When I first came to London, I moved in with a friend from school. It was an exciting time for me - new city, new housemates, new life. But it very quickly became clear that she was not well.
In all honesty, it was a really tough year. I had things going on in my own life too but living with a friend who has anorexia isn't easy and can be quite draining. I had no idea how to react to her illness and while I desperately wanted to be helpful, I just didn't really understand how I should go about doing this.
In the years since though, the two of us have talked about our experiences we had during that time and so for Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to share some of my advice - and her advice - for people who may be living with or trying to support someone living with anorexia.
Of course, neither of us are trained mental health professionals but these are some of the things which we've identified from our experience as helpful, both for the person who is ill and for anyone who is close to them.
Remember you can't see the problem in the way they do - the thing with eating disorders is that they aren't straightforward. It's not like there's an infection and some medication will cure it. Yes, in theory all a person with anorexia needs to do is eat and physically they will get better. It can be incredibly frustrating to watch someone apparently choosing to let themselves waste away. But it's so much more complicated than that and it really isn't as simple as just picking up a sandwich. For the sufferer, the illness can become all-consuming - my friend described it as "the darkest pit". It is not their choice to be like this.
Don't take it personally if they cut themselves off - anorexia can be a selfish illness which makes people cut themselves off from those who care about them. They might particularly try to avoid or cancel on lunch dates and dinner reservations. It might be helpful to decide on a set time each week to just hang out or perhaps watch something - we had a Made In Chelsea date every week (please don't judge us).
Be as supportive as you can without being pushy - you are not a trained mental health professional and it is not your job to try to give diet advice or psychoanalyse your friend. Do NOT ask "what have you had to eat today?". You are not responsible for this. If you want to be helpful, why not offer to accompany them to an appointment? If they don't want to involve you with their treatment directly, then simply being a good friend is the order of the day. Sometimes just spending a night in on the sofa watching a film is exactly what someone may need.
Don't be afraid of mentioning, preparing and eating food in front of your friend - it's easy to think that food has suddenly become a totally taboo subject. It isn't. Food is a normal part of everyday life and you don't have to change your routine. For some people this can actually help in recovery as it helps them to see what is normal in terms of meals and portions. If you're eating or preparing food together, don't scrutinise them and it's really not necessary to pass comment. Just carry on as normal!
Remember you are not an expert and your friend doesn't expect you to be - you don't need to try to offer up explanations or hypotheses behind the development of eating disorders. Don't go on about the fashion industry. Don't go on about people "wanting to be skinny". It's not that simple and it's not especially helpful either.
Look after your own mental health too - living with someone with an eating disorder can be draining, particularly if they are your friend and you care about them. While it's really great that you want to support them, you need to look after yourself as well. Try to take some time away from your friend and hang out with other people too. Check in with yourself every now and then - are you feeling okay?
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