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Is Making Friends in Eating Disorder Treatment Helpful or Harmful to Recovery?

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You may be confused about whether or not developing a friendship with another person who is also struggling with with an eating disorder during recovery is helpful or harmful.

Many eating disorders thrive in secrecy. In my experience, they can have a nasty way of making us become competitive, even when we don’t mean to be. And many individuals struggling with eating disorders often feel silenced, ashamed and alone.

Professionals often have varying opinions on whether or not friendships in treatment are healthy or not. Each treatment center I experienced had a different policy regarding friendships. Some were so strict that we could not even sit next to each other, while other centers were almost exclusively run by our peers and encouraged communication and support from peers before any other tactic.

For me, cultivating friendships with other individuals who were recovering was the most impactful part of treatment. I met my best friend when I was in a partial program. I have seen her relapse, and I have seen her succeed. I feel like I can tell her anything. When I speak with her, I am met with nothing but genuine authenticity, compassion, and above all else, understanding; an understanding that even professionals sometimes lacked. I have made so many friendships in treatment and every single one of them has contributed to my ability to separate myself from anorexia.

So, what do other people in eating disorder recovery think about starting friendships in treatment? For their recovery, were they more harmful or are they more helpful?

That is why I asked people I know who are struggling with eating disorders to share their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say:

1. “It’s choosing the right friends, no matter what their diagnosis is. Do they bring you down? If so, they’re not a good friend. Do they help raise you up and feel heard and validated? That’s a good friend!” — Alison M.

2. “For me, I needed the support of other people who were/are going through the same thing. With no support, it is difficult to even get through a day in treatment, never mind the treatment itself. Everyone needs the support of a friend, no matter who they are or what they are going through. I would let [people in treatment] know they needed to be careful who to befriend while in treatment. Some can bring you down, while others can build you up. Validation is very important and so is listening.” — Elizabeth P.

3. “If I’m being honest, I don’t think being friends with someone with an eating disorder helps me unless they are 100 percent committed to recovering.” — Cassandra C.

4. “I totally agree that a supportive friend who has been through the same process or is going through the process would be amazing. I am older than most of the women at the center, so I wasn’t really accepted while I was there, and no one really wanted to stay in contact with me after. I am sure it has something to do with who I am, but nonetheless, I don’t have any friends that check in with me. This year has been very difficult. My husband asked me for a divorce, I changed jobs and I have a son who will be a senior this year. I am envious of the strong support many of you beautiful ladies had/have. I am doing this on my own and I think a supportive friend who ‘gets it’ would definitely be beneficial.” — Cynthia R.F.

5. “I believe that having an eating disorder is something that only those who have struggled with ED can truly understand. I’ve talked to family members that don’t have ED and they agree with me. While this is not to say my loved ones who don’t have ED are completely unable to support me, I think that a major benefit of meeting friends in treatment is that the people I meet in treatment do fully understand what it is like to live with ED, and therefore can support me on a much deeper level. Personally, I’ve only found myself in one friendship with a person from treatment that became toxic, and I really don’t think it had anything to do with ED. I think if I had met this person in any other setting, and even if she didn’t have an eating disorder, things would have been just as toxic. She was just a toxic person in general. So my advice would be to just tread lightly, which is also my advice in making friends outside of treatment. But like basically what I’m trying to say, in case my point wasn’t clear, is that I think that stigma is bullshit. You’ll find toxic people wherever you go, treatment or otherwise, and I’ve met more toxic people outside of treatment than in treatment.” — Miyuki O.

6. “Instead of the word ‘friendship.’ I would use ‘community,’ because the community is what helped me in treatment and my recovery. Finding a group of people, who on some level, understood what I was struggling with. I had amazing connections with the people in treatment and they helped me in ways that I could have never imagined. However, my advice is to remember that you are in treatment because you need to find love/friendship for yourself.” — Elena S.

7. “[My friends] made me feel like I wasn’t alone. I would say it depends on the individual. Misery loves company. Some people who want to get better are very helpful, but others who have no desire to get better can be detrimental to your treatment and will try to drag you down with them. So be careful, keep your guard up and choose wisely!” — Anna C.

8. “Friends and the community helped me to better understand the things I was thinking and feeling. They helped me to work on coping mechanisms to get back on track and to just have someone to express how I feel to without it being, ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘God, that’s so irrational’ or ‘you need to eat, I’m worried about you.’ To have someone say, ‘I understand what you’re going through’ is validating (I know it’s silly to need validation, but when you struggle with a demon like an ED, just feeling something other than total self-hatred is good.)” — Zachary J.

