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Building Friendships in Recovery
The people you meet in treatment are some of the most influential people you will ever meet. Forming friendships with people who understand how it feels to have a mental illness is comforting and uplifting. This is especially true when even the people who love you the most cannot fathom what you’re going through.
However, it can be detrimental to your recovery if you don’t set boundaries. I have met some of my closest friends because we had common struggles; I have also met people who have precipitated relapses.
If mental illness is the only thing you have in common with someone, it is most likely unwise to pursue a friendship. I say most likely because in some cases it could work out if the connection is more about recovery than sickness. However, if you only connect with someone over mutual pain, your friendship will fall apart as soon as one person makes strides towards health.
Worst of all, you could find yourself neglecting to make progress in your recovery because you are afraid of losing your friend. I do not want to discount how helpful it is to have people to validate your pain, but you can receive this validation in a support group: a safe, controlled environment.
All treatment relationships are valuable, but only certain relationships are meant to leave the walls of recovery centers.
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When I met my best friend K I knew we were destined to be friends, because we had so much in common other than being in recovery from eating disorders. We had similar values and personalities, so we stayed connected regardless of our health status. Together we discovered that our eating disorders didn’t have to be our identities anymore.
Today we barely discuss eating disorders, because we have helped one another to move on.
Something else to consider is your friend’s approach to recovery.
Is your friend truly trying to get better, or are they remaining stagnant in their illness? If they are not even trying to recover, that is a major red light. I had a friend who was so trapped in her eating disorder that she viewed engaging in ED behaviours as a social activity. Our friendship started out with what appeared to be innocent, yet incessant, discussion of our eating disorders, and I was comforted by the knowledge that I wasn’t alone. Unfortunately, as these types of friendships often do, commiserating progressed to much worse.
On the other hand, if K and I discuss our eating disorders, it is from a pro-recovery lens. Together we have gone to inspirational recovery talks and recovery book signings, and we have fundraised for NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association). Even when eating disorders were more present in our friendship because we were still in the early stages of recovery, it was never coming from a disordered place.
If you decide to spend time outside of treatment with someone who has a similar mental health struggle with you, it can be a good idea to create ground rules so you both feel safe.
Here are some of the ground rules I set with my friends who are in recovery from eating disorders:
1. No discussion of numbers: weights, sizes, miles run, etc.
I have known K for four years now, and we have never once referenced specific numbers when turning to one another for support.
2. No using self-destructive behaviours in the presence of each other, and no encouraging each other to use behaviours.
Even when I was relapsing, I didn’t let myself use behaviours around K, because I didn’t want my struggles to hurt her recovery.
If you feel triggered by your friend, speak up. And if your friend is triggered by something you are saying, change the subject and reach out to someone that has the emotional capacity to both support you and take care of themselves.
3. If one of us is relapsing and it becomes triggering to the other person, it is okay for the other person to request some space.
It doesn’t mean the friendship isn’t unconditional: it simply means that we are willing to do whatever it takes to keep ourselves, and each other, healthy.
Of course, no friendships are perfect and once in a while my friends and I say things we wish we hadn’t or feel triggered by a comment.
As long as we are able to keep an open communication, we can work through it and move forward as friends who both want the same thing: health and happiness.
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