Your ED Friend: Six Years Later

[Obvious TW is really glaringly obvious.]

“I had an eating disorder.”

“I guessed.”

We were juniors, boyfriend and girlfriend, officially. Up late and texting, doing that flirting thing where you demand each others deepest secrets and pretend you’re giving yours away.

Except I did give mine away.

“I had an eating disorder.”

I was lying, of course. It wasn’t the past tense–it was the second year of an eating disorder, one that would get worse, more disorganized, and wreak much more havoc on my sanity in the coming four years.

But it was the first step.

And he had guessed–known, really, for months. He’s my best friend now, far and away in Texas. In this month, marking six years since I developed what would reach clinical-level anorexia, I asked him about it.  He doesn’t remember when he figured it out, really. It was, according to him, always part of how he knew me.

And I don’t think he’s wrong. It’s been six years ago, as of this month, since the behavioral side of anorexia started. Every time I’ve looked back and tried to think “back when I was stable/normal/didn’t have an eating disorder”…I realize I’m looking back at times when I was actually worse, when I wasn’t eating, when I couldn’t go ten minutes without invasive, obsessive thoughts about food.

Six years. More than a quarter of my life.

There’s this thing they talk about in therapy some times: grieving for the normal self. Because even were your disorder to remit entirely…you wouldn’t go back to being Old You. Your brain learns things. You grow and bend and shape yourself around coping mechanisms and triggers and ways of responding to the world. Old You is just gone. And Old You was a whole person, with plans and potential and places to go and things to do and ways of looking at the world. Maybe a little more optimistic, a little shinier and fresh-faced. You get to have all those things again, those plans and that potential, it’s true. But sometimes they’re a little dusty, a chipped, in pieces.

And I really liked Old Kate.

Therapy was a eulogy, stories of when I could look in mirrors, and dancing and days when I could just throw on clothes in the morning.

And now, finally, I think I’ve laid that Kate to rest.

A photographer friend took this for me--a lasting reminder that I can be happy in this body.

A photographer friend took this for me–a lasting reminder that I can be happy in this body.

I’m…this Kate.

I have this weird alternate life where I write things on the internet and people read them. On weekends I go to conferences and go by a different name, and on Monday the coach turns into the best pumpkin ever and I work at Fabulous Unspecified Internship.

I’ve gone skinny-dipping. I’ve gone skinny-dipping in Lake Michigan in the middle of winter. (Note: REALLY cold.)

I am emotionally able to care for another animal and I know this because I’m doing it right now.

I live in a city that I love. I’m in love.

I don’t dance anymore, and it hurts. But sometimes I actually see New Kate in the mirror, and that makes me think that someday I’ll go back into a studio.

I’ve learned some of two different languages, and I get to take classes about bioethics and astronomy and artificial intelligence and and and…and each day ends with just wanting more more more. More books, more research, more people who want to know anything about everything and everything about anything.

There’s something they don’t tell you about eating disorders. About how much you want more than anything to wake up and be in a different skin, how much you don’t want to feel your own body, to notice what space you take up.

But New Kate is still here, taking up space.

I’d like to keep doing that.

The Friend Manual: Part I

Part II
Part III
Part IV 

I am a friend to some lovely brilliant people with mental illness. I also have my own experiences with persistent brainfail, and some really wonderful friends who show up and give me hugs, talk me through the worst nights, and know that when I say I’m not doing so well and need space…I really need space right then and there.

I also have acquaintances who cannot do this. For them, when I want to say “I am incapable of normal interaction right now, please come back later.”, what actually comes out of my mouth is “Oh man, I have a really bad headache.” I am sure that these people, who have always meant well–and include Don’t You Know That’s Bad For You Person and Sometimes I Forget To Eat Too Person–would be shocked, shocked to hear that they’ve said tactless things. After all, that’s how it works–you don’t realize.

Don’t want to be that person?
Have a friend with mental illness?
(Chances are, you probably do.)
Want to make your friend feel like a valued part of society that you care for? If the answer to this is no, artist Ologies has this for you.
With that idea in mind, I’ve put together some basic  ideas for being the best human being you can for someone who’s just told you they have Disorder X.

A Most Important Caveat: It may be that your friend has no interest in discussing anything past the original disclosure. Please make sure to continually check that they are comfortable answering questions….and emphasize that they can tell you to stop at any time, or refuse to answer personal questions they are uncomfortable with. When I feel that I cannot leave or postpone conversations once they’ve begun, I will do anything to prevent them from starting in the first place. Safe spaces aren’t safe when they don’t have an exit.

1. Words Matter More Than Anything
So they found the words to tell you how they feel? Pay attention. Words are the best way we know to get others inside our heads, and the words they use to describe their experience are the most important tools they are giving you. She feels fragile? That’s not the same as depressed. So he is feeling depressed? That is not called feeling sad. I feel most understood and valued and listened-to when I hear someone work within the bounds of how I’ve described my feelings.

You said you were feeling like you had no momentum. Do you still feel like that? Will you feel better if I take you out to dinner and we catch a movie? Or would that make you feel like you have to pretend to be enjoying yourself?

2. Do. Not. Assume.

I know that one of the most basic human instincts is to relate to one another by shared experience. Do not try this.

So, you had that one friend with bipolar disorder that one time back at that one place? Cool story, bro. I can assure you that I am not that friend. In this particular example, there’s the problem that there’s two expressions of bipolar disorder. Didn’t know that? That’s cool. You don’t have to. All you have to know is that I am Me, and that Me is not the same as That Other Person With Disorder X.

3. You Don’t Have to Be Their Therapist

You know them so well, and if you could only get them to consider… No.

Stop right there.

I get it, and you do have a special frame of refernce, but Stop It. Now. Make like a pumpkin and squash that feeling.

4. No, Really, Please Don’t Try to Be A Therapist

If you’re my friend, we have a give-and-take. Sometimes I listen to you talk about that one time you tried to explain an Important Thing to your mom/boyfriend/girlfriend/professor and they Just Didn’t Get It, and sometimes you listen to me grouch about my stressful day at work. We trade off on this, and if we didn’t, I would be a bad friend, and it would be totally fine if you called me on it, or just decided to find the right kind of friends.

This is not how therapy works. Therapists and counselors and psychologists get paid the fancy money to do things like get mad when their clients don’t do their homework and ask really personal questions, and as a result, their clients can expect that they will be given attention, that their problems will be the focus, and that if they don’t seem to be getting the right kind of help, they can fire the therapist. The friendships are far more complex, and as a result, you don’t get to fire your friends, and you don’t have to pay them.

5. I Mean It. You Aren’t A Therapist.

Really, if there’s anything you take away from all these words, let this be it. It will be painful, uncomfortable, and probably downright annoying. You aren’t qualified, and I’d rather have my friend.

What you can do is offer to find local counseling centers. Take me to my appointments if I can’t get there, or give really big hugs when I leave them and I still feel bad. There are therapists out there, and lots of them. Possession of a dusty degree in psychology or that one textbook from freshman year Intro Psych does not somehow negate your Friend Identity. Even if you were a therapist, you should never ever try to treat your friends. So really. Don’t do that.

I started this post, and suddenly I was sitting around with two thousand words on my computer. Part II will be coming soon–in the meantime, leave me suggestions for things I have left out or could have said better!