Eating Disorders

When Friends Don’t Understand Your Eating Disorder

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At the beginning of 2011, I received a message that prompted a lengthy response from me and has since generated a lot of discussion. I often refer back to my response to the original message, because I have been asked similar questions time and time again. Sometimes friendships and relationships can be so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to see things objectively. And as many of us know, sometimes eating disorders muddy the waters of friendships even further. Below is the original (shortened) message and my response, with the hope that it will give some clarity to others who are dealing with the same dilemma.

Question:

“My best friend of 15 years (after ignoring me for a few months) decided to call me up last week and basically list out everything I’ve done wrong in the relationship over the past 15 years and how I’ve pretty much been a terrible friend this whole time. Furthermore, she seems to be putting some kind of condition on our friendship in terms of my eating disorder. She claims that I fail to take personal responsibility for it and that she can’t handle all of the ‘back and forth’ (meaning relapses), that she doesn’t like to see or hear from me when I’m not doing well, and that we basically can’t be friends unless I can guarantee that I’ll never be symptomatic or sick again. To an extent I can kind of see where she is coming from because I am sure it’s not easy to watch a friend self destruct especially when it seems like they are doing it on purpose. I tried to explain it to her, but she didn’t want to hear it. She’s had ‘enough.’ I also tried to explain that I’m doing fairly well at the moment and the kind of progress I’ve made over the past few months (when she was ignoring my calls), to which she responded, ‘yea, well, I don’t know how long that’s going to last.’

It seems like no matter what I do I can’t win! Perhaps I’m too close to the situation and I’m not seeing it clearly, but to me this seems like an awfully conditional type of friendship, not to mention an impossible, unrealistic promise for me to make. She sent me this ‘holier than thou’ sounding e-mail about how she took personal responsibility for her life and how I never take any personal responsibility for mine. She and I were like peanut butter and jelly growing up and it would be devastating for this friendship to end, but I almost don’t want to be friends with her anymore. I feel like friends are supposed to accept the good and the bad parts of each other, not just the parts they like. I realize that when I engage in unhealthy behaviors I am making a choice to do so, but it’s not as though I’m not also attempting to do other things to try and help myself.

Do you agree with me when I say I think she’s being unfair and unreasonable or is there something I’m missing? I’d hate to let this friendship go, but at the same time hearing from her just makes me feel bad about myself and I don’t think I should have to ‘explain’ my eating disorder to her or submit to this condition she is putting on the relationship. It’s not like I anticipate or look forward to a relapse or anything, but I’m doubly stressed out now because I feel like I can’t ever mess up again or else I’ll ruin the relationship. I feel like friendship is supposed to make you feel good, not afraid of the other person’s judgment. What are your thoughts? Should I go with my gut and just let go of this friendship?”

Response:

Based on what you wrote, it does sound like your friend is being unreasonable. There is definitely a difference between watching someone purposely self-destruct and supporting someone who struggles in recovery. It is very hard for a lot of people to understand eating disorders and recovery (from anything) in general. For those who have not been through something similar, there is often a very black and white attitude. It may be easier for her to see things as all or nothing (meaning you get better and stay that way and she stays your friend or she’s done with you) because of her own feelings in regards to your circumstances.


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We can’t make people understand what eating disorders are like – all we can do is explain them to the best of our ability and hope we get the support we need from those in our lives. You might want to ask yourself if she has been put through a lot in regards to your eating disorder. If she feels like the friendship has been a roller-coaster ride, she might feel emotionally unable to continue with it if there is still possibility for you to slip-up in the future. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute and see it from a different angle: it’s really hard to go through ups and downs over and over again, if it seems like the same things continue to happen. It’s emotionally draining and she may just not have it in her to deal with it any longer. That is her right. If she is saying what she is saying, it might be a form of self-care on her own part.

That said, it sounds like she expects unrealistic outcomes from you and your recovery. Even if she is unable to be a support to you any longer and must put herself first because she can’t keep going through it, it doesn’t mean you are doing anything wrong and it doesn’t mean you aren’t trying hard enough.

