We had just finished eating lunch in the school cafeteria and I realized that Jane* had left the table. Nobody seemed to know where she had gone, but I had a pretty good idea. I wondered if she’d be in the bathroom, so I went to look. There was a noisy crowd in the bathroom, but I saw Jane walk out of the stall, looking sad and ashamed. She went over and washed her hands but as soon as she saw me, her face dropped even more. She walked over to me, looking prepared for a fight, but I didn’t have anything to say. I gave her a hug and we cried together. This scene became typical of our friendship, maybe not the place or exact situation, but the two of us hugging in quiet stillness as we simply supported one another.
Jane was the first girl I knew with an eating disorder. When I met her she had already been in the hospital several times. At the hospital, she had been force-fed and not able to leave until she maintained a certain weight. We would later discuss these hospitalizations and how, despite her doctor’s best intentions, she often became worse after coming home. She’d gain barely enough weight to leave the hospital and then would retreat back to her old habits. I wish I could say I understood, but I didn’t.
We were popular teenagers with lots of friends. Jane thrived in the spotlight. She enjoyed being on stage and many people looked up to her for that reason. On the outside Jane and I were similar, but unlike me, deep down she was unhappy. Jane tried to explain why she felt so dissatisfied to me. She was very open about her struggle with bulimia. We spent multiple evenings talking about how each of us struggled to deal with her disease. Jane informed me that she had felt fat since she was two years old and that it was the combination of low self-esteem and the need for control that drove her to develop an eating disorder. I constantly felt like I would never be able to say the right thing to her, so most of the time, I remained silent. Jane was beautiful, but I felt like I could never convince her of how I saw her, so I patiently listened, not saying a word.
As we see in this story, the best way to help somebody who’s suffering is to be a consistent presence in their life. Though they may not accept themselves, our unconditional love toward them and acceptance of them will be a constant reminder of their value and worth. Those who are suffering will begin to gravitate toward us as we become aware of their pain and continue to accept them with love. Through these opportunities, God is giving us a chance to be His loving arms for His hurting children. When we hug, hold and cry with our friends, God is right there, embracing us and crying too.
I finally realized that I would never understand what Jane was going through. It was much like a friend that loses a parent or finds out they have cancer – understanding is never fully possible unless the experience is first-person. I was never going to fully understand why she did this to herself and I was never going to be able to make her better. All I could do was support her.
Jane was the first person I knew with an eating disorder, but she wasn’t the last. It seemed like once I met Jane, girls started coming out of the woodwork. I found out that one of my other best friends was also bulimic. Girls I had recently met would tell me they were anorexic and the hardest part was knowing that the only thing I could offer was my friendship.
Thankfully, today Jane is healthy and even though she still has days when she struggles with her self-image, I think she’s finally happy with her identity.
Read a Q&A with two professionals to learn more about signs, causes and ways to help a friend with an eating disorder.
*Name changed to protect identity.