How can I stop being jealous of my sick friend?
August 23, 2011 3:15 PM   Subscribe

My friend is sick. Really, truly ill. How can I support her while constantly dealing with my broken-brained issues regarding body image?

So, this is so incredibly fucked-up that I am actually embarrassed about posting an AskMe about it. But, there you go.

I have a dear friend who suffers from a chronic illness. Recently, she's suffered a severe setback. She's dropped a lot of weight and looks frail and emaciated -- because she *is* frail and emaciated. I have been trying my best to be there for her, visiting her when she's in the hospital, helping watch her kids when I'm able to do so, etc. We are each others' closest friends, and I love her dearly.

Here is my personal problem, which I fully realize is secondary to the larger problem of my best friend's illness. I have weird issues around body image and eating and stuff and when I was younger, I suffered from what was probably an eating disorder. I am in no way an unhealthy weight or anything like that; I realize that to other people I look like I am on the slender side of average. However, I generally think I look dreadful, which isn't helped by the fact that I gained 7 pounds over the summer, which has fucked with my head really badly. My friend and I used to be precisely the same size, and that helped a lot because I knew what she looked like, and that helped to reassure me that I wasn't actually secretly fat. So, I know it is horrible, and I feel so amazingly guilty about this, but I am actually in some fucked-up way jealous of my friend for having a life-threatening illness that has left her disabled and unable to leave her home. Because she is now so thin.

And I'm working on that stupid broken part of my brain that only wants to lose 'another 10 pounds' and doesn't care that my body works and runs races and is healthy and does what I want it to. The problem isn't how to fix me, I've been working on fixing me for a decade and I'm still not all the way fixed. The problem is now how to ignore my crazy enough to keep being there for my friend. Because if she's crying because she can't eat and they're afraid they're going to have to put her on a feeding tube, or she's horrified because her size-0 clothes are falling off her body, how the hell can I tell her that I can't talk about this stuff with her (because it makes me acutely aware of my superfluous flesh and causes me to want to stop eating)? It would hurt her so badly and she doesn't need to think about my crap right now, all she should be thinking about is how much she is loved. And, like I said, I'm her best friend. I'm one of the (very few) people she turns to when she's afraid and needs someone to talk to. I am acutely aware that my friend's terrible illness is not and should not be about me. But my dumb brain is trying really hard to make it that way, and I need some advice on how to shut it up for a few hours a week so I can keep being a good friend to someone who means the world to me.
posted by kataclysm to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
i know it's the go-to answer to the point that it's a joke around here - but seriously, therapy. not to fix you, to give you an outlet to get all of these negative emotions out. hopefully this will help you cope better when she needs to talk about all the many things that relate to size and food, because you know that on thursday or whatever you're going to get an hour to just empty all the bile and self-loathing and jealousy. your therapist will probably also have suggestions to help you re-contextualize it all, so, bonus, you get to help yourself too!
posted by nadawi at 3:25 PM on August 23, 2011 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Fake it. While you're with your friend, make yourself say all the right things. Make yourself do all the right things, and mentally tell yourself you will go over the rest in private later.

Then later, in private, talk to a friend, or to your doctor, or to a mental health specialist. Journal about it, and get it out of your system. You can take care of yourself WHILE you take care of your friend.
posted by headspace at 3:27 PM on August 23, 2011 [19 favorites]

You're going to get a chorus of people telling you to go to therapy. That might be a good idea.

I'm not any kind of expert on the matter, but when I'm depressed and telling myself that I'm a worthless piece of crap, that I deserve to die and other such nonsense, I remind myself that that's not me. That's the depression talking. It might help you to think about this in a similar fashion - there's you, and then there's a part of your brain that is making you think in a certain way. Again, I'm not an expert. This is just something that helped me get outside of my head and look at the problem with a little more distance and sense.

