For Teens: When You Discover a Friend Is Bulimic or
- Category: Coping Strategies
Learning that your friend suffers with an eating disorder can shatter what you believed was an accurate picture of a normal and healthy relationship. The discovery may jolt you into realizing that your understanding of the world around you is incomplete. People you know, perhaps close friends, can be in danger.
Recognizing that deep-rooted, destructive, and often deadly pain exists in your friend can be a loss of innocence and an awakening to mortality and suffering in the human condition. It's a difficult but valuable experience for a person at any age.
If you live a fairly healthy and normal life, it may be difficult and even frightening to hear your friend describe her internal experience. Often people with an eating disorder know they are on a destructive path and that their behaviors can kill them. Yet they cannot stop. Some people are certain that no matter what day it is, they have six months to live from that date. They cannot plan a future or take anything or anyone really seriously, as they don't believe they will be alive long enough to follow through on anything.
In contrast, some people suffering from eating disorders are so caught up in their illnesses that they have no idea they are sick. But you can see when a friend is dangerously thin and yet is still dieting. You can see when a friend has no time for social relaxation and conversation because she is obsessing about her studies and must exercise three hours or more every day. You can see when a friend believes she is engaging in normal behavior and yet acts in ways that do not seem normal to you. She starves herself or seems to be afraid of food or finds ways to excuse herself so she can throw up after eating a meal or a snack with you.
If you confront her about this behavior, she may lie to you, criticize you, or be angry with you. She may cry and ask you to help her but demand that you not tell anyone about her secret. To your dismay, she may then find ways to negate any help you try to offer.
It is natural to second-guess your past judgment in these situations. When you discover that someone you know is bulimic or anorexic, you may question your criteria for evaluating the world and the people in it. You might be hard on yourself, thinking that you should have known. But you can't easily identify someone who has an eating disorder.
Some people are skeletal. Some are normally weighted. Some are a little overweight. Some are fat. Some of these people have eating disorders. Some look the way they do for other reasons.
There are some physical symptoms of bulimia/anorexia that appear if the person throws up a lot. For example, the cheeks get puffy-like a chipmunk's-from swollen glands. The knuckles on the hands can be rough from the friction of teeth rubbing against them during selfinduced vomiting. Tooth enamel can get weak and thin. And there is a glazed-over look, what is called a "waxy smile," that accompanies many eating disorders.
In many cultures, there is a standard that considers that waxy smile to be beautiful, classical, goddess-like, or serene. So a particular perspective of beauty can help disguise or hide the disorder.
Learning about the secret pain of eating disorders is a sad aspect of coming of age. You can help your friend and yourself by learning what you can about eating disorders, researching how your age group is affected, and sharing the information you gain.
You can also help by taking good care of yourself. This is help by example. Yes, you can listen to your friend, but don't try to be her therapist. Suggest that she get a therapist so she can constructively work on her healing. Tell her you know that many people find help and recovery by getting professional treatment as soon as possible.
Don't let yourself feel responsible for her welfare or believe that you can show her how to stop her eating disorder. That's like trying to talk or love someone out of a high fever when pneumonia is the root cause. Your friend's obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior toward food, exercise, and her body are symptoms of her illness. She needs specific treatment to recover.
Yet you can help her. If you are healthy, if you appreciate the caring and the available opportunities in your life, and if you cherish your gifts of mind, body, and spirit, then you will be a better example of health and positive youth. This will show your friend and other young people with eating disorders, whether you recognize them or not, that a better way of living is possible. They will see the proof of this in you.
No guarantees exist. Your friend may criticize you unreasonably. She may be embarrassed or ashamed because you know her secret. She may withdraw her friendship temporarily once you know about her eating disorder. She may find it difficult to face you. Regardless of these possibilities, your example of kindness and consideration to yourself and others may be a major factor in your friend's healing process. The way you live your life may get her attention now or some time in the future when you don't even know she is thinking about you.
You can show her in many little ways, so natural to you that you don't consciously consider them, that a healthy way of living well does exist. Your commitment to living an honest life based on integrity, health, self-education, and self-development is more than a gift to yourself. Your way of life becomes a gift to others. You might, as a healthy and self-respecting person, inspire your friend to seek help and set off on her own path to health and self-respect.
So when you discover your friend is bulimic or anorexic, you can help by being kind, remaining patient, and staying strong in your own healthy ways of living. Health can be catching.
Professional Resources for Finding Help
• Academy for Eating Disorders (AED)
• American Anorexia and Bulimia Association (AABA)
• Anorexia Nervosa and Related Disorders (ANRED)
• Edreferral.com • International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP)
• Joanna Poppink's Eating Disorders Resource List In-Patient Treatment Programs • National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA