A little bit of a different post for me, but with it being Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I thought I’d share with you ways I’ve learnt over the years how to help care for someone struggling with an eating disorder. Although I don’t suffer with an ED myself (even if I do have tendencies when my anxiety is bad), for the past 6 years or so my younger brother has struggled with severe Anorexia Nervosa, which has been a huge learning curve. To say it’s been difficult would be an understatement; we’ve dealt with nights where we didn’t know if he was going to wake up, long days in hospital with a crash trolley in tow just in case, long residential stays, and not to mention the stress it does cause at home – it’s something that really does affect the whole household. I’ve called ambulances, seen my brother collapse to the floor (sometimes 3/4 times a day), struggle to breathe, deal with psychosis (something that happens when the illness is quite advanced) and whilst it’s been hard, I’ve learnt some ways to help him and myself along the way.
I know how lonely it can be as a sibling of someone with an eating disorder, as you can feel very helpless and frustrated and often come alone in this fight – not many people truly understand the strain it causes on the family unless you’ve been through it. And whilst my brother was desperately ill, I found trawling online for tips and tricks a real comfort for me, so I thought I’d do my own posts about the things I’ve say to anyone else who may be dealing with a loved one.
Please note I’m not a qualified doctor or anything, but I have got 6 years of experience meeting with therapists, consultants, hospital staff, specialists etc!
– Watch out for the tell tale signs, but don’t nag – Having watched my brother struggled with Anorexia for many years now, I’m quite aware of the symptoms that his illness may be flaring up – both mentally and physically. And whilst it’s important to do this incase anything gets any worse and I need to get him help, I’ve learnt that watching from a distance is the best way. Let them know that you’re there for them, but try not to pressure them into eating or watching them eat etc. Chances are they’ll feel more suffocated and that isn’t what they’ll want.
– Be gentle and encouraging – Such a tricky one, as it can get incredibly frustrating (trust me, I’ve been there) but try and be patient. Always keep in mind that this is a mental illness and they can’t help how they’re feeling, so getting angry isn’t the right way to deal with it. If you find yourself getting upset or angry it’s the time to step out of the situation for a little time.
– Offer support – Let them know that you’re there. You can never truly know how they’re feeling, so try not to pretend that you do. Instead offer that helping hand, whether they need some guidance, or when it’s really bad, make those important decisions as they may not be able to. Remember this is a mental illness and their own health and safety may not be their first priority, more often than not that voice will be telling them to do the things that will make them worse, and in the later stages, my family found that we had to get the help as my brother was no longer able to. Unable to even put together a sentence, we knew that we needed to get my brother help and it took a months and months of fighting until we got what we needed. It wasn’t at all easy, but if we hadn’t, I’m not sure my brother would be here any more.
– Try to keep things as normal as possible – Believe me, nothing will feel that normal at home, but it’s so important to get on with things. It can be really easy to find yourself doing everything the Anorexia is telling the family to do (which it does, it’s an incredibly controlling illness) but sometimes it’s not always the best thing to do, as you’re letting it win and strengthening those patterns. When my brother was initially diagnosed and admitted to hospital, once he returned home, we had nurses at the house 3 times a day (for a few months) at each meal time, where it was encouraged that we spent time together at the dinner table just chatting about anything but food, whether that be tv or books etc. It can be difficult not to find your conversation going straight to food and the illness (as chances are your loved one is going to be talking about that most of the time) but try not to let it. Another thing we found helpful was to try and do something straight after a meal, such as watching a film together – which is something that may help take yours and your family members mind off things. It’s important that you still involve them in everything, as eating disorders can be very isolating and your loved one may fear that others will step away from them.
– Look after yourself – I can’t stress how important this one is, but it’s really crucial that whilst it can be all consuming looking after someone really ill, that you must watch out for your own well-being too. Me and my family were always told that if you aren’t looking after yourself, then you aren’t in the best place to care for someone else either – they need you to be well too! Whether that be doing some simple self care regimes (as simple as bubble baths are, just 10 minutes of breathing space was a real comfort for me) or a hobby you enjoy, it’s super important to keep yourself well. Eat well, sleep well, try and do whatever you can to switch off.
– Take some time out – I’ll admit, switching off is something I really do struggle with, but I’ve learnt to force myself to just stop now and again for my own mental health. Even if that’s just something as silly as standing in the bathroom with the door locked and my headphones in for 10 minutes or so, that little bit of space can be a real help and can help you really assess the situation. Similarly it’s important to talk to your friends; I’ve learnt that it’s easy to find yourself putting yourself in this bubble and cutting all ties with people, but that is one of the worst things to do in the long run (unless of course they’re unhealthy relationships – that’s a different story!).
– Talk to people – Again, another one I struggle with. Don’t get me wrong, if I were to talk about my brother’s illness, or how rough things have been I could talk for England, because it’s easy to get all wrapped up in it all. But when it comes to conversation on topics not relating to it, I can be useless. It’s really important to reach out to friends just for general chat, whether that be on absolutely meaningless topics – keep it light hearted, something to take your brain off what may be going on at home.
– Don’t feel guilty – Something that isn’t talked about much is how as a family member feelings of guilt can be an issue. Whether you could’ve spotted it sooner, asked for help better, been more of a support, chances are you’ll beat yourself up about it – which isn’t healthy at all. Please remember that you’re doing the best you can and that’s all your loved ones would ever expect. It can be really difficult as an outsider, watching someone become more and more ill and not being able to fix it for them, but don’t feel like it’s your fault. Try to compliment them on things other than their appearance, and be encouraging, but if you say something that they take badly, please don’t feel too critical of yourself, it’ll just make your more aware for next time.
– Get help – I’m not talking about getting help for your loved one (although of course that’s equally important too!), but I mean once they’ve got that support they need, ask for help for yourself. People often don’t talk about the trauma that’s attached to eating disorders for the families, and if you follow my story with mental health, you’ll know that it has affected me hugely. I struggle with anxiety and depression, and sometimes the simplest of tasks such as getting on a bus or even leaving the house can leave me panicking. I’ve developed a real need to control things, which is proving very problematic (I’ve had 7 years of CBT off and on now) and it’s something that therapists think has been a result of trauma. Although I have had plenty of help, I wish I’d addressed the issue sooner and I would recommend that to anyone – your mental health is so important and your feelings are valid, whether you feel frustrated, sad or even jealous (because that’s normal too). There are also local support groups for family of ED sufferers, so it’s well worth seeing if there’s any close to you – me and my family found speaking to other families in a similar situation very comforting.
There are plenty of other resources out there if you think a loved one may be struggling, such as Beat (who have a website section specifically for supporting loved ones!) or Mind. And if you ever need to chat about anything, please do feel free to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org – although I can’t give any medical advice of course, I’m always happy to listen and try and help in anyway I can!