Helping acquaintance's sister with her anorexia
August 1, 2010 10:40 PM   Subscribe

An acquaintance asked me if I could help his sister who has anorexia because he knows I have been through similar struggles. I'm not sure how or if it is appropriate for me to interfere. Any suggestions on how to deal with this sensitive topic is appreciated.

An acquaintance of mine asked me about helping his sister in high school who is dealing with anorexia. I have become relatively open about my own past with eating disorders, and wrote a blog post about it awhile back, which is how he knows about my history. He says that his sister has been struggling with anorexia for awhile, their parents have shuffled her to multiple doctors to no avail, and she exhibits overall disinterest in most things, lack of self-confidence, and irritability. His specific question was, "since you have been through something similar, is there anything you can do to help her out, even a little?"

This request is coming as quite a surprise to me, especially since I barely know this person (we had one class together), much less his sister, and I'm not sure how to deal with it. Of course, more than anything, I would love to help, and it pains me to hear what the girl and her family is going through, but my first reaction is that there's nothing I personally can do. Thinking back on my ED days, I don't know if anyone could have helped me until I made the decision myself. But perhaps she could benefit from talking to someone who can be non-judgmental and has been through it? I'm not sure. Most of all, I do not want haphazardly intrude upon this girl's life, especially since she probably feels vulnerable and scrutinized already. I know how someone with an eating disorder can be very private about it.

My own background is that I struggled with an eating disorder for a few years in high school, and through my own resolve and determination, eventually recovered. I did not go to a doctor, nor tell anyone of my problem. I am much better now, and have not relapsed, and I would not mind talking about it at all, if I feel it'll help.

Any input, anecdotes, advice, or resources from people who are going through, have gone through, or had someone close to them deal with an eating disorder is much appreciated. I know everyone is different, which is why I want more opinions then just my own memory of what I would have wanted.

Specifically, I am wondering:
1. Is it my place to intrude? Her brother did come to me for help, but I question whether his sister would welcome me.
2. Is there anything I can even do to help? If so how?
3. If there's nothing I can personally do, is there a resource I can point the family towards?
4. How do I speak to the brother about whatever my response will be (this will be through email. I want to be as tactful as possible, especially if it ends up that I cannot do anything.)

Thank you in advance.
posted by lacedcoffee to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you write to her and say something like, "Your brother says you are having some problems. He cares about you a lot and would like me to help. He knows I had some problems of the same time in the past. I'd love to help; I'd love to just talk; I'd hate to intrude. Write back when and if you ever feel like it."

To the brother write, "I've done all I can."

I think that might not be enough, but I do believe it is all you can do right now.
posted by Some1 at 10:53 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

2. You can talk to her, or even just to your friend, about finding treatment to help her deal with this. That's what help would really look like in this situation. Even though you didn't feel you needed it (and congratulations on your recovery), most people do need a lot of support, and need professional intervention, in order to recover from eating disorders. This shouldn't be something for you, or her family, to try to pull her out of. It can come to the point of life and death, and good professional help can likely do something to prevent it from getting to that point.

A lot of medical doctors did not get training in treating eating disorders, unless they went through adolescent medicine specializations, so my experience has been that a lot of doctors are pretty useless in diagnosing EDs (particularly bulimia). Therapists who treat EDs usually know physicians who are helpful with EDs. Some resources for finding therapists who treat EDs are:
Something Fishy treatment finder
National Eating Disorders Association
posted by so_gracefully at 10:58 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'd tell the bro that you're more than willing to talk to and listen to him, and that if the sister wants to contact you, you're more than willing to talk to or listen to her. But I wouldn't offer to contact her. In other words, offer to help anyone who wants your help.
posted by salvia at 11:00 PM on August 1, 2010 [3 favorites]

I have only second-hand appreciation of this subject, but it seems to me like a (mostly) complete stranger showing up and trying to pat her on the head at this point would simply exacerbate the situation. These sorts of disorders are really complicated, and the brute force 'how do you fix it' approach isn't really appropriate. Forgive us, it's a guy thing.
Try to explain to your brother that it's much deeper than that, and hope that he's willing to listen to a not so great answer.
posted by Gilbert at 11:03 PM on August 1, 2010

Whoops, sorry, mis-read. Not your brother, but an acquaintance. Answer still holds, though.
posted by Gilbert at 11:07 PM on August 1, 2010

In response to the fact that she probably needs professional help: I would agree. I ended up not going that route myself, but even today, I strongly advocate seeking professional advice for anyone in the situation. She has already been to doctors and it hasn't helped. It is something I know little about, and though I can probably relate to a lot of what she's going through, this is something I do not have experience with. I do not in any way believe I can "cure" her. ED's are very complicated, I know. I am wondering if it is appropriate to offer support or an open ear.

