For Teens: When You Discover a Friend is Bulimic or Anorexic

When you learn that a friend suffers deeply from an eating disorder

It can be like a sudden jolt that destroys your picture of the world.

When you learn that a friend suffers from an eating disorder, it can be a sudden jolt that destroys your picture of the world. Here's how to help.Recognizing that such deep rooted, destructive and often deadly pain exists in your peers can be a loss of innocence and an awakening to mortality and the suffering in the human condition. It's a difficult but valuable experience for a person at any age.

If you live a fairly healthy and normal life, it may be difficult and even frightening to hear what her internal experience is. Often people with an eating disorder firmly believe that they are on a destructive path and that their behavior will kill them. Yet, they cannot stop. They know they are killing themselves. Some people are certain that no matter what day it is, they have six months to live from that day. They cannot plan a future or take anything or anyone really seriously since they don't believe they will be alive long enough to follow through on anything.

Some people suffering from eating disorders are so caught up in their illness they have no idea they are sick. But you can see when a friend is dangerously thin and yet is still dieting. You can see when a friend has no time for social relaxation and conversation because she is obsessing about her studies and must exercise two or three hours every day. You see when a friend thinks no one notices or believes she is engaging in normal behavior when she starves herself or seems to be afraid of food or finds ways to excuse herself so she can throw up after eating a meal or a snack with you.

When you discover that someone you know is bulimic or anorexic, you may question your criteria for evaluating the world and the people in it. Often you won't easily identify someone who has an eating disorder.

Some people are skeletal. Some are normally weighted. Some are a little overweight. Some are fat. Some of these people having eating disorders. Some look they way they do for other reasons.

There are some physical symptoms of bulimia and anorexia if the person throws up a lot. For example, their cheeks get puffy -- like a chipmunk -- from swollen glands. The knuckles on their hands can be rough from teeth rubbing against them during self induced vomiting. Enamel on teeth can be eroded. And there is a glazed-over look, what is called a "waxy smile" that accompanies many eating disorders.

Of course, that waxy smile is often considered beautiful, classical, goddess-like, serene, etc. So that perspective of beauty also helps to disguise or hide the eating disorder.

Learning about the secret pain of eating disorders is a sad aspect of coming of age. You can help by learning what you can about eating disorders, how your age group is affected and sharing the information.

You can help particularly by taking good care of yourself. This is help by example. Yes, you can listen to your friend, but don't try to be her therapist. Suggest that she get a therapist so she can constructively work on her healing. Tell her you know that many people find help through Overeaters Anonymous, even people who try not to eat at all.

Don't let yourself feel responsible for her welfare and think that you can show her how to stop her eating disorder. That's like trying to talk or love someone out of a high fever when they have the flu. Your friend's obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior around food are symptoms of her illness. She needs specific treatment in order to recover.

Yet you can help her. The more healthy you are, the more you cherish your gifts of mind, body and spirit, the more you appreciate the caring in your life and the opportunities available to you, the more you will be an example of health and positive youth. This will show young people with eating disorders, whether you recognize them or not, that there is a better way of living.

No guarantees exist. Your friend may criticize you. She may be embarrassed or ashamed with you because you know her secret. She may withdraw her friendship temporarily once you know about her eating disorder. She may find it difficult to face you.

Regardless of these possibilities, your example of kindness and consideration to yourself and others may be a major factor in your friend's healing process. The way you live your life may get her attention now or sometime in the future when you don't even know she is thinking about you. You can show her, in little things that are so normal to you, that you don't think about them; that a healthy way of living well exists. Your being committed to living an honest life based on integrity and health, using your talents to educate yourself and develop your abilities are more than giving gifts to yourself. Your way of life becomes a gift to others. You might, through being a healthy and self-respecting person, inspire your friend to seek help and begin her path to health and self-respect.

So when you discover your friend is bulimic or anorexic, be kind, be patient and stay strong in your own healthy ways of living. Health can be catching.

next: Number One Reason for Developing an Eating Disorder
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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 12). For Teens: When You Discover a Friend is Bulimic or Anorexic, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: January 14, 2014

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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