Have you ever spent time around someone who is dying? If you have, you know the distinct smell. If you haven’t, I assure you it’s a smell you’ll never forget.
I wouldn’t describe it as a gross, or even a rotten smell. It’s certainly not the kind of scent that is so pungent it burns your nostrils or startles you. No, to the contrary, it’s subtle, almost slightly sweet and slightly bitter at the same time.
It’s the smell of death and that scent used to linger around me all the time. At fist I tried to ignore it, then I tried to cover it, but after six months it hovered over me at all times. I couldn’t escape it. The smell of impending doom was coming from inside me and it became suffocating.
One day a crucial question popped into my head, “Wait, why do I smell like I’m dying? Could this possibly be because I’m anorexic?? No, nonsense,” I assured myself. “I can eat. I can freaking eat.” So I tried. “Okay Lissa, sit down. Pick up your fork and eat a piece of lettuce. Just put the food in your mouth and chew,” I told with myself. But it wasn’t happening. “Eat the food,” I pleaded. But still nothing.
What’s happened to me? I wondered. Why can’t I put the food in my mouth? Then it hit me like a strike of lightening—Oh my goodness, I literally cannot eat food anymore! Panic filled my mind, my heart and spirit. Anxiety overwhelmed me. Tachycardic. Pulse went up to 130 respirations reached 28 breaths/minute. Heart palpitations began startling me. The idea of eating was spiraling me into a panic attack. All my muscles were trembling. I needed to calm down. “Don’t worry Lissa. We’ll eat in an hour,” I reassured myself. Okay, fork down and the small piece of lettuce was left untouched. I took deep breaths and the trembles stopped. Relief. It was simply much easier to just not eat than to face that again.
The Eating Disorder won again.
There used to be a constant war raging in my head. Eating Disorder versus Lissa, or was it Lissa versus Eating Disorder? I wasn’t sure, but I did know whom I wanted to win. I mean, clearly I “know” Lissa should win.
But I never did because I’m not as powerful, not as in control, or even as brave when I dared try to ignore the all-powerful Eating Disorder that ruled my life.
What people need to fully understand about the mind of people who struggle with Eating Disorders is that it truly feels like you’re in a battle with yourself on a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. One moment I’d think, “Come on Lissa, you are a strong girl!”
But then that thought was immediately overpowered by, “No, Lissa you’re insecure. You’re not content. You’re empty and sad and not accepted. Without E.D. you’re a failure.”
The Eating Disorder made me believe that it gave me the confidence I needed and was the only way I had to fill those emotional holes. Imagine the insanity of something so self-destructive offering such misguided feelings of success, even more, a high, a feeling of omnipotence for something that is so destructive it kills you on a daily basis? It literally makes no sense, yet I lived with the battle always raging, and usually with the sickness winning.
That was my reality. It was my truth. By not listening to E.D. and following his orders, I was being asked to do the impossible. The other issue that prevented me from getting clear on this disease is that often people with the best intentions say things that aren’t helpful—simply because people who don’t suffer from this affliction couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like.
Part of my mission is to help people understand how to talk to or approach the people they love that may be struggling with eating disorders. Addressing someone who you may suspect has an eating disorder can create a lot of scary anxiety. For example,
How do you show your love?
How do you let that person know you are worried without pushing them away even more or causing them to feel even more out of control?
So if you are concerned about a loved one that may be suffering with an eating disorder and are wondering how to approach that person I’ve made a list that I hope will help.
Here are 10 things NOT TO SAY to a person with an eating disorder:
1. Steer clear from anything that compliments weight loss or unhealthy appearance
Sometimes people will compliment unhealthy weight loss or say things like:
"I wish I was like you!"
"I wish I had as much self control as you!"
These types of ‘positive reinforcement’ phrases can really downplay the severity of an eating disorder. While an individual may be able to choose the ‘next right step,’ eating disorders are not a choice. Eating disorder voices will twist any appearance related comments into a negative conception. (Cite referent below #1)
2. Be careful with the word "Healthy" or complimenting weight gain
While healthy seems like an innocent way to compliment a person in recovery, unfortunately in current society, the word has also become synonymous with ‘fat’ in some people’s minds. While we know it is meant to state how well the person is doing and how proud of them you are, statements like:
"You look so much more healthy now that you've regained your weight."
