It’s often been said “It takes one to know one.”
Unfortunately, we’re aware of this truth only after it has occurred. We are blissfully ignorant before the experience and in stubborn denial during the experience.
It’s been years into my recovery from eating disorders now and it is in this particular stage where I see the hindsight revelation of the “It takes one to know one” concept repeating in my life.
The first occurrence? Well, that was at the apex of my anorexic condition. I was a college freshman, hell-bent on reinvention; I wanted as much distance from my teenage overweight self as possible. Hence, the serious restriction of calories, interspersed with starvation periods and the accompanying excessive exercise (up to six hours a day). My freshman year, therefore, found me whittling to smaller and smaller weights. To those unfamiliar of my former self, I was only seen as thin and tiny. But, to those who knew me “way back when?” Well, I couldn’t quite convince them everything was fine.
Carrie (not her real name) attended both the same high school and now the same college as I did; she was a year older…and anorexic. And, as I started college, she was keenly interested in my changed appearance. It started out casual at the start of the school year (my weight had not yet drastically plummeted); she remarked about my weight loss. However, by spring, I was at a disturbingly low weight- and that’s when she pounced.
During that term, we took the same world history course and Carrie pulled me aside one day after class. She, once again, remarked about my weight loss. And then she gently revealed she battled with anorexia and expressed concerned that I was veering down the same path.
My response? I felt I was “caught,” but, as eating disorder sufferers are often prone to do in the grips of their disorders, I lied, telling her I was “fine.” No, of course, I was not anorexic. My racing mind panicked, reassuring myself with statements like, “Don’t be ridiculous! That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me.” But Carrie read my mail. I knew I had to show her how un-rattled I was by her confrontation and get out of there pronto!!
Once I extricated myself from that encounter, I thought I was safe and had fooled everyone.
Cut to the middle of that following summer. Because Carrie and I both came from a small town, it wasn’t unheard of for us to run into each other. Both of us were on summer break; both were living at home until the fall term started. And, because there was only one major mall in our small town locale, this was the meeting place of yet another “It takes one to know one” encounter.
I must admit, the store to run into her was a bit odd. Because of my already intense eating disorder behaviors, I tried to occupy my mind with anything I could think of. One of my latest “answers” was crafting. Yes, that’s right, I said crafting. I guess I believed pipe cleaners and cross stitch kits could save me. So, I was a regular at the mall’s hobby store.
I was close to my lowest weight, attempting to keep from passing out, while looking at a dollhouse miniature section. Carrie appeared out of nowhere. Again, I felt busted. I had lost another ten pounds; I was severely emaciated looking. Carrie started some chitchat, but, c’mon, we both knew the score. Again, she was as gentle as she could be, but eventually, she brought up the dreaded words, “eating disorder.” And I had no where I had to be. I had no class I needed to escape to, nothing pressing to do. I just had to stand there in front of the dollhouse miniatures and be cornered by the truth.
“It takes one to know one” was getting too close to home.
And it wouldn’t be until many years later when I would experience the other side of this phenomenon. After the publication of my book, I had a signing event in Oregon.
A young anorexic woman was eyeing me for the entire four hours the event took place. She kept pacing by the bookstore. But make no mistake, she made it a point to keep her distance. I recognized not only her gaunt frame, but her baggy clothes and darting eyeballs. Those features had once been mine. There was this weird synergy of “I know you know” going on between us. Finally, after four hours of her pacing, lurking and eyeing me, she rushed the book table, spurting, “I had gone through it, but not the six hour exercise stuff you did.” And then she took off. I think she left skid marks.
Perhaps she wanted to talk, to connect, but was spooked by the discomfort of her reality- and presence of the other people there. But, in that moment, I saw how when we are in any kind of dysfunction or disorder, there’s still a part of us which wants help.
Sometimes, yes, it does “take one to know one.”
Admitting the ugly truth is scary; there’s risk of rejection, pain and discomfort. We risk losing our precious control. We enter the intimidating unknown instead of relying on our comforting and familiar disease. Nevertheless, we need help.