If you were struggling and refused care, purposely sabotaged your recovery on a daily basis, or refused to listen to words of support and encouragement, it would be different. But if you are trying in recovery, putting forth effort, but having the normal slips and falls that anyone encounters along the way, it’s not as though you are putting your fingers in your ears and shutting every positive thing out.

You can and should ask yourself if you are doing all you can in recovery right now. If the answer is no, perhaps some of your defensive feelings lie in that. But regardless, a friend should not ask you to promise you will never have another bad time ever again in regards to your eating disorder. Your recovery in many ways is completely within your own control, but all things in your LIFE are not. No one can promise anything of such magnitude and friendship should not be based on ultimatums.

If the situation were different and you were plummeting day after day, farther and farther into your disorder and she told you to go get treatment or she could no longer be your friend, that is more of an interventionist tactic and is an ultimatum I could understand. But to expect you never to need support again through rough patches is unfair.

Again, if she feels as she feels, it’s her right. Not everyone can handle life with someone who is in recovery from an eating disorder. She cannot be faulted for that. BUT her feeling the way she does is not YOUR fault either.

Think of this example – if there is a husband and wife who have been together for years, enjoying good times and loving each other, and the man becomes an alcoholic, this will be difficult for the woman to handle. She may love him and support him as he struggles with the day-to-day issues. He may get help. She may continue to love him and be there for him. Perhaps he does well in recovery for a time. Then he relapses. This is even harder for the woman to handle. It affects her life too. He doesn’t want to be an alcoholic though, and is always trying to pull himself back up. He tries recovery again, does well, but has bad days. Sometimes he slips up. Every time, it’s harder and harder on his wife. Finally, after years of this – even though she knows he is trying to leave his alcoholism behind, she can’t endure it anymore. She wants him to promise he will never falter again or she must leave. He can’t make that promise because he is afraid of breaking it. All he can do is try his very best day by day and ask for her support. She does not have it in her to continue the marriage, because she has her own life to live and her own emotions with which to contend. She leaves him.

Neither of the people in this situation are at fault. One has a serious problem, but is ever working at recovery. One has love and support, but only to a certain point, and eventually must put herself first because it has gotten too hard. The husband has every right to say that all he can do is try his best and work at recovery every day, because he does not want to be an alcoholic. The wife has every right to say she cannot deal with his alcoholism anymore. It’s a crossroads.

Think of this story as your situation. The roles are essentially the same. Maybe the friendship has come to a close. Maybe in time, she will see your changes and understand that all you can do is take one day at a time, and will come back into your life. Maybe she will take a breathing period away from the friendship and come back with renewed hope, more reasonable expectations, and recharged stamina.

You may even feel relief if the friendship tapers off as it doesn’t sound like she is able to support you like a best friend would and should.

Undertaking recovery from an eating disorder while maintaining friendships is hard work. Friendships involve time, emotion, commitment, and communication. Sometimes, friendships struggle not because one friend has an eating disorder and one does not, but because BOTH people DO.

A video of mine you may find helpful in regards to triggering aspects of friendships is: Friends & Triggers (http://youtu.be/f-xPxE3ZBh0). This video touches on questions of: What are the differences between getting triggered, and being influenced by someone else’s e/d behaviors? How do you separate yourself from taking on their rituals or behaviors, but still be a support system for this person?

A similar video, with a different slant, discusses aspects of being friends with others who have an eating disorder, are recovering, or are recovered. It touches on members of friendships who are in different stages and what the good, bad, and the ugly of it all can be. The video is called: Having Friends in All Points of Recovery (http://youtu.be/Yzmmg8Qk1Qc)

I’m sorry this is happening, especially because recovery is hard enough without losing a friend in the process, but you can only take each day as it comes and work with it. Self reflect, and whatever happens, understand that as long as you choose recovery every day, you are doing the most important thing. Whatever your friend does and thinks and feels is essentially out of your control. You can hope and talk and explain, but in the end, she can make a decision based on her own needs, and she should.

Arielle is an MSW, LSW, writer, and blogger. She is a Hospice Social Worker, widow, stepmomma, and wife. She has professional experience with eating disorders, domestic violence, grief and loss. She loves her work, her family, her cats, and her dog! She most often writes about grief, loss, end of life issues, and suicide. Gratitude fuels her every move.

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