When I was a senior in college, I was taking a class called Sociology of Sex and Gender. It was a good class, and in it, we spoke often of eating disorders and body image, because those are major things women deal with in today's world. Eating disorders and body image issues are also feminist issues. That said, class discussions often turned to personal experiences and/or stories.
There was a girl in my class named Holli who had a roommate with what sounded like (from Holli's description) a serious eating disorder, namely anorexia. During a week when we were discussing, as a class, eating disorders and their various manifestations, effects, and victims, Holli brought up her roommate. She declared that her roommate was "anorexic" and "crazy." I didn't like the adjective "crazy" she used to label her roommate because of her restrictive, paranoid, and obsessive behaviors, but I also took it personally because I had anorexia (though was making significant progress in recovery) myself.
Holli went on to say that her roommate's hair had begun thinning and falling out and she was "crazy" because she still said she'd rather be thin with ugly hair. Now, granted, this is irrational thought, but I related to the poor roommate and it seemed to me (by the manner in which Holli was speaking) that Holli had next to no compassion for this troubled girl. The more Holli spoke, the more I felt irked and sad inside. I did not dislike this girl, Holli. In fact, she had always seemed rather nice and friendly. But I distinctly did not like the way in which she talked about her roommate. Holli sounded selfish, as though we as a class should have pitied her for having to live with such a freak. She also sounded coarse, as though she didn't want to try to help her roommate. This was all, as far as I could tell, because Holli didn't understand. And more than that--she made no effort to TRY to understand what her roommate was going through.
It hurt me that Holli would pass this girl off as "crazy" for having a problem and a disease. So I decided I couldn't stay silent. I decided it was my duty as a girl with an eating disorder to let Holli know how it feels to live an anorexic life and to show her what she could do to be supportive and/or understanding.
I did not speak up in class. What I had to say would not have been appropriate, nor did I want to let everyone in the room know I had an eating disorder. I would have gotten emotional. I would not have been able to be as articulate as I wished to be. I wanted to be anonymous, because Holli sat at my work station in the room and knew who I was. I wanted to speak to Holli anonymously, but how was I to do this?
After class, I followed our professor (a wonderful woman named Dr. Andersen) to her office. She invited me in and I told her I wanted to talk to her about something. I was beside myself. I am (at least I was then) a bit shy. And I was very nervous. I know I was blotchy as I tried to formulate my thoughts. I used the direct approach; this professor seemed like one I could talk to. I told her I suffered from anorexia (which was perhaps no surprise as I was very thin), was on my way to heading down a healthy track, and felt disturbed by the day's class discussion. She looked ready to listen. I explained how Holli's story made me feel. Dr. Andersen seemed to agree with me. I told her how I wished I could tell Holli how it was from my perspective and how it was for me when a friend DID want to help me, DID try to listen and understand. Dr. Andersen was nodding vigorously and was all for my idea. I think the professor had noticed the "rolling her eyes" way in which Holli had talked about her roommate. Dr. Andersen suggested I write a letter to Holli--anonymously--then bring it (or email it) to Dr. Andersen. The professor would then call Holli over to her at the beginning of class and give it to her.
It seemed a fine plan to me, so I went to my apartment that day and composed the letter I'm about to post here. A letter to the other side.Dear Holli,
I am someone in your Sociology of Sex and Gender class and after hearing you talk about your roommate, I wanted to write to you. I have struggled with an eating disorder for years now and when I was a freshman here at UD, I was confronted by the best friend I had made at college, a girl who lived across the hall named Sarah. I was going through a really hard time in my life, and was in the throws of anorexia; I was sick, tired, and preoccupied with food all the time. I could really relate to a lot of what you said about your roommate and her eating habits. In the worst times of my disorder, I often didn’t eat for days at a time and was a very low weight. My friends were very worried about me because what I was doing was so noticeable, and my hair had even begun to fall out like your roommate’s.
I know it was extremely hard for my friend Sarah to do what she did because she probably worried that I would get mad, fight with her, or blow her off completely. But somehow, she found the right words to say, and that is what I wanted to share with you. I know how hard it must be to watch someone you live with do self-destructive things to herself, and I know it is a very difficult subject to broach, but sometimes it is getting your thoughts across in the right manner that really makes all the difference.