Right now, is there someone out there who is experiencing the exact same thing? It’s worth reaching out. Perhaps, if we approached the adage of, “It takes one to know one” with an outlook of help and healing, instead of as a threat, we’d experience who we truly are supposed to be.
And that, itself, is worth knowing all about!
Disordered eating and image issues can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or socio-economic factors. Just because someone doesn’t “fit” the stereotype, doesn’t mean they’re not afflicted. It’s not just a “girl thing.” It’s a life-threatening disease and needs treatment. If you suspect someone is suffering, please reach out with love and support. Here are some helpful strategies to do just that.
When You Want to Help Someone You Care About
What to do if…
If your child is younger than 18
Get professional help immediately. You have a legal and moral responsibility to get your child the care s/he needs. Don’t let tears, tantrums, or promises to do better stop you. Begin with a physical exam and psychological evaluation.
If the physician recommends hospitalization, do it. People die from these disorders, and sometimes they need a structured time out to break entrenched patterns.
If the counselor asks you to participate in family sessions, do so. Children spend only a few hours a week with their counselors. The rest of the time they live with their families. You need as many tools as you can get to help your child learn new ways of coping with life.
If your friend is younger than 18
Tell a trusted adult—parent, teacher, coach, pastor, school nurse, school counselor, etc.—about your concern. If you don’t, you may unwittingly help your friend avoid the treatment s/he needs to get better.
Even though it would be hard, consider telling your friend’s parents why you are concerned. S/he may be hiding unhealthy behaviors from them, and they deserve to know so they can arrange help and treatment. If you cannot bear to do this yourself, ask your parents or perhaps the school nurse for help.
If the person is older than 18
Legally the person is now an adult and can refuse treatment if s/he is not ready to change. Nevertheless, reach out. Tell her/him that you are concerned. Be gentle. Suggest that there has to be a better way to deal with life than starving and stuffing. Encourage professional help, but expect resistance and denial. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink—even when he is thirsty—if he is determined to follow his own path.
Some Things to Do…
•• Talk to the person when you are calm, not frustrated or emotional. Be kind. The person is probably ashamed and fears criticism and rejection.
•• Mention evidence you have heard or seen that suggests disordered eating. Don’t dwell on appearance or weight. Instead talk about health, relationships (withdrawal?), and mood.
•• Realize that the person will not change until s/he wants to.
•• Provide information. http://www.anred.com
•• Be supportive and caring. Be a good listener and don’t give advice unless you are asked to do so. Even then, be prepared to have it ignored.
•• Continue to suggest professional help. Don’t pester. Don’t give up either.
•• Ask: “Is what you are doing really working to get you what you want?”
•• Talk about the advantages of recovery and a normal life.
•• Agree that recovery is hard, but emphasize that many people have done it.
•• If s/he is frightened to see a counselor, offer to go with her the first time.
•• Realize that recovery is the person’s responsibility, not yours.
•• Resist guilt. Do the best you can and then be gentle with yourself.
Some Things Not to Do…
•• Never nag, plead, beg, bribe, threaten, or manipulate. These things don’t work.
•• Avoid power struggles. You will lose.
•• Never criticize or shame. These tactics are cruel, and the person will withdraw.
•• Don’t pry. Respect privacy.
•• Don’t be a food monitor. You will create resentment and distance in the relationship.
•• Don’t try to control. The person will withdraw and ultimately outwit you.
•• Don’t waste time trying to reassure your friend that s/he is not fat. S/he will not be convinced.
•• Don’t get involved in endless conversations about weight, food, and calories. They make matters worse.
•• Don’t give advice unless asked.
•• Don’t expect the person to follow your advice even if s/he asked for it.
•• Don’t say, “You are too thin.” S/he will secretly celebrate.
•• Don’t say, “It’s good you have gained weight.” S/he will lose it.
•• Don’t let the person always decide when, what, and where you will eat. She should not control everything, every time.
•• Don’t ignore stolen food and evidence of purging. Insist on responsibility.
•• Don’t overestimate what you can accomplish.
ANRED: When You Want to Help Someone You Care About. <http://www.anred.com/hlp.html>. Used with permission.
Copyright © 2015 by Sheryle Cruse