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How to Help a Friend With Anorexia or Bulimia

I have struggled for many years with both anorexia and bulimia.

Eating Disorders Are Difficult to Witness

There is hardly a more helpless feeling than seeing a loved one with an eating disorder. Yet, you can help a friend with anorexia or bulimia, even if you cannot cure them.

This subject is very close to my heart, having suffered from both anorexia and bulimia for nearly a decade from high school through law school. I have also witnessed a number of friends and family members succumb to the difficulties of enduring an eating disorder. With my own experience fresh at hand, I found it very upsetting and aggravating to watch my loved ones suffer. Even though I have been publishing articles online for nearly five years, I have not been able to bring myself to write about this subject until now.

From my own experience, I can tell you that this addiction is more shameful and more misunderstood than those issues that appear to be more "socially acceptable," such as alcoholism or addiction to cigarettes. I cannot tell you the number of times that I bemoaned the prognosis of an eating disorder as a greater flaw of character than someone addicted to drugs or alcohol. In fact, I have read several articles in which people who have been to rehab have discussed the priority of addictions, with eating disorders at the very bottom.

Let's face it. A person who gets drunk or passes out is laughed at, or others feel sorry for him or her. But one who spends time in a bathroom purging is regarded as a disgusting individual.

Sad statistic for women with eating disorders

Sad statistic for women with eating disorders

Like Any Addiction, the Person With an Eating Disorder Must First Want to Stop

I wish I could tell you that a simple intervention or plea for help would get a response.

Unfortunately, during the first five years of my eating disorder, I did not believe I needed help, nor did I want any assistance. I honestly believed that I was allowed to control my weight by starving myself or binging and purging.

Even though my parents made me go to counseling sessions, I lied, manipulated, and refused to accept any assistance offered to me.

As with any addiction, however, I eventually grew tired of the double life I was living. My friends were catching on and even making fun of me behind my back. I hated the person that I was every time I engaged in bulimic actions. I would cry in the bathroom and pray that I would be cured.

What Not to Say to a Friend With Anorexia or Bulimia

  • Have you lost weight?
  • Here, eat something.
  • How much do you weigh?
  • Let me tell you about ______, who has an eating disorder.
  • Are you starving yourself?
  • You must have a really high metabolism.
  • What is your BMI?
  • Your clothes are falling off of you.
  • You look gaunt.
  • You must be living at the gym.
  • How do you do it?

Helping a Friend With Anorexia or Bulimia

Think of any difficult situation a friend might be going through: a parents' divorce, a serious illness of a family member, the death of a loved one.

Under these circumstances, they do not want advice. All your friend needs is a person to listen to them and/or to be there. You can help them immensely simply by being available to talk.

When a friend has anorexia or bulimia, they are already feeling invisible and not heard. Oftentimes, the eating disorder is a cry for attention. Listening without judging and offering love and compassion are the best things you can do.

Once your friend expresses a desire to be helped with their eating disorder, you may (gently) suggest resources such as counseling, books, etc. Until then, your help will not be accepted and will merely be regarded as judgment and the source of additional pain.

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But It Doesn't Make Any Sense!

Oh, I have heard this plea, so many times.

Unfortunately, as with any addiction, the person that wants to help believes that they can reason with the one that is sick. However, they must realize that they are trying to negotiate with the eating disorder rather than the sufferer.

As Dr. Phil often states, "you are not dealing with the person, but the addiction itself." In other words, your conversations with the person suffering from an eating disorder are not really with that person but rather with the disease. This means that you are not actually addressing the individual you used to know but the changed version of them as a result of the addiction.

Keep this in mind to protect yourself from the pain of rejection you might otherwise feel. This person is not the same friend or family member you used to know. Their actions are not truly their own.

Signs of an Eating Disorder

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Pulling away from friends and family
  • Wearing baggy clothes
  • Making excuses for not eating
  • Avoiding mirrors and cameras
  • Playing with food, rather than eating
  • Thinning hair at a young age
  • Going to bed unusually early and/or sleeping in
  • Unusual interest in new recipes and preparing food for others
  • Unexplained, new obsessions, including weather, statistics, etc.
  • Avoiding social interactions
  • Unexplained changes in school work or grades
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Apathy

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Mark Tulin from Long Beach, California on October 20, 2014:

Great hub, I enjoyed hearing your insight and your helpful tips for those people who are trying to help someone with an eating disorder. The disorder is unlike any other condition and it has particular nuances that you have to be sensitive to. Thanks

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 31, 2012:

