I’d like to say my eating disorder is a distant, unfathomable memory of the Taylor Swiftian "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" sort, but the truth is, I am not part of the statistical population who chose health and fulfillment over restriction.
For me, anorexia is much more like that douchebag I hooked up with for months who still texts me when he gets bored in his committed relationship: I know he’s destructive, but I lean-sometimes rather heavily -- on my friends and loved ones to keep me from letting myself go down that dangerous path.
I am incredibly lucky to have some wonderful friends who helped pull me through…and again, after my relapse. However, I’ve also had friends who blocked my recovery process, some unintentionally and some due to negative feelings or resentment.
Blame the repression of painful memories or a starvation-induced reduction in grey matter, but whatever the case, I remember very little about the day I was first diagnosed 7 years ago. I remember my diagnosis weight, which I won’t share, because I know that Anorexic Me would have interpreted such information as "thinspiration."
I remember the feeling of my (empty) stomach sinking as the doctor told me that I would probably be required to take a mandatory leave of absence until I reached a weight deemed acceptable. And I remember going to the dining hall with my best friend for lunch.
As I distrustfully walked through the buffet line only to order steamed vegetables and a side of pickles, my friend who worked at the cafeteria let out a whistle and said, “Damn that’s all?! Power to you, sweetheart; no wonder you’re so skinny!”
Then my BFF’s glare caused her to melt into an Alex Mack-esque puddle and now she lives under the frozen yogurt machine. So, cautionary tale.
I get that it can be challenging -- and frustrating -- to deal with a friend who is sick. But the key to remember is that her weight or eating behaviors are not the sickness, just the visible evidence of an underlying psychological and neurochemical problem which can’t be snapped-out of by “choosing” to eat more.
As a recovered-but-indefinitely-at-risk ex-anorexic, here are my retrospective suggestions for how I’d have liked to be treated:
DON’T question the existence of my eating disorder.
It was baffling when, after admitting my disorder to my friend one night, she began observing my intake of food and making comments like “Peanut butter’s LOADED with calories.” Or when another girl I trusted downplayed my dangerously low weight and said, “That’s not REALLY anorexic, I knew a girl who was at least 10 pounds less than that.”
If your motive is to make the disorder less threatening by downplaying it, please note that these statements will only embarrass me and make me less willing to open up and seek help. If your words are rooted in judgment, resentment, or envy (“You just need to make your life like an episode of One Tree Hill, don’t you?”), please find a way to work out those issues, or tell me you love me but find it too hard to talk to me about this.
DO be as open as possible.
Tell me what you’ve been seeing and how it makes you feel (bonus points if you use “I” vs. accusatory-sounding “you” statements).
Unfortunately there’s not much you can do to make someone who is over 18 get help, except guiding her to see that she deserves to recover and that it is challenging but possible. If I continue to deny my problem, and you believe I’m heading toward death by starvation, you should tell a family member of mine or someone trustworthy. But you don’t have to do it in a weird middle school-y betrayal way. You can let me know that you plan on telling someone because you care and are worried about me, and continue to offer your listening skills and support.
DON’T make comments about weight gain.
Well-intended remarks about how I look prettier with “some meat on my bones,” or even about how “healthy” I look, get twisted through my f’d up brain-synapses into a command to start restricting again. Yeah, I hate this too. Anorexia is like a cat-piss stain on my sofa of awesome-ness. (My original analogy involved weeds in a flower garden, but aren’t you glad I went this route instead?)
If you want to comment about my progress, mention that I seem to be flourishing, or tell me I seem to be returning to a person who is in love with the world vs. caught up in a battle with myself.
DON’T make comments about other girls’ or celebrities’ bodies.
(I feel like this should just go under “how to not be a dick” in general.) Also, try not to put your own body down in. If you must engage in self-disparaging remarks, tell your therapist or most supportive friend, so that they can help you realize how much better you should be to yourself and kick out whatever mental minions are chillin’ in your brain-terrain.
The comments will make me feel insecure, and venting to someone who has obsessively whittled her way down to a dangerously low weight probably won’t make you feel much better either.
DO remember that I am still the same woman you chose to make your friend.
This may be a rocky period where I’m not able to focus on your life as much as we are used to. I may do shitty things like skip birthday parties because I’m freaking out about a binge the night before, or forget to ask you about your recent date or job review.
Please show me the same patience and trust that you’d want yourself. It really does boil down to the Golden Rule.