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Guest blog – Some eating disorders are hidden in plain sight: supporting someone with an eating disorder

Author Hope Virgo, founder of #DumpTheScales, provides a guest blog for Mental Health Week on how we can support those we know struggling with eating disorders …

For so much of my life I hid what I had been through, whilst creating this narrative in my head that the reason things had happened to me was because there was something categorically wrong with who I was.

From the age of 13, after eight months of sexual abuse, my emotions and these feelings about who I was had become even more amplified. I had to find a way to deal with it, and for me this came out in the form of food restriction and obsessive exercise.

And over the next four years as I hid my behaviours from everyone around me, covering up what was really going on, I became more and more embedded in this nasty illness.

At 17 I was admitted to a mental health hospital where I began my road to recovery. So much changed for me in that year, and by the time I left treatment I knew what I had to do to stay well.

I was nowhere near fully recovered when I left treatment, which in itself had its own challenges from learning how to eat out in restaurants, how to shop for clothes, how to feed myself and how to communicate. But the more I practised, the more I challenged my behaviours, the easier things got.  

Like my recovery from anorexia, my journey with faith has also been something that has not been linear. And at times I found myself getting quite stuck in the stages with God. The anger at him for the eating disorder was huge and something that I carried for such a long time. I left church at the age of 17 when I began my hospital admission and vowed never to go back, so when I found myself on a hot June afternoon sitting in the back of church 11 years later, I was also quite shocked.

After going on an Alpha course at HTB and starting to unpack the hurt, the pain and so many questions, I decided to return to faith. This has been the best decision ever! It hasn’t been plain sailing and it has had its challenges but it also has kept me going on those days when life was feeling impossible to navigate.

I have had to learn to sit in this place of uncertainty around not being fully healed, and learning to step out in faith over the fear. And on those days when things are feeling harder and I have no idea what to say to God or what to pray, I simply put on worship music, read a study and try and be intentional about leaning in further.

Eating disorders are still one of the most stigmatised illnesses. They are often seen as a lifestyle choice, a diet gone wrong, someone being difficult about food when in actual fact, eating disorders are extremely serious mental illnesses. And one, may I add, that cannot be judged on what a person looks like.

It is this stigma across society that leaves so many suffering in silence, so many sitting with shame, fear and guilt. As communities, faith groups, schools, and churches there are things that we can do to make sure that we are creating a safe space for those affected by eating disorders.  

5 Tips on supporting someone with an eating disorder

  1.  Educate your community, your small group leaders, the congregation. Run sessions for your youth, adults and your carers. We talk about other mental health issues, but yet in so many places still shy away from talking about eating disorders.
  2. In your small groups be aware of who is there, and that food may be harder for some to navigate. If you know of someone with an eating disorder in your group, take time to understand what would work for them in that space with regards to food. This might be offering them the chance to cook, or doing bring and shares, sharing the menus a few days before and being aware that some people might struggle with portions if they have to serve themselves.
  3. Stop telling people to love their bodies, to pray harder for healing or that they need more faith to be healed.
  4. Bring the conversation out into the open, asking them how you can support. This might be emotionally, it might be listening, distracting around meal times, checking in at certain points in the year or practically offering to take someone to a food shop, or cook with them.
  5. Remember the eating disorder isn’t about food, exercise or body image – but it is because something is going on for that person so taking time to understand that, through listening and helping them communicate can really help.

Talking about eating disorders is hard, it can feel scary, and worrying, but unless we bring these conversations out into the light people will struggle to heal. People will suffer in silence.

So let’s make a commitment this mental health awareness week to begin these conversations, to commit as a church to changing the narrative around eating disorders.

Hope is on Instagram and her latest book is available to pre-order at https://spckpublishing.co.uk/is-real-freedom-possible

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