Oh my, Carol! Gosh, I cannot imagine what that must have been like for your friend. The older I get, the more I hear from friends about their own past struggles with anorexia or bulimia. Its very surprising how pervasive the disorders are/were. All the best, Steph

carol stanley from Arizona on October 31, 2012:

Most of us know or have known someone with this disorder. A good friend of mine suffered for many years..she contracted cancer and always says the cancer cured her bulimia. Either of these disorders has to be a painful existence. Thanks for bringing this out and showing ways of helping. Voted UP.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 03, 2012:

Thank you Sarahredhead - that is why we share, right? To use our experiences to guide, inspire and give hope to others. Blessings, Steph

Sarah Jackson from Southern United States on October 03, 2012:

Excellent hub!! I could really relate to this - thank you for sharing your story. The more we share the more young women will learn.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 02, 2012:

Thank you!!

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 02, 2012:

Came back to share.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 02, 2012:

Wow, that is very cool to hear, teaches. I, too, finally overcame the disorder when I met my current husband and learned to grow up away from the shadow of my family.

Perhaps the best thing someone can do to help a friend with anorexia or bulimia is to love them, and reassure them that they are lovable.

All the best, Steph

Dianna Mendez on October 02, 2012:

I remember I had a classmate in high school with this disorder. She was so, so thin. I always felt so sorry for her. Later when she entered college, a friend reached out to her and she overcame this disorder -- she ended up marrying him too! Great post on this subject, wish we could help each person with this problem to overcome it.

Audrey Howitt from California on October 01, 2012:

And to you Steph--

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 01, 2012:

Hi Audrey,

Thank you so much. Anorexia and Bulimia are diseases related to control and perfectionism. Very difficult to understand, complicated and yes - deadly. They can also deplete your soul.

I am fortunate to have a great group of friends and family, as well as trusted mental health professionals on whom I rely to help me continue in recovery. Best to you, Steph

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 01, 2012:

Scottye, indeed - we are very blessed and fortunate to live in a land of such plenty. If only one could rationally approach eating disorders with logic and reason. All the best, Steph

Audrey Howitt from California on October 01, 2012:

This is such an important topic. I am so sorry that you have struggled with this. I have never thought about it as an addiction. There are often so many issues around control and perfectionism involved in any body dysmorphic disorder. I think it is a very complicated disorder, and can be deadly. That being said, I think this is a very brave thing to do--to write about it. And for all people who have struggled with this, and for you, I wish the best physically, mentally and emotionally.

Scottye Davis on October 01, 2012:

Thank you for this hub. I can see that you have gone through a lot to get to the point where you are now. That being said I would like to tell you something I know. I do data entry for a company that purchases pictures from newspapers and sells them online. Some of these pictures have really opened my eyes to the starvation of people on countries who have drought and famine. A certain picture stuck with me. A full grown Indian man wasting away on the side of a dirty street. He has no food to eat, he would give anything to be able to feed himself. In Africa they have droughts, whole villages go without water, their livestock die from dehydration. I am sure you have seen the feed the children campaigns on tv, these are not lies, these plagues truly exist.

I do not want you to feel bad about yourself by telling you these things, on the contrary, I am telling you this to view the plentiful food we have access to as a blessing and not a curse. There are so many people in the world who struggle everyday just to feed their family, you are very fortunate to live in a land and society where we can buy food at a whim at any time and store it.

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 01, 2012:

Thank you Bill. I have to say that your honest helpful hubs on addiction have been inspiring. Thank you much, Steph

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 01, 2012:

As a teacher I saw firsthand the effects of these disorders and addictions....this is such an important hub, Stephanie. Bravo for writing it and sharing your personal story. Excellent read and I am sending you a hug and a smile for your reward. :)

Stephanie Marshall (author) from Bend, Oregon on October 01, 2012:

Thank you, Faith Reaper. So afraid to publish this hub, but on the other hand, I do believe that my experiences with anorexia and bulimia can be helpful for others. A terrible addiction, yes. Hopeless? No.

Very much appreciate your kind comment. All the best to you - with much gratitude, Steph

Faith Reaper from southern USA on October 01, 2012:

God bless you dear one,

This is such a powerful hub here, especially from your very own perspective. It is such a terrible, terrible addiction to say the least. I respect you so much for writing and sharing this hub with us here, and I pray that many will be helped. Someone in my husband's side of the family had this terrible addiction, and it is just terrible to see someone go through all of this, but I am so glad you are a survivor. In His Love, Faith Reaper

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