What to do when your loved one has an eating disorder

by Reba Tobia

If your loved one has an eating disorder, you may have a lot of feelings that you don’t know how to handle. As someone who has been through eating disorder recovery, I’d like to offer you some insight. 

Helping a loved one who has an eating disorder isn’t easy, but your love can make a world of difference. I’ve identified three main points that I know will give you clarity, a new understanding, and support.  

First off, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve already taken the first step, which is accepting that your loved one has a problem. Eating disorders are serious, and they are rarely spoken about or understood. By accepting your loved ones’ eating disorder and seeking understanding, you’re already helping. You have chosen to not ignore the facts or sit silently in fear. Instead, you have taken action to understand. I’m glad you’re here! 

Here are three things that I think everyone should know when they have a loved one who has an eating disorder: 

1. Your loved one doesn’t know how to help you 

Your loved one has just been diagnosed with an eating disorder. Hearing this diagnosis can be terrifying and invoke feelings of denial, fear, anger, sadness and pure, utter, confusion. The last thing this person knows how to do is to help you. They are suffering immeasurably. Their focus, right at this moment, is trying to figure out how to un-hear the words, “you have an eating disorder.” 

In fact, their only goal right now may be to convince you that you don’t need to do anything. That you don’t need to worry. They may also be desperately trying to convince those around them that they’re “okay” and that “it’s not that bad.” They are not going to be able to vocalize to you what they need, because in reality, they don’t know what they need. 

I know it would be a lot easier if your loved one came to you and said “I’m suffering, and this is what I need.” I wish that were the case, but it’s rare. Most often, people who have eating disorders ask the opposite of those who love them: don’t pay attention. Don’t look. No need to worry about it. This is because the disorder has become an important part of how they deal with living.

While reading this, you may be feeling extreme frustration; and that is okay. It can be so difficult to know how to help. It’s hard when the person you love dearly is not able to tell you what they need. This is your opportunity to step up to the plate, to rise to the occasion and educate yourself about eating disorders.

Connect with a therapist who can help you understand, read articles and books, listen to podcasts and attend seminars. Never, for one minute, believe that it is your job to do nothing because your loved one hasn’t “told” you what to do. 

You see, the person struggling with this illness may not be able to tell you how to help for a long time. They must grapple with their diagnosis first. With their team, they will learn new information and ways of thinking. Attending groups and therapy sessions will, slowly but surely, help them learn to ask for help. Do not give up on them, and please, remind them how much you love them, every single day. They need to hear it, even if you think they don’t. 

2. Recovery takes time

Most eating disorders are not instantly or easily overcome. It takes time, sometimes lots and lots of time. There is no timeline to healing, and everyone’s journey is vastly different. Healing from an eating disorder is rarely linear, and requires tremendous patience and endless hope from loved ones. 

There is no prize for the fastest recovery. And many times a slow recovery is exactly what your loved one needs to be healthy. I understand how hard it can be to watch your loved one struggle. 

Please don’t tell them that they aren’t working “hard enough” or that they’re moving “too slowly.” I’m not saying you don’t get to be frustrated – you do! It’s just better to explore your frustrations with your own supports. Telling your loved one to pick up the pace of recovery won’t help them recover.

Your loved one’s body will likely change during the recovery process. But even though some eating disorders are visible, many are not. And most of the time you can’t see an eating disorder any more than you can see recovery. So don’t assume that because your loved one looks healthy to you that they are fully recovered. 

The real work, the grit, sweat and painful stuff of eating disorder recovery can’t be seen. And it typically happens long after they body appears stable. The mental work is the most challenging, most heart-wrenching work of recovery. It takes time and patience. So please don’t cut off treatment based on how your loved one appears. 

3. Your loved one will change

Eating disorder recovery changes a person in the most beautiful, astonishing and remarkable ways. Maybe you adore the changes you are seeing, and maybe you don’t. In recovery your loved one will grow, find their voice, and figure out who they want to be. 

It’s possible that the process of doing this will be messy and hard for you. Maybe their new values don’t seem to align with yours. That doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong or that you can’t love them. Remember that the person you loved was engaged in an eating disorder, and their recovery will require them to change. 

Recovery often feels like stripping away everything you had and knew. For a long time, your loved one lived with a mask on. They were hiding under fear, shame and guilt that was wrapped up as an eating disorder. As recovery progresses, this mask is removed, and that person is the person you love. 

You may notice that as your loved one recovers, they stand up for what they believe in. They advocate and protect themselves more than ever before. At the same time, they may be more vocal and display more assertive communication skills. 

This is actually part of eating disorder recovery. Your loved one is learning how to effectively communicate their needs. But that also means telling people when something doesn’t feel good. This is what it means to live recovered – to live without a mask. And it can be a hard adjustment for everyone. 

Yes, your loved one will change. They will not be the same person you knew when they were in their eating disorder. They will be stronger, braver, more empathetic and sensitive than ever before. They will have a beautiful array of coping and communicative skills. Eventually, they will even have a mindful and peaceful relationship with food, which is truly rare. 

Please let them discover who they are and allow them to freely grow. You don’t have to agree with everything they say or do. But you do need to respect this new self they are coming home to.

My own experience

In my case, I can honestly say that my heart has most certainly grown bigger by going through eating disorder recovery. My love for those who support me is deep, and my compassion for others with mental illness is vast. I am brave. I am strong. I am curious. I am playful. I am silly. I am love. 

I am thankful to be at a point in my process where I am grateful that having an eating disorder is a part of my life story. I am proud of who I am. And I am who I am today because of my recovery. I found my heart and purpose in this world.

So hold on and don’t give up. Let your loved one deny, grieve, cry, and fall. And then, watch them grow. 


Reba Tobia, a Massachusetts native, is the creator and founder of The Brave Box, which offers gift boxes for loved ones in recovery. She has been in recovery from an eating disorder for the past 5 years. She is passionate about sharing her story, and reminding others that they are not alone. Visit The Brave Box Website

Leave a Reply