder?

One of the most important things to remember in these kinds of situations is that you cannot fix your friend. It is not your responsibility nor is it possible. Hard to accept, but super important. It can be hard for someone who’s depressed or in the midst of an eating disorder to reach out for help. One good thing to do is offer yourself and your time. Ask them to hang out instead of waiting for an invitation (mustering up motivation and intention to do these things can be nearly impossible when depressed), make sure they know you’re available to talk to, offer to go for a walk with them or do something else you know appeals to them.

It’s important to remember that confronting someone about food is probably the least helpful thing you can do. The eating disorder will interpret this as a threat, double down, and make life hell for everyone. If you’re extremely close to the person you  might suggest that they see a therapist because their mood has been off or down and you’re worried about them, but food is a scary place for someone with an eating disorder. Provide them with options, make sure you’re eating enough and that you’re offering them opportunities to eat, and validate the hell out of them.

There is no one perfect answer to what you should do to support a friend or family member. These are some places to start, but there are also support groups available for friends and family members at some eating disorder clinics and that’s a great place to get yourself if you want some additional ideas and people to rely on. If you can spend some quality time with your loved one, try to listen to what’s really bothering them underneath the food. That may be the most helpful thing you can do.

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