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Caring for someone with an eating disorder

Do you know someone who has an eating disorder or body image issue? You’re not alone.

 The Butterfly Foundation supports thousands of Australians every year including children, partners, family members or friends of someone with an eating disorder or body image issue. 

 If you give unpaid care or support to someone with an eating disorder, whether physical, emotional, social or financial, you are considered a ‘carer’.

Most carers know little about eating disorders at first so when you become aware that someone close to you has an eating disorder it can come as quite a shock. There are many reasons why people develop an eating disorder. And while eating disorders may be more common at certain stages of a person’s life, they can impact anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

 

How do you know if someone close to you has an eating disorder?

Regardless of how close you are to the person experiencing an eating disorder, it’s very possible that you may not have recognised some, or all of the symptoms that are occurring. That’s a common experience among carers because secrecy and denial are often part of an eating disorder. It can be hard to get someone with an eating disorder to accept the help they need for those reasons.

“We knew nothing. So, it was a bit of a shock…Yeah, a really scary experience actually.”

A few signs to be aware of

Some of the signs and risk factors you may notice include: 

  • Constantly dieting or refusing to eat some food groups - perhaps both;
  • Continually thinking about kilojoules or calories and their body, weight or image;
  • Changes in eating habits - there may be a greater concentration on health foods for instance, some foods are considered to be “good” and some “bad”;
  • There is more anxiety around meal times and the person with an eating disorder is becoming more rigid and ritualistic in the way their food is prepared and consumed;
  • More food than usual is disappearing from the fridge or pantry which may be a sign of binge eating;
  • A lack of control around food;
  • Replacing meals with fluids;
  • Exercising has become an obsession;
  • Social isolation and withdrawal ;
  • Regularly fatigued. There may also be fainting or dizziness;
  • Getting rid of food through vomiting, laxatives or diuretics.

What to do when you realise someone you’re close to has an eating disorder

Difficult and honest conversations can be the first stage of a person’s recovery from an eating disorder. The person with an eating disorder may appear frustrated or angry; perhaps even hostile when the subject is raised. It’s best if you don’t take their reaction personally and try to be non-judgmental. An eating disorder doesn’t occur overnight so you can’t expect that recovery will happen quickly either. Patience, perseverance and understanding are among the main principles of caring for someone with an eating disorder.

There are some things that you can do to prepare yourself:

  • Learn as much as you can about understanding eating disorders;
  • Remember they are still the same person and their challenging behaviour is most likely due to their eating disorder;
  • Continue to communicate openly and try to understand the feelings that exist beneath the eating disorder and do so with compassion and empathy.

Being a carer can be challenging

The eating disorder recovery process can be a slow one and there are highs and lows along the way.

It’s not uncommon for carers to feel isolated and overwhelmed by the responsibility. The demands can be so great that your own physical and mental health deteriorates.

“I feel that the sustained levels of stress and anxiety over the years in which {they were} most unwell are now having an effect, despite the relief, hope and joy of seeing recovery as a reality.”

But when you connect with support groups that specialise in eating disorders you soon find out that you are not alone and that all carers experience one or more of the following feelings from time to time:

  • You may feel that in some way you are responsible for the eating disorder;
  • You feel that the eating disorder has taken over your life;
  • You want to ‘fix the eating disorder’ and make it go away;
  • You are disturbed by the physical and psychological changes that you see;
  • You doubt your ability to manage and you don’t believe that change is possible. It is normal for you to think and feel this way.
  • You fear meal times and the prospect of those challenges long term.

Reaching out to carer support groups and contacting The Butterfly Foundation helpline when you feel overwhelmed is really important; these are also the times when it’s really helpful to be in contact with other carers who experience the same thoughts and feelings.


Don’t neglect yourself, make your own wellbeing a priority

Being a carer can affect your work and family life and your emotional, mental, financial and physical wellbeing.

A survey of carers published in the The Butterfly Foundation’s Maydays Report identified mental health (83%); sleep (76%); relationships (76%); and social life (71%) as the areas of a carer’s life that are most impacted by caring for someone with an eating disorder. The survey also found that 78% of carers have given up work or study to provide full time support for their loved one.

“...you are expected to treat your child...it is just this constant grind of day after day after day.

Carer stress is a term used to describe the mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that comes with the responsibility of intense or long periods of care-giving. Carer stress is more common among carers who don’t take breaks or connect with support and friendship groups.

“I tend to feel that it’s a little self-indulgent to worry about myself.”

It’s not selfish to take time out for yourself and to get some support, it’s a necessity.

“The value of peer support is so great. I would’ve gone to group support groups if I knew about them. Just to see that recovery is possible. I would’ve liked that support where hope could’ve been instilled in me.”

Almost 64% of carers feel as though they need help but they don’t ask for it

As a carer you may feel very hopeful on some days and less hopeful on others. On those less hopeful days it’s really important to know that you are not alone. There are many helpful resources and support groups for carers and the road to recovery is full of inspiring personal stories. Reaching out to other carers and using all of the available resources reduces the feelings of isolation and it reminds you that recovery is definitely possible. 

 

 

Recovery is possible

If you are a carer then it is important to remain hopeful.

Recovery for people with an eating disorder is possible. Research and experience are teaching us more all the time and so are the many inspiring personal stories told by people who are on the path to recovery.

“It was the first time I had come across it so I didn’t even know there were avenues to help.”

 As a carer, support for both you and the person you know with an eating disorder can be vital.

The Butterfly National Helpline provides non-judgmental support, free information and referrals both for the person you care about, and you as carer.

 

Getting support

If you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder, it is important to seek help immediately. The earlier you seek help the closer they are to recovery.

For support, information, access to resources or referrals, you can also contact Butterfly's National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (8am-midnight, AEST, 7 days a week), email support@thebutterflyfoundation.org.au, or webchat.

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Worried about a friend or someone you care about?

It can be extremely difficult raising the subject of eating disorders with a friend or loved one. To be supportive one needs to learn what to say and what not to say.  

 

We can help you with knowing when to talk to your friend and what to say. ›

Concerned parents & carers

Communicating your concern with your child about eating and dieting behaviour can be extremely difficult. Butterfly offers a range of services that can provide you with skills and information related to communicating with your child.  

 

We can help you with recognising issues and what to do. ›

Teachers & Professionals Working with Young People

Teachers and those working with young people are often the first to become aware of dis-ordered eating behaviours.  Butterfly Education provides early intervention and prevention skills for professionals working with young people. 

We have a range of advice & resources ›