Astrid, me and …the monster inside her — her eating disorder
About a friendship that is different to normal ones.
Read more about what Astrid is going through ✍🏼 on her personal medium
Astrid and me are best friends. We know each other inside out. Now. That was not always the case.
Six years ago she started to eat differently. Less. At some point only a bread with cheese and a diet coke. First, I thought she wanted to diet. So I didn’t address it. After a few months she started sharing some hints about what is going on with her. Carefully I was asking more. Sometimes she said a few more sentences or sometimes she gave no reply at all. And I left it there.… Over a period of time I thought how bad can it really become? At that time, I had no idea that this monster — her disease, the eating disorder — can kill her. If I would have known what was lying in front of her, I would have acted immediately.
Often today, I blame myself for not having done something when I had a vague guess. And mostly, because shortly when her illness got worse for her, I moved 6000 kilometres away. I was deeply involved in my new life in a new country. I could not be there. Could not hold her hand when she was struggling so much from inside. I could not bring her to a doctor. Back in those days, I knew someone should take her there. I sensed it. But there was no one. At that time, Astrid had already a complicated relationship to her mother. From whom I had no phone number. Her beloved uncle died. Boyfriends did come and go and even worsened things. Girlfriends did go on with their lives. They did not recognize her problems as she was playing a perfect role in front of everyone. And I can not blame anyone for living their own lives. She pretended to be happy. Posted about good times on social media. After a few years, I could see in those pictures that she was acting, that the pictures did not show the truth about how she felt. I understood it, because I knew her so deeply. Her eyes even give her away today. It is true, they are the window to our souls.
Over the years we kept talking while I was abroad, on the Whats App, on Skype. Sometimes there were months of silence. In which I waited patiently to hear from her. I pinged her with a message, but — nothing. In those days of silence Astrid tried to kill herself, she was in clinics to get help. I could hardly process all of this and often I simply did not know. I came to know later when she opened up. When she said this is what happened to me and this is how I feel with this illness. When she mentioned the suicide that was when I really started reading about her problem. I thought why the hell is this killing her from inside? Why is she doing this to herself? I couldn’t understand and I can not fully today. But I try.
I am sharing here my deepest thoughts and impressions, because I want people to understand that this illness is not a ‘fashion trend’ or a ‘luxury disease’. Nothing which can be explained in one single ELLE article. The topic of eating disorder needs to be handled with much more sensitivity. The root for all of it is the lack of self-confidence. Something that we do not teach our children at school. It should be a main subject to not have to be perfect and good looking all the time. That it doesn’t matter how you look, but how you feel from inside. And this feeling should be happy, not constantly. Of course we can have bad days, but they should not end in loosing our will to live. We should learn at school to treat us as good as possible. That is what I learned from Astrid and her illness: treat yourself as good as possible.
What changed a year ago between Astrid and me? She started talking, honestly and openly. I started listening and asking questions. Even when I ask carefully. Astrid, for the first time opened up, shared her feelings, her confused and messed up thoughts, her bad experiences in life. There was no mask anymore between us. It was like a snake who is peeling off her skin. She took off layer by layer and so did I. Today there is nothing that we do not know about each other. Even about our bodies. I took pictures of her for her blog, which she is writing in German since the eating disorder started. She wants to create awareness about it and encourage others who struggle like her. I took my shirt off during the shooting to make her more comfortable while I wrote her thoughts on her naked body. Astrid ensured me her body would not have any signs anymore from her disease. It does. Many. She is not yet looking at herself closely enough to see it. For me she looks vulnerable. She is very thin. But she has gained weight already which is important for her recovery.
I am happy that she opens up and at the same time it makes me sometimes sad. Why? Because it hurts to see a friend, who you love so dearly, trapped in a disease that you can not scare away with words or actions. It is a fight she has to fight on her own. She will only win if she wants it and works on it. Every single day. I can only play a supporting role and cheer for her from the sideline. She does the hard work — being her self again, finding her self-worth and trusting herself to be loved. Leaving the role behind of pretending that everything is okay with her. Talking about it at work, with her boss, her colleagues, with her new boyfriend, friends and me.
