Hope Virgo is a multi-award-winning advocate for people with eating disorders. In 2007 she was admitted to a mental health hospital after keeping her anorexia hidden from her family and friends for four years. She shared her personal story in her honest and inspiring memoir Stand Tall, Little Girl in 2019.
In her new book, Hope through Recovery: Your Guide to Moving Forward when in Recovery from an Eating Disorder with Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Chi-Chi Obuay, Hope imparts advice, taken from her lived experience as a survivor of an eating disorder, to people living in recovery.
We are honoured to share with you an edited extract from Hope Through Recovery.
The section offers advice to parents and carers on how they can support a child’s recovery from an eating disorder.
Read an extract from Hope Through Recovery by Hope Virgo
So, as a parent, what can you do to support your child’s recovery from an eating disorder?
We aren’t asking you to know everything about our eating disorder, but trying to understand bits of it will help us feel like you are taking it seriously. Read books, research on the internet, read blogs, listen to podcasts; there is information out there. For us, the important thing is that you are trying to understand what it is like inside our brains; the fact that we have this constant battle going on in our heads; that sometimes we will act in a way which might hurt people around us, but we still care about them.
This is key. We need to know that we can trust you to not make us change weight too fast and that you aren’t feeding us more than we should have. We need to learn to trust that we can tell you anything and it is okay. And above all, we need to know we can trust you that when we eat food you don’t assume everything is 100% okay. Levels of trust will change over time and this will be something that everyone has to adapt to. If you are struggling with trusting the person you are supporting, start slowly by giving them some flexibility, let them go for dinner with their friends, or choose a snack they might want to have. When you do this make sure you still allow time to check in with them. Remind them that you know it might still be hard for them, but that you are there no matter what.
Plan activities that don’t involve food
We live in a society where lots of events happen around food, which is extremely stressful for someone with an eating disorder. Support your loved one by varying things so that you can create positive, happy memories together without eating being part of the picture.
Meal plans and set mealtimes
Let us plan meals with you and please don’t change the menu or the times last minute. Eating disorders give us a real sense of control, and we may be facing huge anxiety around mealtimes – from the run-up to them to the feelings afterwards. Knowing when the meal is happening and what’s on the menu helps to alleviate some of that fear. When I began recovery, I used to really struggle being at the dinner table for a long time. When a meal ended, I just wanted to get up and leave. I would often get really agitated if people were taking their time over the meal, particularly if I had found it challenging. Please be aware of this, and also aware that your loved one might not want to be alone after a mealtime. Distraction is key!
Avoid talking about portion sizes, diets and weight
This may seem completely harmless to you, but could have a hugely negative impact on our recovery!
Don’t ignore a need to exercise
If exercise is a problem for the person you are supporting, then speak to your local gym and clinical team about getting a couple of personal training sessions. I know this might seem risky and a bit ridiculous, but I found exercise hard to manage when I was unwell. I was obsessed with it for so long – I would work out endlessly and feel guilty if I didn’t do enough. When I relapsed in 2016, I got myself a personal trainer to help me get back on track. So often when someone has an eating disorder it helps them to have the evidence behind something. For me, understanding exercise and then training in a healthy way began to help me further my recovery.
Hold our hand through it
Please don’t give up on us! The fact is when you have an eating disorder you feel so unlovable a lot of the time. You are constantly pushing people away, and at times the shame gets too much so you push, push, push! When we do this please be patient with us. Give us space to feel and throughout this remind us you are there for us no matter what! Within this remind us that you love us. It sounds simple doesn’t it, but so often we just need to hear those words!
Help us to communicate our feelings
We have spent so long showing our emotions through food, so we need to work together to find other ways. Something that might help is you beginning to share how you feel. Put aside some time every few days to check-in, and put your entire focus on the person you are supporting. It will take time; these things always do, but I guarantee it will start to help.
Look after yourself
Within all of this, it is so important that you look after yourself too. Find your support network; people who you trust and can be honest with too.
Looking after a young person with an eating disorder can be a complete and utter minefield, but it is possible. Despite the many tears and arguments, recovering from an eating disorder is worth fighting for.
This is an edited extract from Chapter 6: Parenting Perspectives of Hope Through Recovery by Hope Virgo with Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya. Published April 2021. Both the paperback and ebook editions are available to buy at the Trigger bookshop.
Support Hope Virgo’s campaign to change UK’s clinical guidance on eating disorders at #DumpTheScales.
• Hope through Recovery: Your Guide to Moving Forward when in Recovery from an Eating Disorder by Hope Virgo with Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya
• Stand Tall, Little Girl: Facing Up To Anorexia by Hope Virgo