Conventional wisdom tells us that no addict can expect to recover in isolation; going it alone is a recipe for relapse. This is especially true of food addicts who share homes, meals and sometimes even the disease itself with family and friends. Sadly, some of these BFFs, mothers, fathers and siblings can even turn into active saboteurs, teasing or shaming the struggling addict into eating addictively.
This is such an important concern that during the 1980s and 1990s — when food addiction treatment centers were at their apex (tighter insurance rules slowly closed most of these facilities) — counselors went so far as to encourage graduating clients to consider changing their living or work environments if they were concerned about being triggered by partners, cohabitants, coworkers, friends or acquaintances.
These centers also offered advice to those on the other side of the recovery coin — the people who love and/or live with a food addict. There are helpful, concrete actions that well-meaning friends and family members can take to provide support to a recovering food addict: Below is a list of 10 tips, plus you can also turn to O-Anon, a fellowship of friends and relatives of compulsive eaters/eating disordered people.
- Recognize your own limitations and keep the focus on yourself. As co-alcoholics have learned, you cannot “cause, cure or control” another person’s addiction, but you can take care of yourself.
- Learn about the disease and don’t underestimate its power and tenacity. Attend open meetings of Overeaters Anonymous (OA) or Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) to familiarize yourself with the signs of the disease as well as what’s needed to recover. Read books on the topic, such as Anne Katherine’s Anatomy of a Food Addiction, or Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction, which I co-authored with Phil Werdell.
- Think about the possible impact of your words before you comment on changes in the addict’s physical appearance. Some addicts feel vulnerable or invaded when they hear remarks — even complimentary ones — about their shape or size.
- Manage your expectations. Recovery is sometimes a slow process. An addict’s “outside” may improve before his or her “insides” do, such as improving the ability to cope with strong emotions and making decisions.
- Consider seeking professional help from a counselor or addictions professional yourself if you find you have feelings you can’t handle. These might include grief if you’ve lost someone to the disease or if your relationship to the food addict has been damaged.
- Offer hands-on help to the food addict if they ask for it in stressful situations. For example, if you’re with them at a buffet, food-related social event (wedding, baby shower, birthday party) or another challenging occasion, can you offer to get food for them so they aren’t tempted by the array of choices? Remember to ask first if they want your assistance since hovering or giving unsolicited aid can be perceived as patronizing.
- Be considerate when bringing trigger foods into a shared living space. The food addict, especially one in the early stages of recovery and/or physical detoxification, may want you to keep these in a special cupboard or another place where they won’t have to see or smell them.
- Express your concern. If you think the addict might be headed for a fall, speak up and list specific behaviors, such as irritability or depression, that might precede a return to bingeing.
- Support the food addict’s recovery efforts. Try not to complain if attending support groups or cooking healthy meals takes up time they used to spend with you.
- Avoid the “do not”s. Don’t preach, lecture, moralize, berate, bribe, punish, advise, cover up, play the martyr, make excuses, usurp responsibilities, guilt-trip, clean up after or expect too much from the food addict in your life. If he or she returns to addictive eating, don’t throw out their food and avoid trying to reason with them while their disease is active. (Your words will most likely fall on deaf and angry ears.)
One final piece of advice: Remember that to the food addict you love, food is a drug.