My friend Carole wanted to share the entire “American Experience” with a friend visiting from France. That included a jaunt to the local sports bar, something hubby and I hadn’t done since the girls were born.

“I want her to try wings and beer, a completely American thing. Besides, we can also celebrate the birthdays in our group.” And that included my birthday.

Why the big deal for a blog entry? It is significant if you are in recovery from an eating disorder (“ED”), however long that may be, and are finally in a place where food is something you no longer fear or rely on as an emotional crutch.

Recovering from an ED is tricky. Unlike alcohol, food is vital to our survival. And though some in the medical arena consider some of these ED’s to be similar to (if not actually) addictions, it is difficult to explain this to friends and loved ones as you recover.

Just have a piece – it can’t hurt.

What do you mean you ‘can’t have it?’

Oh come on, just one, I made it especially for this dinner/event/birthday….

Take some home for your family if you don’t want it.

These are the types of comments that people recovering from binge-based ED’s navigate on a daily basis, especially in social situations. In the early days of my own recovery, I felt like a soldier navigating minefields at social events.

With binge-eating ED’s, a person’s relationship with food is a symptom of their mental and emotional “dis – ease.” Similar to the addictiveness of drugs and alcohol, food becomes the subconscious mind’s way to “self-medicate” by temporarily focusing the person’s mind away from deeply repressed emotional pain and anxiety. During a binge, a person can literally feel emotionally “numb.” The binging (and for many, the purging or laxative use or execessive exercise) then lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and feelings of low self-worth.

Depending on the person, certain foods might provoke and/or intensify a binging episode.  For me, processed foods like potato chips, crackers, bread, cookies, cakes, appetizers, fries, pasta, pizza, and Cheez-Its were what I jokingly called my “food crack.” While a healthy person sees these foods as harmless treats, the binge disordered person may consider these foods to be as triggering as drugs and alcohol are for other people – especially if they are stressed.  You may not even see the person binging right in front you at a party – they’re experts at concealing their behavior.

Early in my recovery as a young adult, I was encouraged to tell those closest to me that I had this issue in order to eliminate my self-loathing and jump-start my recovery.  Despite my educating them about this disorder, the food offers still came. Many still don’t understand just how difficult and tiring it is for the binge eater to to be approached with food while they are recovering. Like anyone else, I like my treats, but because of my history, I want to be cautious during stressful times, because I know my triggers. I’m not trying to hurt feelings or throw blame – these friends and loved ones haven’t lived this experience, so they won’t fully understand it.

So, this is an open letter to loved ones who know someone who may or may not have admitted that they have a binge ED. Here are four ways you can help your loved one:

1. Learn about Eating Disorders

By learning what an eating disorder is, you will better understand your loved one’s struggles.  For your reading pleasure, I’ve included links to several articles and eating disorders organizations below.

2. Attend a Therapy Session with Your Loved One

There is a lot of information about eating disorders on the internet, but the information can be deceiving. Each person’s past and condition varies, so their recovery will differ.  Meeting with a therapist will help you understand your loved one’s condition, plus any concurring conditions they may have, like OCD, trauma, anxiety or depression. Additionally, professionals can teach you ways to support your loved one’s recovery.

3. Don’t Use Food as Love

In the individual’s mind, the concept of food is complicated. While they are in early stages of recovery, their concept of food is a mixture of love, comfort, self-hatred, and shame.  If offers of food are refused, don’t take it personally. To some binge-eating ED sufferers, being offered food early in recovery can be akin to offering an alcoholic a martini.

Switch your views, and use other ways to express your love. Go to a movie, take a walk, work on a craft, or go to a sporting event. Get the idea? Love can be expressed in many more ways than food.

4. Don’t Focus on the Person’s Weight

Wow, you look so much better – have you lost weight?

You look so good  – you were too skinny before…

How much weight did you lose?

Really, how much do you weigh?

What size clothes are you now wearing?

I’ve heard variations of these insulting comments throughout my life. While some people may mean well, asking for such private information breaks appropriate boundaries and can be hurtful and/or insulting to the individual, regardless if their weight has or hasn’t changed. Even if the intentions aren’t ill-natured, comments such as these can send a strong message to the ED individual that weight matters most.

It is difficult enough for people with binge ED’s to be open and honest about their condition with others. As I noted above, we share this information to shed the shame and so you can understand that we are struggling. For those who are very emotionally “tender,” bringing attention to their weight is counter-productive.  In this stage, the counselor is trying to guide the person to turn their focus away from their bodies and safely towards resolving the inner conflicts that created the disorder.  By bringing attention to their weight, you are inadvertently helping them to stay focused, in an unhealthy way, on their bodies, especially if they struggle with body dysmorphia, a common concurrent mental illness.

If you want to compliment the individual, stay off the topic of weight. You can use more generic phrases like “you look happy” or “you look great” or “you look well.” Better yet, focus on the individual’s successes, such as their job, what they volunteer in, or projects they love to work on. In these instances, the focus is on the individual, not their body. In the end, who we are inside is what really matters, whether or not you have an ED.

Back to Wing Night…

We had a great time as a group, and it was wonderful to feel at ease and relaxed at the table. And yes, I fully participated in our evening’s “bar meal.” It was such a simple gathering, but it was miraculous and joyful for me. As a college student, this type of event was very difficult, because I was in a different place.  And it’s because of that different place way back when, that I dedicate this article to those just starting their healing path.

Further Reading & Resources

Are Eating Disorders Considered an Addiction? The Palm Beach Institute.  http://www.pbinstitute.com/eating-disorders-considered-addiction/ Accessed 28 January 2015

Binge Eating Disorder Association. http://bedaonline.com/

Body Dysmorphia Treatment.  Timberline Knolls.  http://www.timberlineknolls.com/eating-disorder/body-dysmorphia Accessed 28 January 2015.

The Carb Syndrome Project. http://carbsyndrome.com/

Eating Disorders. Office on Women’s Health. http://womenshealth.gov/body-image/eating-disorders/

Eating Disorders: About More Than Food. National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders-new-trifold/index.shtml Accesed 28 January 2015.

Ekern, Jacquelyn and Crystal Karges. Eating Disorders and Addiction: Why We Continue to Engage in Self-Destructive Behaviors. Eating Disorder Hope.  http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/co-occurring-dual-diagnosis/alcohol-substance-abuse/eating-disorders-and-addiction-why-we-continue-to-engage-in-self-destructive-behaviors Accessed 28 January 2015.

National Eating Disorders Association: http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/

Nelson, Jennifer K. and Katherine Zeratsky.  2 August 2011. Orthorexia — When eating healthy goes awry. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-blog/orthorexia/BGP-20056178

Peele, Stanton. 10 October 2013. Binge Eating and Addiction. 10 October 2013. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/addiction-in-society/201310/binge-eating-and-addiction  Accessed 28 January 2015.

To the Family and Friends of the Compulsive Overeater. Overeaters Anonymous.  http://www.oa.org/newcomers/family-and-friends/

Types of Treatment and Therapy (for Eating Disorders). Eating Disorder Hope. http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/types-of-treatments. Accessed 28 January 2015.