How does it feel to have a friend with an eating disorder? Here’s an explanation about how I see the disease and an attempt to explain what Astrid feels.
Her eating disorder is for me like a third person who is always giving us company. An uninvited guest. It’s like a monster that sits behind us in a corner with glasses on and watches us constantly. Why glasses? Because I can not identify its face clearly. Even on the most happy days that we share, I can feel its presence; when she doesn’t order more than a coffee or says she will eat later at home and describes the food she will have so that I believe her (today I know she is eating, which wasn’t always the case) or when she simply starts talking about her illness. I’m happy that she became so vocal about it. It was a long way for her to do so. But it means also that at any given day totally out of the blue we can end up to talk about this monster. Monster is the right word for it — a hairy, scary thing behind which she did hide. It became over the time bigger than herself, it told her that she isn’t worth anything, not even worth living. This monster made a home inside her head and sits there, stretches up and takes up all the space and thoughts. It decides what goes into her mind and into her body. From what I understand the disease goes deep under her skin from where it causes waves of distress. Waves, in which in the worst times she pulled out her hair or nails. Today she can accept her emotions and live through them most of the times. Her mind is so overactive, thoughts come and go, they rush through her.
Complete mind movies are running inside her head that she is fighting with. These movies consist of messed up thoughts, they have no intrinsic value, and are not to be confused with verifiable facts about herself, her body or life. These mind movies keep her from living in the present moment. To replace this negative and really upsetting thoughts with positive self-talk to calm herself down is the hard and challenging part.
This self-talk can only come to an extend from me. She has to learn to accept herself, love herself and come to terms with her as the wonderful human being that she is and that I see in her. Building a conscious, positive relationship with her body is her end goal. The stress is on self-care — from sleep (most difficult to get with the mind cinema being constantly on) to movement, from medical visits to simply avoiding toxic thoughts. To overcome the terror in her mind, the war with herself, this body shaming, and all-or-nothing thinking is her goal. Filling up without feeling down. Eating normally, turning to food when you’re not hungry and more over filling herself with encouragement and tender care instead of overeating.
She might not see it, but the panic, the exhaustion, the coping — is recovery. This is it. It’s getting through the day. One day at a time. For her it’s not always a loving life. Sometimes it’s just buckling down and doing what needs to be done. But getting it done and living it, is the important step forward to heal herself.
Astrid took a turn after many set backs. The monster in her did shrink. It might go away. I really hope so. The disease did leave marks on her body and soul, but she came out with her will to live and to enjoy her life. That is the biggest progress and after so many years of terror in her head there are good stories coming from her. She has not reached yet a normal life. If I could, I would beat this monster up, kick it out of her head and tell it to leave my friend alone. Shout at it I want her back the way she was — carefree. She won’t be that way again. But she is on a good way to get her life back and that is all that I want for her. To live.
I can not and do not want to give any medical advice, but here are a few tips from my experience for loved ones who deal with a person that has an eating disorder:
1. Encourage the person to seek professional help
If you think your friend, daughter or son has an eating disorder, it is most likely true. You have to face it the same way as the affected individual has. Abnormal eating habits are not normal and affected people need help. Bring them to a doctor. Confront them. Do not look away or think it gets somehow better. It will not. They need your help and you might be the only person seeing it. Do not leave them when they shout at you or try to turn away from you. Keep encouraging them to get professional help. Without any professional help it can nearly become impossible to overcome it. This is the first important goal.
2. Talk the person & encourage them to recognise their skills and qualities
You know the person best. Keep communication to him/her in a positive and open way. Take the time to talk. No Whats App or Facebook Messenger. Take time for a coffee or a walk — real face-to-face communication. Take the person out of her stressful environment which is her apartment and her head. Because some people with eating disorder turn away from friends, do not join dinner invitations anymore. They stop being sociable. Take the person out to talk and give positive feedback about herself.
3. Use laughter as a means of communication
Laughing together is the BEST medicine. You both get a positive boost from it and the monster in the room will be far away in a corner for a minute. Laughter makes your friend feel the lightness of life again and empties her head for a moment.
