Eating disorders are not easy to live with. Living with someone with an eating disorder can be equally challenging. Meal times and exercise regimes can be hard to navigate, even for couples without eating disorders.
A particularly insidious strain of eating disorder is the atypical form. As this does not involve being underweight, it can be difficult to diagnose. Doctors have dismissed normal or overweight anorexics or bulimics as people simply trying to get in shape. But an eating disorder isn’t all about weight — eating disorders are also a mental health disorder categorized by abnormal food habits. If the concept of an atypical eating disorder is alien to you, read about 4 dangerous misconceptions about eating disorders.
This week I spoke to 27-year-old Emmy Romig, a long-term sufferer of eating disorders, about how their partners, friends and family have helped them with their eating disorder.
Q: What is your history with eating disorders?
A: I’m a 27 year old museum educator living in the Washington, D.C. area. I first became sick and started restricting when I was 21 years old, back in college. Due to the attitude of my family regarding the validity of eating disorders and mental illness in general, I never received treatment. I suspect I would have been clinically diagnosed with anorexia and then later, bulimia. Since then, I have entered a tentative state of recovery, but still struggle. I urge anyone else dealing with similar issues to reach out and not be ashamed — even if it’s a texting or phone hotline.
Q: What is the most helpful thing a loved one has done for you?
A: The best thing anybody has ever done for me to help me with my ED is listen, truly listen, when I ‘come out’ to them about it. The freedom to share not only my victories but my dark moments is invaluable in a friend. I’m lucky enough to have friends and even co-workers who are aware of my situation and are unconditionally supportive of me.
“Offering a plan of action or advice can be so crippling or overwhelming and maybe even annoying, but just listening and showing understanding makes me feel like I’m in a safe space.”
Q: How do you and your loved ones deal with meal times together?
A: Honestly, it’s often miserable eating food cooked for me by others. It’s a total loss of control. Before I lived with my fiancé and I handled my own meals, I could eat food as plain or portions as small as I wanted to, I could abstain from meat or dairy, or not eat at all. I’ve gained a lot of weight in the time that I’ve started living with him, but I’m technically supposed to be in recovery, so in most folks’ eyes, it shouldn’t be a big deal.
Purchasing and cooking food together with my partner means a lot of healthy accountability, but a loss of that total control, over both food and my weight.
Q: Is there anything you wish people understood about your eating disorder?
A: I wish that people knew I was still sick. My current size doesn’t mean my eating disorders are gone. I know that’s expecting a lot of mind reading since it’s probably not socially acceptable to shout your eating disorder out at a family dinner, but it’s hard.
I try to show complete understanding and compassion when meeting someone else with an eating disorder, past or present. I want them to know that they’re not alone and that others are still actively dealing with this. It’s terrible to feel alone.
Q: What’s the worst thing a loved one could do to somebody with an eating disorder?
A: I hate when people comment on portion size. I know, personal pet peeve. But that really triggers me when I feel like my ED is less severe and can send me spiraling. My family did that a lot when I was growing up and I grew up thinking I was a morbidly obese child just because I took seconds at Thanksgiving. My younger cousin is severely anorexic right now and it pains me to see this harmful “joking” behavior create a disorder in another family member.
Speaking to Emmy, someone who has lived with eating disorders for over half a decade, was important in my process of recovery. It is important for people with eating disorders to speak out, to get help and to help each other.
Partners and family members may not always be supportive, or they may be supportive and then leave, but the most important thing is that we help each other through our sufferings and the people who come and go in our life do the same.
Find local support at the International Eating Disorder Recovery Database.