As a BED sufferer, I have had to guide my family to help me get through the process of recovery. I can’t say it’s a 100% successful process, though. The two main people in my life who needed this guidance were my mother and my husband. I have to say that they both have made great efforts to change the way they communicate with me in order to relieve some of the pressure that triggered my bingeing episodes. Sometimes, however, when I am the most relaxed, thinking that’s that, they got it; when I drop my guard, if you will, one of them makes a comment that punches me right under the ribs. It is understandable, though, if frustrating at times. After all, they’re only human and it’s important to remember that this is a process for them too and, since they can’t be inside your head, it’s difficult for them to figure out how to act.
So the rest of this article is addressed to you, partner/family/friend. First of all, this is what you need to keep in mind:
Your partner/family/friend might not be aware they have a problem.
It is a cliché that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. It took me years to realise I had one. The conventions of our society, the media, and the lack of education in eating disorders can make them understand their behaviour as absolutely disgusting and absolutely their fault. I mean, all it takes is a bit of willpower, isn’t it? It takes some time before you get to question whether there is something else wrong with you, something out of your control.
They are embarrassed and scared.
Embarrassment is a big factor. We are always afraid of being judged by what we eat or, more specifically, how much. This can ruin social activities and interaction with others and making those situations more stressful for the person. When it came to talking about my issues, my husband said to me: ‘I’ve never seen you binge’. I had to explain to him that nobody binges in front of others. We binge in hiding, when we’re alone or, at least nobody is watching, hence it is very scary for us to talk openly about the problem.
What constitutes a binge for us might be normal for you.
The concept of bingeing is, actually, more of a feeling than an actual amount of food. You can eat a small amount of food and feel like you’ve binged while you can eat a huge amount and feel fine about it (at least once you’re recovering, while you’re in the thick of it, not so much). The difference is control. If I go through a box of chocolates because I want to but knowing that I can stop at any point, I won’t feel as bad about it as if I eat it with no power to stop myself. I remember when I moved to Northern Ireland and I lived away from my parents for the first time. I would often make myself a bowl of pasta with tomato and cheese for dinner. I always felt like I was eating too much. The truth is, the amount of pasta wouldn’t fill half a soup bowl. What felt like a lot of food then was really a normal portion, but I couldn’t have stopped myself eating it if I had wanted to.
The Thought of Food can be Overwhelming
BED often feels like we’re thinking about food all the time. What can I eat next? Is there something in the fridge that’s nice? Because, trust me, nobody binges on lettuce. It can come to going to the supermarket for the purpose of buying binge foods and just sitting and eating it. Thinking about food all the time becomes exhausting. A point comes when you become afraid of your reaction to it, too. Should I go to that party? Will I resist of the food? What will my friends think if I eat another biscuit?
There are many more things to know, of course, but I feel like these are important themes and a good starting point. The next question is what do you do if you partner, family member or friend has BED.
It’s important for you to know what the problem is all about. Whether you pick up an article, a book or Google it, you’re on the right track. Some basic, useful links:
The NHS has an article about binge eating here.
The National Centre for Eating Disorders also has a page dedicated to BED. You can find it here.
Forget about the weight
One of the things I found about the process of recovery from BED is that it very soon stops being about size and becomes a process about something different. The triggers are emotional and have more to do with self-esteem and how we perceive ourselves than I ever imagined when I started this journey. The pressure to lose weight on its own is a huge trigger of binges, so make sure you don’t mention it. Don’t ask if they are losing weight, when they plan to lose weight or how. Don’t mention if you think they’ve lost weight and even less if you think they’ve put on weight. Just. Forget. About IT.
Instead, focus on something else. ‘Your hair looks nice today’, ‘I love that article you wrote/picture you painted/cake you made’, ‘You’re so smart/funny/kind’. Focus, essentially, and as much as possible on the person’s character as opposed to their physical aspects. It is about changing the focus of their self-esteem to something else than weight or size. See here to find out more about BED and self-esteem.
Don’t comment about the food they eat
Guilt is another big triggering factor, as I explained in Don’t Let Guilt Fool You, and nothing will make us feel more guilty than eating a ‘forbidden’ food. This might be chocolate, sweets, ice cream… whatever. ‘You shouldn’t eat that’ or ‘I thought you were trying to lose weight’ or ‘that’s really fattening’ are big no-nos. A big part of recovering from BED is to build a normal relationship with food and in order to do that, we need to be able to eat something previously thought as ‘bad‘ and not feel guilty about it, which will allow us then to move on, as opposed to triggering a binge. Any sort of recrimination will definitely antagonise all that work.
These are, for me, the three big things that the people who support me can and do for me. There is, of course, much more to it, but it is a big help to start with these. The bottom line is ensuring that your partner/family/friend who suffers BED feels safe with you, comfortable, in an environment with no pressure where he/she knows they can speak about their issues or feelings and be listened to without judgement.
You can find more articles in the blog The Writing Cat.
Caroline C. Neale