March 2, 2007

A friend with ED: Hannah's backgrounder

Would that everyone suffering from an eating disorder had a friend like Hannah (not her real name). This is her account of the long-term struggle of an anorexic friend - background for the interview in the 2/2/07 issue of NetFamilyNews....

"In high school I was very good friends with 3 other girls, Cora, Amber and Lili (not their real names). Cora had been a mousy girl all through elementary and middle school, but she started to change in 9th grade. I guess we all assumed that it was just natural changes of development but she became very thin. She soon became obsessed with her appearance; hair, makeup and clothes had to be perfect. The rest of us weren't like that. You'd often find us in t-shirts and jeans with our hair pulled back in messy pony tails.

"I had recently become a vegetarian in 9th grade. Cora quickly followed. At the time I had thought that it was because she felt the same way about the politics. We quickly learned that it was in fact just a ploy for her to eat less calories. I can't remember who it was, but eventually one of us realized she wasn't eating. The school counselor got involved, as did her mother. Her mother wasn't very concerned about it, and quickly the ordeal became something we didn't talk about. Cora was still concerned with her appearance but she was eating. She was still a vegetarian but she was gaining weight so it quickly fell from our minds.

"Around 10th grade, Amber set Cora up with her cousin Jared (not his real name). The two of them hit it off and they began dating. The real problem started last year around the when Cora and Jared broke up. Cora decided it was her fault, that something was wrong with her. When Jared began dating another girl, she decided it was because she was fat. She fell back into eating less and less.

"It's harder to realize when a friend is suffering from this than a lot of people think. They begin hiding and lying to cover their activities. Cora knew we would try to stop her, so she wouldn't say anything about it. She began to eat less and less. She was about to have jaw surgery so we thought it was just because she was in pain. Because she was so depressed about the recent break up, I had her come out to visit me at my college for a week. Around that time Lili suspected she was becoming anorexic again and told me. In order to make sure she would eat, food would become a social event. By making it a fun planned activity, whether we cooked together or went to someplace funky and a long outing, she would eat. Shortly after that she got a new boyfriend and we thought the problem would go away.

"It didn't. Instead it got worse. She became bulimic and would puke whenever her friends at college weren't around. Luckily they caught on. She called me and I convinced her to go to therapy. She didn't want help, though. So we had to keep an eye on her to watch and make sure she didn't become too sick.

"At one point, I was at the police station where I was interning. She had given me a ride because my car wasn't working. While I was talking to my former boss, she collapsed. I am forever grateful that's where we were when it happened. The embarrassment helped her to see how harmful what she was doing to herself was. Plus the guys and the EMT's responded quickly and effectively. I am forever in their debt.

"She got better. She kept a journal so that she could still feel control with eating. I don't know if she still keeps it, but I do know that the journal helped her to recover. Because of that, I recognize the value of having a journal for those with an eating disorder. However, there are Web journals that girls and boys are keeping secret from their friends and family that they are using to support their disorder.

"There are online groups where individuals can read each other's journals for support. There is something called "thinspo," pictures of thin individuals [ED sufferers use] to help motivate them in their quest to lose weight. Descriptions of the journals can range from admitting to having an eating disorder to not having one at all. They talk about ana, short for anorexia and mia for bulimia. [For example:]

"'I'm not ana/mia or any of that. I have done this whole not eating, just loosing weight thing, though, and it's not anything new to me.' --ThinOnMyMind

"'I purged blood today.' --a_anagirl

"The things you read in these blogs are chilling. I know a lot of the bloggers don't want help yet. But some are also waiting for someone to notice. I'm currently trying to find a way to use these journals to help these girls. I know that removing them would be dangerous for many, but my heart goes out to them.

"Today I talked with a professor at my college about what can be done. He's hesitant for anyone without proper training to confront these girls or someone in their lives. There is a thin dangerous line, here. His advice was to have sessions with young girls about anorexia and its dangers of severe health risk. Let them know that there are people out there who can help, but still allow them to feel like they have control over their lives and themselves.

"Communities and parents need to pay more attention to this problem. There are far too many girls in these groups and the ages I've seen range from 12-26. I currently have an appointment with another professor who studies anthropology and focuses on gender violence. My goal is to find out if there is someone out there who is trained and could become involved in evaluating the problem. As of now the only thing I can see doing is to become more active in the community. It is important to realize that pushing someone to eat isn't going to work, and that all these girls are looking for is someone who understands them.

"Thank you so much for caring about this."

"Hannah" is a 4th-year student at Hampshire College. Click here for the 3/2/07 interview.

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