A-Z

Eating disorders (young people)

Friends and relationships

Eating disorders can impact many areas of life, such as family, school or social life. An eating disorder can dominate people’s lives so can also affect friendships and romantic/intimate relationships. People we spoke with often described struggling with trust and self-confidence which could cause problems, particularly in romantic relationships and with physical intimacy. Despite these issues, friends could give important practical and emotional support through recovery. It was often close friends who first noticed something might be wrong with their eating or health.
 
Friendships – highs and lows

People described becoming gradually more isolated and wanting to distance themselves from others, including friends, when they developed an eating disorder. Sometimes they compared themselves to others and felt “inferior”, “outcasts”, “lonely” and like they didn’t fit in. Charlotte said she originally started restricting her food intake because she thought everyone else was doing it and she wanted to fit in. A person’s friends were often the first to notice and raise concerns about people’s eating or health. Charlotte’s friends made her watch a video about a woman with an eating disorder to try and show her something was wrong. Nikki and Suzanne described how their friends had practically tried to “force feed” them as they had got so worried. People often felt that it hadn’t been easy for their friends to support them while ill. Friends could feel worried and helpless. It could be difficult to know how to help or what to say, especially as they were often young (in their teens).
 

Craig’s girlfriend helped him realise what an impact anorexia nervosa had on her and others...

View full profile
Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I was with a girl for a long time while I was going through it and I was at like my worst stage, and she basically turned around to me and just said, “Look I don’t wanna watch you kill yourself anymore.” And that was kind of when I was just like, “Well if I didn’t want to have a life, then I’m going to have to change something. Because otherwise I am literally gonna die.”
 
I think it was the first time someone had addressed it and, and kind of been completely emotional and upfront with me about it. Because before I think there’s the whole they would, like my parents would come to me and it would be quite detached, so they wouldn’t want to seem upset about it. Whereas she was just completely open with it and just pretty much broke down in front of me. And then that’s kind of when I saw how much it was upsetting people.
 
 

Suzanne’s friends threatened to force feed her. Although she knew they were joking, she realised...

View full profile
Age at interview: 16
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I definitely didn’t feel like that when I was 11 or 12, when I first started secondary school, but in the next two years, sometime around about then I began to feel that way. Because I think it might have been year 9 or year 10, I can’t remember exactly but I didn’t really eat that much. I mean I thought I ate alright, but obviously according to my friends I didn’t because they used to threaten to force feed me and they used to say that I wasn’t eating enough. So there was this sort of joke between us I used to call them the Food Police, and I said “I’m gonna make you a badge one of these days,” and it was a sort of a joke, but I could tell that they were worried about me. 

 

Jasmin knows how difficult it can be to know what to say to someone with an eating disorder. She...

View full profile
Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
In terms of how my friends have been with it, I think I’ve been really lucky , I mean there are friends that, there are best friends and the friends I’m really close to that I knew were there for me but that didn’t really know what to say, whether that’s because they didn’t understand it or just didn’t know how to deal with it, which I completely understand because I don’t, you know, if you’ve never been through it and, it’s not something you’ve had to deal with before and you don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know if I’d really know how to deal with it, or what to say. But I still knew they were there for me, and then I’ve had friends that kind of somehow knew exactly what to say every time and my, if I needed to ring them, if ever I was having a panic attack I could ring them. And they’d calm me down, one friend in particular, who was just the one who came to the doctors with me, she just would always know what to say and would just calm me down a lot. 
 
People often lost contact with most of their friends while they were ill. They could feel too tired, taken over by their eating disorder or too low to keep up their friendships. Maria said that when she was unwell she didn’t even think about friends or social life. Rebekah described how for a whole year she cut off all social contacts, spent all her time in her bedroom and only got support from online pro-eating disorder forums. People sometimes felt their friends excluded them or spoke about them behind their backs. Hannah Z said that although her friends wanted to help her, they didn’t know how and she felt people just “edging” away from her.
If people were admitted to hospital, they could stay for months and lose contact with friends. Many said that their “true friends” stuck by them throughout and sometimes came to visit in hospital. People could also form new friendships in hospital that could last long after leaving the unit.
 

As Rebekah started to get better, she told her friends about her bulimia. Everyone was really...