4. Take the focus off food and weight
Yes, you’ve to talk about the hard part — the eating disorder and how your friend feels and what she’s going through. But not all the time. Your friend is already over fixated on food and weight issues, so you’ve to talk about all the other things like movies, work, common friends, international sensations, hobbies anything but food and her body image.
5. Mealtimes should not become a battleground
Eat together. Go together to restaurants or have dinner together. Frustrations and emotions need to be expressed but not at meal times; this is already likely to be a difficult time. If your friend doesn’t want to eat with you, fine. But make her sit with you. Make her see that it is normal to eat and that it is enjoyable. And hopefully she will take a meal with you. Offer her to share one. But never force her or scold her. It is a disease that she did not choose. No one wants to suffer.
6. Accept limitations in your responsibilities
That’s again a hard part. I often feel bad that I was not there when her eating disorder hit the bottom and was at its worst. I know I would have taken her to a hospital. Your support and encouragement is vital. However you can only cheer for her and hold her hand. The recovery lies in her hand and it is responsibility of the person with the eating disorder to take the necessary steps towards it.
7. Set boundaries
Everyone has to deal with their own life challenges. We all have our own battlegrounds. Hence, if your friend with the disorder is behaving difficult, it is okay to let her know that her behaviour is not acceptable. Only set boundaries you can enforce.
There will be hurt feelings on the way. My friend did push me away and I couldn’t deal with her behaviour. So I stayed away. And we got back later again. No hard feelings. She is one of my best friends and has a place in my heart.
8. Do things as you usually would
Again a hard part to follow through with. The person with the eating disorder needs to learn to co-exist with food and with other people, rather than others learning to co-exist with the eating disorder. Try not to make any changes to meal times, food shopping, outings, topics of conversation, or other interests. I could only learn this after I did read more about her illness. Before that I tried to be over sensitive with her.
9. Separate the person from the disorder
Your friend is not the disease. She is there behind that monster. Her behaviour is a symptom of her illness rather than a reflection of her character. You’ve to remind yourself about it.
10. Enjoy things together
It is important not to let the eating disorder become the focus of your relationship. Continue to enjoy things together that you have always done and loved to do.
11. Build the person’s self esteem
Your friend is running the marathon and you can cheer for her from the sideline. So focus on her positive characteristics and behaviour. Not the destructive ones. Spread light.
12. Spend time with other friends
The person with the eating disorder is important, but no more so than other people in your circle and family. Try to avoid a situation where others feel neglected.
13. Accept your limitations as a friend
You cannot deal with all the problems associated with the disorder. There are so many of it. These are things your friend has to work on with professional help. Your role as a friend is unique and something that a therapist can’t be, just as the therapist’s role is something a friend can’t take on.
14. Become informed
Information about eating disorders, recovery stories, developing coping strategies or even attending support groups can be useful. There are many resources and books written about it. I googled and read as much as I could digest. Some stories are heartening, but it did help me. You’ve to see for yourself how much information you can take in.
15. Look after yourself
To look after yourself is as important as looking after the person with the eating disorder. Get as much support and information as you need. Support groups, relatives, friends, counsellors, telephone support lines and other professionals may be useful. But do not forget yourself.
16. Be patient
Eating disorders are complicated and recovery takes time. Be aware that your friend will not go back to where she was before the illness. But things get better. And if it is not better, it is not the end. Your friend doesn’t want to stay in this and suffer all her life. But she might lack the ability to overcome the disorder soon. There is no specific timeframe for recovery.
My message to everyone affected or not:
Stay strong. Fight for yourself. And treat yourself as good as possible.
And my message to the ones with an eating disorder:
The devil whispered in my ear, “you’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.”
Today I whispered in the devils ear, “I am the storm.”
If you’re someone dealing with an eating disorder or a loved person of yours is struggling with it, share your thoughts. Astrid and I like to listen to what you think and feel.
Thanks for reading & much light to you.
Astrid published an article about how she feels with the eating disorder in English and German. She says next to fighting her disease the biggest challenge is to explain the world around her what is going on inside her.