Thank you for the responses for far. They are helpful.
posted by lacedcoffee at 11:10 PM on August 1, 2010

"I am wondering if it is appropriate to offer support or an open ear."

Yes. Oh, yes. Advice, maybe not, but an ear, yes. When and what advice is always a hard decision, but when to listen isn't. In fact, you will always know it isn't the time for advice, when it will mean someone (who needs a listener) will stop talking.
posted by Some1 at 11:27 PM on August 1, 2010

And, I know, offering to listen doesn't mean she will accept your offer - if that happens, you must accept that too, and I think you know it won't be personal either - but that doesn't mean you shouldn't offer to listen.
posted by Some1 at 11:29 PM on August 1, 2010

Talking to the brother so he can understand what his sister is going through might be more helpful in the long run.
posted by fshgrl at 11:32 PM on August 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't offer advice - she's probably drowning in advice. Also she may be offended that her brother is talking about her personal life with people that are strangers to her.

Give your contact information to her brother, have him tell her about you (maybe give her a link to your blog post?) and let her know you're open to talking. After that the ball is in her court.
posted by foobario at 12:09 AM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

You might be able to help her some by talking to him a bit. Trying to help the person involved is great, but the people around them can use help too. They'll be better off understanding the reasons behind an illness (whether it's depression, eating disorders, or leukemia) and how to handle someone with it, and some day so will the person with that illness.
posted by Heretical at 12:11 AM on August 2, 2010

If only a human to human level, in that he reached out to you, you do have the obligation to help. Given that you have some background in the matter, gives you an idea what his sister is dealing with. The help I think you'd be best in offering are resources that will be effective in helping this girl with her self-esteem on one hand, and the other is care, typically psychological. Care might be taken in finding these resources, and would probably require some time and effort in sifting through to glean the very best. Good luck.
posted by watercarrier at 3:46 AM on August 2, 2010

ask the brother to point her to your blog and say, "hey, she happens to be an aquaintance of mine. If you are interested in talking to someone who faced what you are facing, i am sure she would be glad to share what she can about her experiences and recovery."

then you could follow the write the letter idea above, only it won't hit her completely cold, even if she doesn't read the blog. i would encourange professional help if it gets the point. i think you are a rare bird to overcome this yourself. most people don't have the internal resources to do that.

i don't think there is much other than that you can do at this point, given that you have never met her. extend a kind hand and you will have done more than lots of people.
posted by domino at 6:19 AM on August 2, 2010

1. Is it my place to intrude? Her brother did come to me for help, but I question whether his sister would welcome me.

Her brother obviously loves her and is deeply concerned. I think if you approach her either in person or via phone/email, you should let her know right off the bat that you've been there and just want to offer her a non-judgmental ear if she ever wants to talk. Give her your contact details and leave it at that; you don't want to scare her away by coming off as too pushy.

2. Is there anything I can even do to help? If so how?

You won't know until you try. However, you shouldn't beat yourself up if she doesn't want to talk to you.

3. If there's nothing I can personally do, is there a resource I can point the family towards?

Your blog. It might help them understand what their daughter is going through on a more personal level.

4. How do I speak to the brother about whatever my response will be (this will be through email. I want to be as tactful as possible, especially if it ends up that I cannot do anything.)

Be honest with him. Tell him that you really want to help and you'll try, but ultimately it's his sister's decision as to whether she'll accept your (or anyone else's) help or not.

Good luck.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:37 AM on August 2, 2010

I agree that you should offer to talk to her if she calls you, which would be less intrusive.

But also, I'd offer to talk to him about what he should expect, and what he should be doing. A friend of mine is anorexic, and while she was at her worst I remember feeling a lot of anxiety about what I could and could not do to help her, and a lot of fear that I would say the wrong thing and accidentally make things worse. So some advice/reassurance on that score would probably help the brother.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:53 AM on August 2, 2010

Just as a data point, my sister has an eating disorder, and want as I might, I am little to no help to her, mostly because she feels that no one can understand what she's going through. Then she met her boyfriend's mother, who had been through an eating disorder, and this is the first person (doctors and counselors included) who she feels like she can really talk to about it. She says it helps so much knowing that this woman has been through something so similar.
posted by whalebreath at 11:45 AM on November 2, 2010

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