View full profile
Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I started to get like leave, so I was allowed home for weekends, and I was going out with my friends and I started like reconnecting with everybody and, I got back into the social sort of circle, and I broke it to like, I told my friends what had happened, where I’d been, and they were like extremely shocked and they were like, they were, they were just basically just a bit frustrated that I didn’t come to them. And I guess it’s because I just felt, well they’re not going to take me seriously. They’re gonna think I’m a bit of a head case because of like, you know, it’s a mental health condition and people, I just thought they would just see me as a bit crazy.
 
But they were really supportive when, you know, some of them came to see me whilst I was in hospital so that, and I think seeing like, when your family and your friends come to see you and support you it’s like, it’s really good because it just makes you just wanna just continue with getting better and just recovering. 
 
People described emotional and practical ways that their friends had supported them:
 
• Helping to contact health services
• Going along to doctors’ appointments
• Helping with cooking 
• Support with eating in public 
• Just being ‘there’ for them. 
 
In recovery, friends could help with getting back into social life. Maria described how her friends helped her “out of the bubble” of mental health problems. Elizabeth said friends could help her see that her thoughts around eating were irrational. Laura said her friends “kept an eye” on her.
 
Text only
Read below

At university, Elizabeth found it much easier to make new friends than in school because people...

View full profile
Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 12
HIDE TEXT
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I did make friends, I did, and I’m probably some of the resident hall people in my life now are like, I don’t know what I’d do without them. So I was just lucky to meet people here that I, that kind of understood far better than anyone else I’ve ever met. And that kind of made me realise that people aren’t, we’re not teenagers anymore. People aren’t going to react the same way, some people do, some people weren’t understanding at all, and there have been occasions that I’ll go into, that were really tough. But a lot of people were more understanding and kind of made me realise that actually adults don’t have the same attitude to, most, a lot, some adults don’t have the same attitude to eating disorders as teenagers.

Some people felt “uneasy” about the past and didn’t want to talk to their friends about what had happened. Often people still found it difficult to attend social events involving food and eating, such as meals out, even when in recovery. (For more see  ‘Social life and public places’).
 
Telling friends about the eating disorder
 
“I’d want people to look at me and think of what I like and who I am, not what the anorexia’s made me.” Eva
 
When people were unwell, but particularly through recovery, they needed to decide if or how to tell others about their eating disorder. Some preferred to be “open” and “honest” about their past experiences and said they found it “easy” and “comfortable” to talk about it. People often felt there were some who needed to know more than others, for example those they lived with. Jasmin said it was important for her housemates to be aware of problems in case they came back.
 

Katherine did a presentation in school about eating disorders. Her talk was met with silence and...

View full profile
Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I think like basically everyone knew, it was, it was clearly obvious that in quite a small school it was a, it was a village college so there were literally just you know kind of 500 kids or so, that when that kind of thing gets out and people start to notice things, it gets around. And it wasn’t until year 11 when we had a part of our GCSE, like English assessment was giving like a presentation, and I gave mine on eating disorders and sort of came out of the closet officially. And so it wasn’t really until then that I kind of confirmed to everyone that I was ill.
 
Now what was the response you got at the point?
 
Dead silence, everyone, the whole room went completely silent. I can remember getting the biggest like round of applause afterwards, everyone being like, “Oh my God, that was such a brave thing to do.” And like my tutor kind of mentioned it to my parents, being like, “She just, she just stood up and talked about it. Everyone was just enthralled.” 
 
I think it was just because, like it was such a weird thing for, you know people kind of hear about it on soaps and things, but no-one like actually really meets an actual anorexic. And so it was, my pitch from the whole presentation was like, “If you know anyone who’s going through it, like I’m more than happy to talk to them about it.” It was more, it wasn’t, it was kind of an awareness raising and sort of plea for you know, “If I can be of assistance,” kind of thing. So I think people found it quite interesting really rather than sort of shocking.
 
 

Fiona-Grace has been honest about her past experiences. She is not ashamed of having had an...

