How the Stranger Who Asked, 'Are You Anorexic?' Changed My Life
In 2015, on a hot, sticky summer afternoon, I was asked a three-word question that changed my life.
But, before I share the story, I should share some historical context.
In the summer of 2015, I was 25 years old and five years into a life altering health crisis. Back in 2010 I started unintentionally losing weight at a rapid clip. It was like water running from a faucet. I couldn’t make it stop even when I tried.
Over the next five years I accumulated a whole host of bizarre and debilitating symptoms that ravaged my body. Muscles spasms. Visual disturbances. Hot flashes. Super early menopause. Every digestive complaint in the book (and then some). Extreme fatigue. A “claw” foot.
It took five years of suffering and physical wasting before I finally received a vague multiple sclerosis diagnosis. One month later I was standing in a grocery store parking lot, minding my own business while loading groceries into the trunk of my car, when I was approached by the complete stranger who changed my life.
As I watched the woman walk determinedly towards my car, clearly on a mission to speak to me, I thought, “She must think I’m someone she knows.” I soon discovered that this woman was fully aware that she didn’t know me but that didn’t stop what came next.
Before I even had time to say “Hi,” or “Do I know you?” the women opened her mouth and dropped a bomb.
“Are you anorexic?” she asked.
If my jaw could reach the ground, it would have hit it at that moment. I couldn’t think, speak or even move. I was stunned. Like a bolt of lightning, upset thoughts started flashing through my mind. “Who do you think you are? You don’t even know me! How dare you approach me in this parking lot! What nerve!”
After picking my jaw up off the blacktop parking lot, I managed to open it and speak.
“No,” I said in a calm voice that successfully disguised the turmoil hiding underneath. “I have MS.”
The woman’s question shouldn’t have shocked me. I had been confronted with the exact same question, by complete strangers, countless times throughout my illness – at stores, in restaurants and even while seated in a park with my dog. Apparently, when you’re dramatically underweight, people have no reservations about asking bold questions and making unsolicited assumptions.
But most of my “Are you anorexic?” encounters had been brief interactions that ended as abruptly as they started. But not this one. This encounter was different.
For the next few minutes the stranger in the parking lot proceeded to explain her own personal battle with an eating disorder. That’s when, when she spotted me from afar, she felt compelled to come and talk to me.
The woman’s words softened and convicted me. Although she hadn’t gone about approaching me in a way that I would advise, she had a pure heart. She wasn’t out to get me. In her own flawed, imperfect way, she was trying to help me.
The change that occurred in me while standing in that parking lot was as unexpected as the encounter itself. It was a change in how I respond to people who don’t always say the right words or use the perfect intervention techniques. Instead of throwing up my defenses and taking offense, I learned that there’s a better way to respond: with grace, compassion and love.
While listening to the woman share her own struggles, I realized that everyone has battles no one else can see. No one escapes this life without trials. Some people will defeat their foe and sincerely want to help others do the same. That doesn’t mean those individuals will always choose the perfect words or say the “right” thing but that is where grace comes in.
Then there are people who are still in the midst of their own invisible fight, carrying a burden of pain, who could just use a little encouragement and gentle hug. That’s where compassion comes in.
My role is never to judge others or take offense. I believe my role is to be a conduit of Christ’s love, regardless of how I am treated or how well I am understood. “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” It is as simple – and profound – as that.
Getty photo by Tanom