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Anorexia and Friendship: How Friendship Can Affect Anorexia

Part three of a four-part series, negative relationships may reinforce illness.

In the previous part of this series on friendship, I focused on how anorexia affects friendships.

What about the other way round? In this third part, I’ll make a few observations on this question. Then in the final part of the series, I'll explore the interactions in both directions between recovery and friendship.

The first case I’ll consider is where both friends have eating problems, or one of you does and the other is vulnerable to developing them. It’s terribly easy for things to degenerate here into mutual exacerbation, even with the best intentions—for difficulties with eating to be heightened in company, for insecurities to be accidentally amplified by sharing. This may affect the friendship in an obviously negative or a pseudo-positive way, but regardless, the effect on the illness is usually deleterious.

The effects in the two-ED case could in theory flow the other way too, though: towards a shared understanding that something needs changing. Or, perhaps more likely, they might flow towards the bad and thereby ultimately towards the good. In many areas, things may need to get worse before they can get better: the getting-worse helps one see the bad for what it is, and act accordingly. This potential may be magnified when there are two (or more) people instead of one: awareness may build collaboratively, through conversation and reciprocal observation. Often it’s easier to see oneself clearly through the reflection of someone else, and this is all the truer if the other person is starting to see herself more clearly through you.

Then there’s the case where you have anorexia and you’re drawn to people who don’t but who have traits that anorexia can involve excessive admiration of: e.g. extreme slimness or a ‘fitness’-focused lifestyle. In these cases the healthy person may end up inadvertently exacerbating the illness thanks to the force of the anorexic filter, which excludes all the evidence of the many things that make the healthy person not-anorexic, e.g. not having strict food rules, eating enough to let the exercise be healthy, etc.

Meanwhile, some friendships may be built on inadequate openness for anorexia ever to be explicitly acknowledged. In this case, the friendship may (as with the superficial forms of contact I mentioned earlier) help reinforce the pretense that all is well. It may also push the experience of anorexia deeper into secrecy, shame, and the exacerbation that reliably attends them. Again, that may ultimately generate the rock-bottom conviction of the need for recovery, but as ever with that route, the way is dangerous and usually long.

And then there are the friendships where anorexia plays a shifting, ambiguous, or inconspicuous role for a long time, and then something changes to bring it center-stage, and then the friendship – specifically, actions by the not-anorexic friend—becomes the galvanizer of recovery.

Two of my friendships—the only two I really had left—took this path. I’ve described their input into how I started recovery here and here. One found me a treatment option and helped me access it; the other helped me make the decision to say yes and bought me food for a long time afterward. Without them I don’t know what would have happened; quite likely nothing, for a long time further into my twenties or beyond.

And their example brings me to the end of this post, and to the start of the next, which will consider the recovery context–how friendship can change recovery and recovery can change friendship–as well as offering a few practical tips for navigating the dynamics of illness, recovery, and friendship.

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