View full profile
Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I’ve been a lot more honest this time with people and because I don’t think that having an eating disorder is anything to be ashamed of, you know, as much like, you know cancer or any other illness, there’s no shame in it, it’s an illness, and it’s not something that you’ve chosen to do. so I’ve been really honest with my friends and I’ve been like quite pleasantly surprised that they haven’t treated me any differently because that was my fear was that if I told people about it, they would just, they would treat me like a person with an eating disorder, like for example, if someone’s handing around some sweets, like they, they still offer me, they, even though they knew, even when I wasn’t well, you know, even though if I was gonna say no, it’s still nice to be treated the same as everyone else and not singled out. So my friends have been really good in that way, they’ve just treated me the same, yeah.

 

Emily confided in a teacher that she’d been bingeing and purging for 5 years. After years of not...

View full profile
Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
So I went to a teacher at school who like I kind of knew I could trust and, like she was youngish and like fairly easy to relate to, and she was really, really good like, because I was 17, she really wanted me to tell my parents, but because I was 17 like if you’re, I think it’s if you’re less than 16 she would have been able to, but because I was 17 like she didn’t have, like I was too old for her to break the confidentiality or something. 
 
So like she told me to, but I still didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents, but she made me tell my closest friend at school. Like I was, so the day like I went to see the teacher and like talked about it for the first time ever, even though it had been part of my daily life for five six years, like I, just kind of sat there and saying it out loud for the first time ever, when it was obviously a big part of me. It was so strange, and, talked to her about it and about how I feel about it, and like the first thing she made me do, she made me get my best friend at the time to like arrange to meet both her and my best friend the next day. And so we could both tell my best friend together. And I was like, “I don’t, I can’t do it Miss, I can’t do it. Honestly” and she was like, “Please just trust me, like this will make you, I can’t make you tell your parents, but and this honestly it will make a difference.” I was like, “I just can’t have anyone knowing.”
 
But, she was like, she got me and my best friend there the next day and like my best friend was obviously really concerned and wondering what was going on, and I was like , and the teacher said to me, “Do you want to, do you want to tell her?” And, and I was like, “I can’t do it. I can’t, I can’t,” and I was like nearly in tears and so my teacher said, “Well basically Emily been having trouble with this. Like making herself sick after eating and she doesn’t want to tell you because she doesn’t want to worry you,” but blah blah blah, and like kind of broke it to my friend that way.
 
And like that, that night we went back and like walked and my friend was like, “Oh, I’m just, I can’t believe I didn’t know. And like of course I don’t think any less of you.” That was one thing, I was like, “I don’t want you to think I’m,” because I know it’s, I know it’s like something that I shouldn’t do. It’s obviously from, but my friend was just like, “I don’t think any less of you, I don’t, I’m just worried about you, and I just want to help.” 
 
And it was surprising when I spoke to her just how easy it was to just talk about it as though it was an everyday something else, and like ever since then, for the past like four years like, she’s been there every step of the way, and it’s just become another thing that we can talk about quite happily. I wouldn’t want to keep anything from her about it, and like that was the first a step. That was definitely like the best thing that the teacher could have done, it really, really helped me.
Others felt that when making new friendships, for example when moving to university, was an opportunity to leave their past behind. They chose not to tell anyone, or only tell a very few people about the eating disorder. Sometime people feared they would be judged or felt they couldn’t trust people they didn’t know well. Some people felt there was “a stigma” around mental health. Eva didn’t want to be defined by her illness. Emily didn’t want to worry others or to be seen as “weak”. A few people had never told anyone about the eating disorder although they suspected their friends probably had an idea. For some, it was still a topic that “we don’t talk about”.
 

Eva didn’t always want to tell people she’s had an eating disorder. She wanted to be known as ...

View full profile
Age at interview: 17
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I just thought I’d rather not at the moment sort of declare it openly because I don’t always feel comfortable with it. I think if I did tell them I’d need to make the time to answer all the questions and stuff, and because there is a lot of stigma attached to it, lots of people are so not understanding, they think oh you’re an attention seeker and things like that. And I don’t want them to think that of me. So that’s why I’ve not really, because I know declaring it, because I know there’d be stigma attached. So I’ve only really said it to the people I trust.
 
So you can just focus on doing stuff and being friends rather than going through it?
 
Yeah. And because like I want people to see me as being normal as well. I mean I think oh I don’t want people to look at me and think, “Oh there’s Eva, that anorexic girl.” I want them to think, “Oh there’s Eva, she’s the one that likes fashion.”
 
