NEDA Week 2017: It's time to talk about it
In lieu of Friday Finds, I wanted to talk about the National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017. The theme is "It's time to talk about it" and I agree. As someone who works in the treatment of eating disorders, it's a heartbreaking illness to watch someone struggle with. Below are some answers to questions, resources, and ways to get involved. This post was adapted from and parts are supplied by The Full Helping.
As the NEDA website makes clear, this topic is about much more than just increasing the awareness of EDs. It’s about bringing more attention to EDs in their different forms and complexity, about breaking the stigmas that surround the topic, and celebrating those who have gathered up the courage to challenge their illnesses and put themselves on a path of recovery. NEDA describes the theme as:
It’s time we take eating disorders seriously as public health concerns. It’s time we bust the myths and get the facts. It’s time to celebrate recovery and the heroes who make it possible. It’s time to take action and fight for change. It’s time to shatter the stigma and increase access to care.
EDs are often ridden with shame, and it can be extremely hard for those who need treatment to actually seek it. It’s all too easy to treat EDs as insignificant, and dismiss them, especially when people often label them as a problem for the 'rich' or 'white people'. But these illnesses will probably touch all of our lives sooner or later, and we can all participate in changing the cultural landscape to promote positive attitudes and relationships with food.
If you’re expressing concern to someone who has an ED:
- Understand that your loved one may respond defensively or with expressions of denial that something is wrong. It’s OK. Even if the conversation is short, even if it doesn’t go very far, you’ll still have an opportunity to plant a seed of awareness and concern. This seed may grow into your loved one’s being able to understand and appreciate that he or she is cared for and that the struggle hasn’t gone unnoticed.
- Don’t approach the dialog with an agenda. The defensive reflex will probably be stronger if your loved one senses that you want him or her to do something or respond in a certain way. Instead, treat your part of the conversation as a heartfelt, non-judgmental expression of love. Allow yourself to be there for support.
- Remember that it’s not your job to fix or treat. ED treatment should be administered by professionals who have specialized training and an understanding of the process. It’s totally OK to recommend resources or offer to support your loved one in finding a treatment professional. It’s not your job to offer treatment or to come up with a plan for the person you care about.
- Educate yourself about the realities of EDs, so that you can better understand what your loved one is going through. It's not uncommon to have a certain view of what EDs are, what they look like, or the behaviors associated with them. NEDA offers resources and toolkits that help to broaden the dialog and supply a fuller vision. You can also check out memoirs, blogs, and websites like Project Heal.
If you’re supporting a caretaker or family member of a person with an ED:
- Supporting the recovery process on the home front can feel like a full time job. If you know a parent, partner, sibling, or close friend of someone with an ED, you can make an offer of coffee, a casual friend date, or even a phone call. This kind of support can mean so much to a caretaker.
If you’d like to change the conversation surrounding EDs in our society:
- Expand your understanding of eating disorders, disordered eating, and body dysmorphia. Challenge the assumptions you draw about how people who have EDs might look or behave. Understand that EDs aren’t associated with any single appearance or shape. Know that a person may behave in a way that seems “normal” and still be suffering. Listen closely to the words people use to talk about food, anxiety, fear, stress, and worry: they may give you clues to an underlying struggle.
- Work to erode the stigma, discomfort, and unease that surrounds EDs. Many ED sufferers are afraid to ask for help because they’re ashamed of how they’ll be perceived; it doesn’t help that perfectionism and fear of making mistakes is a risk factor for developing EDs in the first place. The more we dismantle stigmas surrounding mental health and mental illness, the sooner healing can begin.
- Create more awareness within your community, whether by hosting a talk, arranging for a lecture or workshop within a school or workplace, or simply learning more about what you can do.
- Advocate for ED treatment to be covered by more health insurers. This is an uphill battle, especially as health insurance itself may be under threat for many individuals. Still, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the difficulties that many families face in trying to secure affordable treatment for a child or spouse, and to read more about what can be done if treatment isn’t covered. As someone working in the field, the lack of coverage can be the difference in whether someone gets help or not; insurance can be crucial to recovery.
If you’d like to help create a more body-positive culture:
- Cultivate a body-respecting lexicon. This means avoiding “fat talk,” judgment that’s based on shape or size, and any presumptions that have to do with weight.
- Celebrate food as a source of nourishment—nourishment that extends to the soul as well as to the body. Avoid language that demonizes certain types of food or ingredients. Steer clear of food alarmism. Resist the urge to participate in or normalize diet talk (or cleansing/detoxing talk). Celebrate moderation, balance, and perspective when it comes to eating. Remember that calories are not bad; they are literally units of energy, fuel for us to pursue our passions to the greatest extent.
If you’re struggling with an ED:
- Consider speaking up to someone you trust. If you’re scared, anxious, or fighting off fears that this person will use the information you’ve shared against you, close your eyes. Try, if you can, to remember that your loved one is on your side.
- You don’t have to speak to a close family member or friend if such a dialog feels threatening. You can open up to a school counselor or teacher, a mental health professional, or someone on the other end of a helpline. Speaking to a trained professional or an experienced stranger may feel safer than speaking to someone you know.
- Communicate the struggle in your own language. You may not yet be ready to say the words “I think I have an eating disorder,” or you may not feel as though such a statement is truthful. But you may be ready to say “sometimes I wonder if I’m struggling with disordered eating.” Capture your feelings in a way that feels authentic.
- Listen to your intuition. Online screening tools for EDs are important and helpful, but they can sometimes give the impression that one has to meet all of the criteria of an ED in order to have a problem that’s worth talking about. Despite common beliefs, eating disorders don’t discriminate. They affect individuals of all walks of life. If your intuition tells you that something is wrong, or if there’s a part of you that suspects that the behaviors you’ve been justifying or normalizing may not be so healthy after all, listen. And try to talk to someone about it.
“Talking about it” often forces us to confront our own language, biases, and baggage. Many people with EDs live in homes where food, weight, and nutrition are constant topics of conversation. Even as that person’s illness is challenged, the diet talk and casual commentary about size and shape continues—sometimes at the dinner table itself. It is so, so difficult for recovery to unfold in an environment where food and bodies are being policed, no matter how subtly or unconsciously.
“Talking about it” means taking a good, hard look at our language and conversation and vowing to speak about food and bodies in a more compassionate, caring way. It means questioning the harsh judgments we bring to the business of eating. It means speaking up about the fact that all of us, whether we’ve experienced disordered eating or not, sometimes struggle with food. It means bringing deep humanity to these conversations, being willing to see glimpses of our own experience in someone else’s struggle. It means working to be more empathic, rather than carelessly problematizing what we can’t immediately understand.
If you or someone you love is struggling with food, know that there are so many avenues for conversation and acknowledgment. You can begin by exploring the NEDA site and checking out some of the resources offered, then heading over to Project Hope for additional resources and information. There are many other sites that offer comprehensive tools, so don’t be afraid to keep looking until you find an outlet that feels supportive and safe.
There are too many people struggling with what can sometimes be viewed as an invisible illness. It's important to show our care and love to those who may be struggling, and when indicated, direct them to appropriate places to find resources and help.