Family Coping: Assisting Your Loved One through an Eating Disorder
Realizing that your loved one might have an eating disorder can be devastating. You may experience many feelings, from confusion to anger. It is normal to wonder what would cause your loved one to feel so unhappy about their image that he or she needed to resort to an eating disorder. You may even feel that there was something you could have done to prevent him or her from going to such extremes.
Eating disorders are misunderstood by both loved ones and the individuals suffering from them. By educating yourself, you can recognize the symptoms of a true eating disorder and learn how to help your loved one cope and recover from it more efficiently.
Symptoms of an Eating Disorder
There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes an eating disorder. If you suspect your loved one is suffering from an eating disorder, there are specific symptoms to look out for. When a person refuses to eat meals or has lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time, that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has an eating disorder. In some cases, underlying medical conditions, prescription medications or temporary stress can cause rapid weight loss or appetite changes.
Common symptoms of true eating disorders include, but are not limited to:
- Denial of hunger or blatant refusal to eat
- Irrational fear of gaining weight
- Negative body image or self-image; overfocus on body
- Lack of emotion
- Excessive dieting and exercise that goes beyond a crash diet
- Extreme irritability – especially when confronted about eating (or lack thereof)
- An obsession with food, calories and nutrition
- Insomnia or sleeping too much
- Anti-social behavior/isolation
- Menstrual issues – such as loss of period
- Physical changes in appearance – such as sagging skin, pale tone, dry skin, sunken eyes or loss of hair
- Damaged gums or teeth or bad breath on a frequent basis
- Going directly to the bathroom after finishing a meal
- Binge eating episodes followed by extreme depression or irritability
- Rigid/ritualistic behaviors around food; pickiness
- Avoiding family functions; holidays, birthdays, etc.
- Lack of ability to focus or concentrate
What You Can Do
If you suspect that someone you care about has an eating disorder, it is important to seek immediate professional help. Never accuse a person of an eating disorder, even if you have valid suspicions. Discuss your concerns rationally, but keep in mind that a person with an eating disorder will be stand-offish when approached about their possible disorder. While some feel ashamed or embarrassed about their eating disorder, others are in denial – even when they’re suffering extreme illnesses as consequence of their disorder.
It is not unheard of for someone with an eating disorder to become defensive and angry when accused. You may wish to provide the individual with resources or offer to visit a support group so that they can see there is assistance out there and that they aren’t alone. Most importantly, educate yourself and your loved one about their potential eating disorder and let them know that it will be okay. Provide your support – without judgment – and help them cope.
Eating disorders are life-long struggles that your loved one will cope with every day. Even after receiving treatment, he or she may have relapses or periods where he or she struggles to maintain. By offering your on-going support and understanding, your loved one is more likely to recover and remain healthy.
Heather Russo is the clinical director of a San Diego-based treatment facility.