People had experienced mixed responses from others. Most people had been understanding and supportive or shocked at the most. However some had encountered insensitive comments or people distancing themselves.
 

Hannah O didn’t stay in touch with all of her friends. It was difficult for teenagers to...

View full profile
Age at interview: 22
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 13
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
You said you still got some friends from the kind of very early on but then some you sort of lost on the way?
 
I guess you don’t keep in contact with everyone as well but I think I don’t know if I could have understood it when I was thirteen like that someone having anorexia when I didn’t know anything about it and like when I went to my friend’s sleepover, you know, when you’re thirteen and then you don’t wanna have any cake or anything it’s just like it’s, I think it’s a bit difficult to get your head around and when your thirteen. So I can understand why it might have been difficult for some people but I think I was really lucky in that I’ve got like a few best friends and they’re just really nice and you know, no matter what happens they’ll always be your friends so.
 
And did they see you go through all of this from a young age?
 
Yes.
 
Do you remember how the sort of the best friends who you were still friends with, do you remember how they reacted at the time? Did they sort of visit you in hospital or maybe they were too young?
 
Yeah. I remember she came to the hospital to see me, my best friend. She walked, it was like raining and she walked in the room to see me so it was like really nice.
 

Relationships and sex

Having an eating disorder or having gone through it in the past, could play a particularly central role in romantic relationships. People commonly described how they lost all interest in romantic relationships and physical intimacy when they were ill. They felt controlled by the illness and sometimes their hormones could be affected. Annabelle said relationships were never “part of life” while she was ill and Hannah O said relationships were “the last thing on her mind”.

People thought that relationships sometimes played a part in their developing an eating disorder. Some said they wanted to change themselves or become more attractive. At other times a bad relationship or a relationship breakdown could trigger weight loss or bingeing and purging.

Lacking in confidence and struggling with how they felt about their body (body image) could make it difficult for people to maintain relationships. Many of those we spoke with said they felt insecure and uncomfortable about themselves. Rob found it difficult to accept he “deserved” to be loved and Jamie said he needed to love himself before he could expect others to love him. David struggled to accept compliments from others. Rachel actually decided to keep a book of compliments people gave her, for times when she felt low about herself. Bad experiences in the past could make it difficult to trust people. Elene described bad relationships where men had taken advantage of her insecurities.

Body insecurities could make it hard for people to feel comfortable with physical intimacy and being naked with another person. Laura said she felt too self-conscious with intimacy and Felicity said when she was unwell she didn’t want anyone to touch her, even for a hug. Francesca’s long term boyfriend was understanding if she had a bad day and didn’t feel as comfortable with sex.

 

When James was ill he completely lost his sex drive. He was taken over by eating disordered...

View full profile
Age at interview: 21
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 20
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
Oh when I was, at that time when I was really ill I completely lost my whole, what do you call it? Libido, absolutely completely lost that. 
 
Nothing would register in my head. Because I wouldn’t be thinking about that at all. I wouldn’t, I lost it completely. I completely lost all sort of recognition of women and stuff like that. Honestly it was, it was quite strange thinking back at that because, but then again that is a trait of an eating disorder as well. When your body is so starved you just do not think about things like that. And at the time I just, because I was isolating myself so much I wouldn’t think about women or, in that sense at all or, you know, I would try to avoid being or talking about women or stuff like that as much as possible. And that’s what I was like when I was ill. And I was happy like that.
 
 

Hearing compliments from guys at university gave Katherine confidence that she’d not had before.

View full profile
Age at interview: 19
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 11
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT

I’ve always, a in my previous kind of long term relationship that was never an element of it, but also because I don’t think of myself in that way. I don’t, and it’s only, it’s literally only been since coming to Uni that kind of other guys have started to comment on my appearance, and you kind of think, “Oh maybe I’m not actually horrifically unattractive, you know.” And it’s reassuring that kind of there is, you know people see you in that kind of positive light. That you, I just didn’t think that people did at all, and it’s not how I thought about myself. So it’s kind of only impacted positively really. And also like having someone else there who you know finds you attractive and you know, in terms of your personality and your looks, kind of gives you the confidence to take those like big jumps that you need to sometimes with food.