"You look great now that you have put on a few pounds," can be really harmful.
The idea of gaining weight is truly TERRIFYING even though necessary for recovery. It makes them feel out of control, powerless, and inferior. Body dis-morphia allows them to believe that those few necessary pounds may have caused them to balloon up like a blimp. (Cite referent below #2)
3. Do not complain about gaining weight or needing to lose weight
You should always stay away from discussing your own dietary needs with a person in active E.D. or early recovery. It’s triggering to think about someone else’s being able to diet and how they’re doing it. These subconscious thoughts begin to trigger behaviors and before they are actually even aware of it, they become a lifestyle, second nature, inescapable.
4. Avoid focusing on food, especially in the presence of food…
"Just try and eat more," or for the binge eater,
"Exercise more self control!”
These types of condescending statements minimize the problems at the heart of the illness. Problems like depression, anxiety, perfectionism, and the desperate need for self-control are a few of examples of problems that lie behind the heart of the eating disorder. Other extremely harmful statements include:
“Why won't you just eat?"
“Here, just eat a freaking sandwich. It is just food.”
“You should just keep food at your work desk, in your locker, or at your night stand to encourage you to eat more."
5. Never make comments about their plates of food
Eating in public is a very, very horrific thing for the person with an eating disorder. The sufferer becomes hyper aware and hypersensitive to people watching them. This can really trigger peculiar behaviors. Commenting on their food at the table is a giant fireball of anxiety. Even innocent comments can be upsetting so avoid the:
"I am so proud of what you are eating!"
"Look at your plate! You are eating a lot! Great job! Keep up the great work!"
Do not bring attention to eating habits, rituals, or peculiarities they have at the presence of food
It can make them feel ashamed of their E.D. Then they become less likely to open up about struggles, and worse, it encourages them to hide their struggles. Keeping a secret becomes the powerful elephant in the room.
6. Stay away from anything that normalizes their Eating Disorder
"Oh don't worry, I do that all the time!"
"I always skip meals."
"Don't worry, if you eat a lot today, just exercise or diet tomorrow to compensate."
This gives them a sense of comfort and makes them feel like what they are doing is not disordered. The irrational E.D. voice convinces the person that IT IS rational and normal.
7. Do not offer, "fix it" scenarios
Bypass comments like:
"Ok, we got this."
"Let's set goals together and I'll hold you accountable to meet them."
That makes them feel like they are carrying an extremely heavy weight of pressure. Then, if those goals are not met, they feel like a major let down. They will isolate from that person whom they set the goals with. They continue to feel increasingly anxious and feel like an utter disappointment and failure.
8. Do not be judgmental. Instead, approach your loved one with compassion. Let him or her know that recovery is possible
Flee from society's accepted stereotypes.
DO NOT GLAMORIZE an eating disorder. You have no idea that the sufferer is watching in terror as their hair falls out in giant clumps, or that they are losing friends because they cannot eat in public. They live in pain, but exercise despite the physical torment. Instead, become educated on E.D. subjects and offer the kind of support that can really help a loved one recover.
9. Become educated on Eating Disorders but do not act like a professional doctor or therapist
Stating statistics, facts, medical jargon, etc. just makes the sufferer feel inferior and embarrassed. While it is important to educate yourself on the severity of eating disorders, approaching him or her with this type of unrealistic verbiage can come across as threatening and spur the victim to put up immediate guards and walls.
10. Dodge comments that negate that the person has a disease, is sick or is the reason for all the stress in everyone's life
Often the person with an eating disorder becomes the family's scapegoat. The focus is centered on how 'sick' the person is. This just gives fire to the flame my friends. This makes them feel more out of control, stressed, and powerless. This also insinuates that they are choosing to have an eating disorder. If treatment was as simple as telling a person to just "suck it up and eat" that would be like telling someone with two broken legs to "just suck it up and walk." Or like telling someone to walk straight into a burning building. These comments are counterproductive.