I have three friends that have unfortunately suffered from eating disorders -- three close friends. I know that high school is a trying time for many angsty youths, but isn't that number still a bit too high? These friends, all of them girls, have endured anorexia or bulimia for one year or longer.
In one case, my friend battled her condition since elementary school. What am I, a relatively confident girl, supposed to say to these friends? I am not a licensed psychologist, and the sketchy advice on Wikipedia only goes so far. Besides, I don't want to say the wrong thing and end up doing more harm than good. I cannot ignore the issue because their disorders are ever present, like a lingering black shadow fixed to the tops of their heads. When I see them, I can't help but think of that thing, the thing I know that they are struggling with. It's hard, being the friend, to watch them go through pain, but feeling like I am powerless to help them?
That sensation is even worse.
One poignant memory I have is when my good friend, an intelligent, artistic and completely selfless girl, was walking through the hallways in the morning before school with tears streaming down her face. I knew she had an eating disorder, but I had no idea it was this bad. I always assumed it was a normal thing for teenage girls to hate their bodies once in a while. However, it wasn't just a temporary plummet in self-confidence; my friend was facing something much more sinister, and I didn't know how to respond. Do I just hug her and say that everything is okay, even though it's really not? Should I tell a family member or teacher so that they can intervene? The problem was, my friend had told a teacher some of what was going on, but that spiraled downhill when the teacher alluded to her issues in one of his classes.
The eating disorders of my two other friends weren't as severe or detrimental, at least not when I knew them. But seeing this one girl physically cry many times a week and just look sick and unwell all the time was unsettling. It made me realize that some people have problems that I can't even begin to fathom. I am an extremely lucky girl; I have loving, supportive parents, an awesome sister who I don't fight with (too often) and a drive to be successful when I grow up. I just happened to be raised in the "right" environment. I speculate that my friend, whose parents I haven't had a conversation with, did not provide such a healthy environment. This all transpired in my junior year of high school, and besides being worried about my friend's health, I was also concerned for her grades. Junior year is the most important year in high school because classes are difficult and the beast that is college is beginning to exert an undeniable amount of pressure. I was even having difficulty keeping my head afloat amidst the ocean of schoolwork, after school clubs, devilish SAT tests and my own personal online writing. However, my friend, who is strong and clever, pulled through, and I admire her to no end for that.
So how did I handle this friend as she was battling her self image every day? Simply put, I was just nice to her all the time, I hugged her when I saw her and I was as encouraging as I could be. I didn't bring up her problems explicitly; I just asked if she was okay and listened when she spoke. I tried to glean information about her wellbeing from her other friends, but collectively, there was not much we could do to help. There is a fine line between keeping a friendship and watching out for a good friend's health. Should I maintain the status quo or refer her to a professional and risk losing her friendship? For only being a distracted teenager governed by my hormones and angst, I felt conflicted every day. My friend once gave me a thank you card that said, "Being yourself is the key." I wrote this expression in calligraphy on a piece of paper and gave it to her. I think she needed to hear it, and I wanted to be the one to tell her that she was beautiful the way she was. I am also planning to give her a list of things that I like about her, but I am not including anything about her body, weight or other superficial characteristics. For example, she is special because she's a fabulous artist, a book fiend like myself (except much more savvy and literarily intelligent than I am) and her handwriting is perfect. It's messy and all over the place, but it has much more character and life than those cookie-cutter girls at school.
Having anorexia must be hell for those teenagers that have it, especially in the merciless and superficial world we live in today. However, it is also hard for the friends of those who have it, and it puts us in a quandary nearly every day. I want to feel like I am helping my amazing friend, but at the same time, I'm just a blind teenager who has no expertise in this area at all. The only thing I know how to do is be a supportive and genuine friend, not a phony one that would have Holden Caulfield reeling all over the place.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.