When they worked well, relationships offered a reassuring and safe space that helped people to get better and to stay well. Lauren described her fiancé as “a fantastic support” and Andrew said his girlfriend got him through the eating disorder. Francesca, who was in a long term relationship throughout her recovery, described how much easier it was to be sociable and eat out with an understanding partner than alone.
 

Andrew had no doubt that it was his girlfriend who got him through the eating disorder.

View full profile
Age at interview: 19
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 18
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
What about your girlfriend? How involved has she been?
 
She’s not been involved as in coming to the meetings and things like that, but she knows me better than anyone else, she was my best friend first basically so she knows everything about me, she’s been really supportive. Got me through it basically I would say. No doubt in my mind. ‘Cos if I didn’t have that one thing that did manage to make me happy in life, I’d go and get to see her even for a hour day, gave me the training, going to see her then I don’t think I could have done, I don’t think I would have seen any point to keep living basically.
 
In what way, ways do you think that she has been so supportive or helpful or is it even possible to?
 
‘Cos I could just talk to her about anything. We can say, we can have a laugh and it’s just, I don’t understand it but just being around her I am a happier person. And I’m a more relaxed person, you know I’m not tense or worrying about this or that. I’m just happier and relaxed.
 
 

Craig said partners could easily turn into his Mum and start “pandering” to him. They could...

View full profile
Age at interview: 25
Sex: Male
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
I think, from experience I think the moment that you tell someone that that you have an eating disorder they suddenly turn into your Mum to a degree. So it’s quite difficult in that sense because then you have someone like pandering around you, and then that makes you think about it more. So in that sense it’s quite difficult to know when the right time is to actually tell someone, and, and on the other side of it, if you tell someone too early then that can kind of freak them out and then they can run off thinking that you’re a bit mental.
 
What do you mean that they turn into your Mum?
 
They start doing things like cooking me meals and saying, “Oh well you should, you should eat something.” And, “Oh well done for eating something.” And everything is focussed around eating, and then yeah you start getting really pandered to, and it kind of gets a bit weird. You end up not having like, you don’t have a partner, you kind of have a carer.
 
 

Francesca’s boyfriend was involved in her recovery and knew how best to support her without...

View full profile
Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 16
SHOW TEXT VERSION
PRINT TRANSCRIPT
Actually he’s been very good, ‘cos I think there was always the fear that he’d take on a caring role and he’d be my carer, and we were both quite adamant that wouldn’t happen ‘cos I just thought it would ruin my relationship and you know, so I told him very early on about what was the problems even, you know, and I hadn’t told anyone else, he was probably one of the first people I’d told before I went into the, and I also said, I have got history and I am struggling but it’s OK, I don’t want you to get too involved like, just don’t force me to eat and don’t anything. So the first few months, a year, we went on like that, he was kind of aware, kind of, he’d perhaps encourage me sometimes but we’d kind of just try to focus on the relationship outside of that. 
 
You know we didn’t always do the typical, ‘let’s go out for dinner’ date thing. We just, I suppose we avoided it quite a lot in the first part of our relationship , but obviously when I told him that things were that bad and I went into the Clinic, that was very difficult for him, to say, you know, he’s got a girlfriend that’s actually going into a hospital for a mental illness. But he stuck by me, and you know, he was very supportive and always said he wanted to get involved in my treatment, you know, he was just like, you know, “What do I need to do, I don’t want to push you but I don’t want to watch you get this ill again.” So he was really inquisitive and very open minded actually and it’s been hard. I think there have been occasions where he’s slipped into that caring role and he’s had to say, “You need, you need, you need to eat.” But on the whole we’ve managed to kind of keep a balance. We’re just, we make an effort to do things outside of food and we make an effort to do fun things, and he’s been good at like trying to get me involved, like you know, we do go out for dinner quite a lot now and you know and he’s just like, “Well, you decide where you want to go, like it should be what you want.” And then if he knows that I’m choosing somewhere for a reason that it’s, you know, it’s got to be healthy, then he’ll say, “Oh don’t be silly, we’re going here instead.”
 
And it works, and it really, it works well. He’s tested me and he knows what’s good for me and what’s not. But yeah, very happy.
 
See also our section on Mental health: ethnic minority carers’ experiences.

Last reviewed October 2018.
donate
Previous Page
Next Page