FAQ Fridays- Are the Friends I Make in Treatment Good for Me?
Frequently Asked Questions Friday
This weeks question is:
Are my friendships with the people I met in treatment good for me?
This is a tough one. I personally do not believe that there is one right answer to this question. I think that it depends on 1. The nature of your friendships, 2. Where you are in your own recovery, 3. Where the other individuals are in their recoveries, and 4. Your personality and friendship dynamics. Did you expect me, the psychologist, to say, "No. These friendships are not good for you. End of story"? Well I cannot, in good faith, say that. And perhaps I diverge from many of my colleagues in my belief on this matter, but I do not consider this to be a black and white issue. I think that there are several themes that apply to friendships formed in treatment, so I will attempt to give this complicated question the multifaceted answer that it deserves:
It’s no secret that eating disorders are competitive illnesses. In fact, for a great deal of sufferers, treatment can be made more tricky because the eating disorder becomes triggered to be the “best” when surrounded by others who are also ill. This is why a number of treatment centers have policies ruling against socialization after discharge. However, having an eating disorder can also be incredibly isolating. It can be a welcome change to have a friend who just gets it.
But when you both have an eating disorder, and you are both trying to recover, things can easily get dicey. Eating disorders are tricky illnesses. You can want recovery in your heart of hearts, and still feel a twinge of jealousy when you see someone else acting on behaviors. You can be working towards weight restoration with all of your might and still find yourself perusing how to cut calories. It’s difficult enough to manage your own symptoms and tease out if the eating disorder is in control at the moment. Now throw another person in exactly the same boat into the mix. You both want recovery. You both understand the torturous nature of this confusing illness. And you are both dealing with working through the ED thoughts and stopping the behaviors. On one hand, it’s beautiful to feel that type of camaraderie. (In a world where most seem to be shouting “Just eat!” what a breathe of fresh air to sit across from someone shaking just as much when they pick up the sandwich.) On the other hand, you are now vulnerable to a particularly strong type of trigger- the relapse of a friend.
Anybody who has been through this can tell you- it’s incredibly difficult to watch a friend go through a relapse. It’s easy for the eating disorder to sneak in during this time and set off those competitive feelings. It’s equally as easy to take it personally. (i.e. How could she do this when we are in this together? Doesn’t she know what this does to me?) Additionally, there is the danger of feeling the responsibility to save her. You might feel the pull to begin to pour all of your time and energy into helping her. The danger here? You begin to neglect your own recovery, and, again, the door is left ajar for the eating disorder to flare up.
So what is the solution? Should you, as those aforementioned treatment centers suggest, cut off all relationships with fellow patients after being discharged? Or should you throw caution to the wind and venture on towards the sister/brotherhood of recovery warriors? The truth is, only you can answer what is the right solution for you. I know some people who have felt that they need to keep themselves at arm’s length from fellow patients. These individuals have shared that they sought an identity outside of the eating disorder, and noted that they wanted to surround themselves with the healthiest people possible. One friend told me that she felt it necessary to immerse herself in “normal eater world,” so that she could attempt to emulate her friends who have had historically healthy relationships with food and weight. Another individual told me that she was tired of conversations surrounding triggers and fear foods, and indicated that she felt the need to cut off these relationships if she truly wanted to recover for good. I have also heard the opposite-people who feel that their relationships with their fellow warriors were vital to recovery. Some will hold that the bonds that are created when people go through treatment together are unlike any other. There is sense to this- there will never be another time when you are more raw and vulnerable, so these relationships do have the potential to be very deep. In fact, our fearless Project HEAL leaders have shared that they met in treatment, and that their relationship was indeed important to their recovery processes.
So, as I initially stated, similar to most everything about recovery, the answer to the question of whether or not relationships between two people in recovery are healthy is not black and white. I believe the answer is- there is no absolute answer. Just like any friendship- some may flourish and some may become toxic. Certainly, many may find a sense of acceptance and peace in these relationships. Others may feel that it is best to keep a clear boundary between friends and fellow patients. No matter how you feel, it is important to be honest with yourself and others about what is helpful to you during the recovery process. No two journeys to recovery are identical, which means you must pay close attention to what is helpful to you. Listen to your inner voice when it comes to friendships with fellow recovery warriors. It may be that you need to return to you original circle of friends after treatment, and keep fellow patients at arms length to protect your own recovery. Or perhaps these friendships will be better suited for you later on in recovery-when you are feeling strong and have a deep sense of what triggers you and what helps you to cope. At that point, you may just find that these friendships can truly be like no other-just ask our Project Heal co-founders! Whatever the case, you and your recovery must come first, so pay close attention to your inner wisdom. It’s there, I promise.
Colleen Reichmann is a licensed clinical psychologist, specializing in the treatment of individuals with eating disorders, body image issues, self-esteem issues, and women's issues. She lives in Virginia Beach with her husband, goldendoodle and sheepadoodle.
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*The views expressed in this posting are based on this writer’s professional knowledge, training, and experience in accord with current and relevant psychological literature and practice. These views do not indicate that a professional relationship has been established with any recipients. Readers should consult with their primary medical professionals for specific feedback about any and all questions.