9. “ I have my own take on this. I think there is nothing wrong and everything right with developing friends with other people with eating disorders. You both understand without having to explain. You can also both support each other and understand each other’s struggles. I think it is absolutely wonderful. I also don’t see any harm in befriending people who are at different stages in recovery because we can all offer something different to each other and perhaps set an example for those who aren’t where you are yet. Nonetheless, I do have a caveat about this. If you are befriending someone who is actively in their eating disorder and is refusing to want to get better, I think that is the one time I would walk away because that could be very dangerous to your own recovery. I think if someone isn’t ready for recovery, you can’t make them. So that’s when I keep my distance, unless they decide they are ready for help and to get better. Also, I am not talking about people who are struggling and have slips. We all do. I am just talking about people who will suck you dry because their behaviors are counterproductive to your own recovery. Otherwise, I think having other friends with eating disorders is one of the best things you can do.” — Liz H.

10. “I had never been around anyone else who seemed to be going through what I was going through. I felt so alone. When I checked into treatment, the biggest thing I got out of to it was the friendships. It was hearing everyone else’s stories, struggling, motivations (or lack thereof) that helped me figure out mine. It was such a new feeling knowing that I wasn’t alone. To have people who got me and what I was going through helped me to be a little less hard on myself and see that there is, and can be, hope. I think it can be a fine line. It depends where both of the patients are at. When I started to feel myself getting glimpses of happiness, but then I would speak to someone who hadn’t had them yet, it made it harder for me to focus on them. When I realized I was letting others big struggles affect my recovery, I had to slowly refocus on myself. This was hard for me because I didn’t want some of my new friends to be hurt, but for my recovery at the time to continue moving forward, I needed to be surrounded with only optimism. I think it depends on each person. We all know all too well nothing is ever black and white. Especially mental health diseases. It’s so hard to know what is best in each situation, so I think the key is to stay open minded, flexible and treat everyone’s story with an open outlook. If we try to put everyone is set boxes, it’s hard to break out.” — Georgia W.

11. “An eating disorder is such a lonely illness. You become convinced that no one understands or cares about you, and simultaneously, you actively shut everyone out as the disorder strives to isolate you, which only furthers the impression that you’re standing by yourself. Obviously, treatment involves a lot of focusing on yourself, because recovery isn’t something anyone else can do for you. They can support you, advise you, help you, talk to you, provide for you and comfort you… but they cannot conquer the disorder for you. Only you can.

Before I entered treatment, I had long since entered that awful cycle of avoiding people and having them avoid me. I was, for all intents and purposes, alone. The moment I stepped into a treatment center, any semblance of ‘alone time’ evaporated. If I wasn’t with the other patients in groups or meals, I was being watched by a resident counselor or meeting with a member of my team. We weren’t allowed to be by ourselves for fear that we’d resort to some sort of behavior. And I wished so desperately to be alone sometimes.

But there’s zero doubt in my mind that making friends during treatment is part of why I’ve managed to gain some ground against my disorder. Now I have the ability to spend time with people outside of the eating disorder world, should I wish to do so. I also have all of the wonderful, strong, amazing friends I’ve made in the past year or so. Sometimes, I want to leave everything to do with my eating disorder behind; that includes all the places, memories, and yes, even the people. And sometimes I do end up taking a break from the community. Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine completely disappearing. But, as with all relationships, sometimes you need your space.

However, I’ve learned to never let go of these relationships. Before, I was willing to forsake friends and loved ones in favor of my eating disorder. Now, I’ve come to understand just how integral and special these people are; both the relationships I had prior to treatment and those I’ve made within it, and how, although they’ve come from such a dark part of my life, they shine. Make friends for you, not your eating disorder. Love others as you, not as someone with an eating disorder. Live for you, and everything you do and everyone you meet will be nothing but helpful and beautiful.” — Emma C.

12. “Throughout my eating disorder, I felt alone and I like no one understood. Once I entered treatment, however, there were so many supportive individuals that made me happier throughout my stay and encouraged me everyday. None of my friends at home really understood what I was feeling. When I would reach out to my treatment friends, they knew exactly what I was feeling. It was like a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong, some relationships were very toxic and set me back, but most were beneficial. In specific, I’ve been very close with one girl ever since residential. We were with each other through everything. We still help each other to this day. We even built a bond as actual best friends, not just ‘treatment friends.’ We even hang out. I made an incredible friend through treatment. In my opinion, I think newly diagnosed people should stay on the guard for a while. I think making friends is good, but getting close isn’t good at first. I feel like you should be going in the positive direction and so should the other people. It could be very harmful and toxic if you are both struggling or even just one. You can get pulled down right away. I also think friends shouldn’t be the main priority in treatment. You’re there to help yourself and get better, not make friends. All in all, I feel like you and the other individual should be in a pretty good place to start engaging in a close relationship!” — Lizzy V.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Unsplash photo via Ricky Khawawala 

Originally published: September 8, 2017
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