I realize your roommate may be completely resistant to getting help or even to listening to what you have to say, and for all I know, you have probably tried many things over time to help her. I just wanted to share my experience with you, from the point-of-view of the sufferer, with the hope that it can help you approach your roommate in the future and result in something beneficial. I know what the person suffering wants to hear and wants to feel (generally speaking), and while your roommate may not be willing to fully listen to you yet, if you say the right things she may think about them later, ponder them, and eventually get the help she needs. In any case, it’s worth a try.
When I was a freshman, Sarah knocked on my door one day while I was crying in bed (a common occurrence in those days) and asked me through the door to let her in. (I think the timing of when you talk to someone about this is key; if your roommate seems upset one day, maybe that is a good time to bring it up, instead of when you two are watching TV or something.) Sarah wanted to know what was going on (and what HAD been going on with me), but I was afraid to tell her…afraid she wouldn't like me anymore…afraid she wouldn't want to live with me next year. I thought she would think I was weird…and more than that: I worried that she would think I was crazy because she wouldn’t understand. The first thing that was important was that she didn’t judge me at all. She spoke to me carefully and assured me that she didn’t think less of me, didn’t think I was a freak, and didn’t think I was crazy even though she didn’t understand what I was going through. (Even if you feel all these things, I think it is vital to actually express them, because these things can never be said enough when a situation is so delicate.) Sarah sat there on my bed with me and listened while I cried out everything I’d been keeping to myself. She just told me she was there to listen and she let me say the things I wanted to. She didn’t come there to give me a list of reasons why she was worried or to give me a list of suggestions for what I should do. She just hugged me at the right moments and told me she would help me.
I know that this kind of incidence involves an exchange of some kind, therefore if your roommate isn’t as open as I was willing to be, the situation would not pan out the exact same way…but I honestly think, no matter how little or how much she wants to tell you about her problem, that you can never say “I’m here for you” too much. Eventually, she will start to believe it and maybe realize you don’t want to judge her. Instead of asking me why I did the things I did, or why I felt the way I did, Sarah simply asked me what was wrong. We talked for a long while and she said something I always remind myself of when I’m feeling particularly lost—she said she’d never leave my side throughout college and that she would help me in any way she could. It meant a lot to me to have someone say that. Sometimes support is the greatest thing—an offer to do nothing but be there.
Something I would advise you to avoid would be naming her problem. For instance, I have always recoiled from calling myself “anorexic” because it labels me in a way I don’t want to be labeled. Nor would I want to continually say “I have an eating disorder,” or have anyone say to me, “I think you have an eating disorder.” There are ways to say exactly that without using those words. The words “anorexic,” “anorexia,” or “eating disorder” seem powerful and scary. I don’t like to say I’m anorexic—I am me and anorexia is what had/has me in its clutches. So, if you do want to try again with your roommate, talk to her about her, about what she needs, and about how she feels—not just about her problem.
I know you are very concerned about her by the way you spoke about her in class, and it breaks my heart to know someone is struggling with same issue I struggle with, because I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Even though her habits might be strange and it might seem crazy that she would rather lose her hair than change her eating patterns (as you mentioned in class), just try to remember that anorexia or any eating disorder is truly an illness like anything else, and irrational thought is part of it. I know how it feels to think in that way and sometimes compassion is the number one thing I want if I am feeling adamant in my desire to keep doing what I am doing…not agreement that I am doing the right thing, but compassion for the way I feel and how difficult it is to feel in such a strange way.
I hope you will take this letter to heart and consider approaching your roommate again, and I hope you don’t mind that I wrote this to you. You seem very nice and genuinely troubled by what is going on with your roommate, so please don’t think I am claiming that you handle the problem in an inappropriate way—it is hard to know how to handle a problem like this—I just really want to show you the other side and try to give you new ways of helping her, if that is at all possible, because I had a good experience with intervention and I wish that for everyone. I wish you the best of luck with it, and thanks for listening.
I'll never know the effect that letter had on Holli (or her roommate, for that matter), but I can only hope the fact that someone would take the time to anonymously write such a detailed letter to Holli would have been enough to make her think and feel and grasp even a thread of understanding.