Also, you sound like you need a hug. If you were nearby, I'd offer you one, and I'm not the touching kind. I hope this gets better for you soon.
posted by Solomon at 3:31 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know you said the problem isn't how to fix yourself but ignore yourself. But that's actually really hard, as you know. You have an illness too. The best way to be there for your friend is to be 100% with her when you're with her. The best way to make sure that happens is to spend the rest of your time taking care of yourself.
posted by bleep at 3:32 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Be honest with her. Trying to hide it probably won't work, because your issues will come out in some other way. So just say to her what you've said to us: you love her, you're going to be there for her, that you have this history and these issues, that they are making you feel things that you know are wrong, so if you act a bit weird when she talks about her issues, that's what is going on. Then, even though it's painful and it's probably going to make your issues worse in the short term, just listen when she needs to talk about what is going on. Tell her again that you love her, that you understand how she feels. She probably feels terrified of and tormented by her own body right now, and you know both logically and emotionally how awful those feelings are, so empathize. Listen.

If you aren't already in therapy for your issues, go ahead and get help. You need to be reflecting on and anazlying the feelings this is bringing up for you, just not with your friend.
posted by sinnaith at 3:33 PM on August 23, 2011

Best answer: I disagree with sinnaith, I really don't think you should burden your friend with this. I agree with nadawi and headspace.
posted by Specklet at 3:43 PM on August 23, 2011 [47 favorites]

If it were me, I wouldn't tell the friend. I'd find someone else to support you while you support her. Yes, a therapist would be good. But whether or not you go that route, you need to be supported by your other friends/family so you can be there for her. You can be very supportive without actually discussing your own feelings about weight. Hold her hand, hug her, say "I'm sorry this is happening."

If after that, you need to call someone and vent a little bit, or go home and write furiously in your journal, that's fine.

It might also be helpful to shift your focus off of her weight loss to some other aspect of her situation. It really sucks to feel hungry, for example. You can also gently shift conversations oriented around weight to other things. Listen for an appropriate amount of time, then "Wow, who brought those flowers? They're amazing!"

One last thought - your "stupid" brain might actually be trying to distract you from your fear and grief by giving you something else to obsess about. I have no idea whether it's possible to refocus that obsession into something else (knitting, the novels of Hermann Hesse, kettle drums) but if you feel moved to try it might not hurt.

Good luck! And it's great that you're being there for your friend. It means a lot.
posted by bunderful at 3:54 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

Solomon brings up a good point & there is a much favorited (I will try to find it) AskMe comment about how depression & mental illness lies to you, making you believe untrue things.

I agree also that therapy would probably help and if that's off the table then, for me personally (YMMV), the fake it til you make it that headspace recommends above works pretty good.

I think you are very kind to care so much about your friend and perceptive to recognize your own issues. Your feelings don't make you sound horrible - it takes courage to talk about one's own issues and you sound like a wonderful, compassionate friend.
posted by pointystick at 3:56 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

I also disagree with sinnaith. I think telling your friend this would not only be unhelpful to her, but would also make you feel worse for sharing it with her at this particular time. From your question, it also didn't seem as though you were at all inclined to tell her. So I'm not sure how that would help matters.

From your question, it seems as though you're feeling a lot of guilt from feeling the way you do. You shouldn't. You're being as good of a friend as you can, and what you are dealing with internally is hurting you, but not your friend. It's also something that, right now, you can't control. I agree that you should maybe seek some counseling to learn how to better control it, for your own sake. BUT, in the meantime, you should not be so hard on yoursellf for having the feelings you do. Just keep being there for your friend and helping her as much as you can, but also remember to be kind to yourself.
posted by mingodingo at 3:56 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Along the lines of what headspace said, it may help to plan in advance a handful of set lines that you can practice saying so that they will come to your lips more easily when you are in a situation with your friend. Brainstorm appropriate lines such as "how awful for you," or "I'm so sorry to hear that," or "I'm keeping you in my thoughts and hoping for the best." You should recite these out loud like an actor preparing lines. The advance preparation will help you "be there" for your friend and say acceptable things when needed; once you have the lines down pat, you can say them out loud even while your brain is slipping into a fit of jealousy.

Develop a repertoire of short phrases and pull them out one at a time, as needed. It's OK to repeat yourself sometimes. You don't need to prepare a long speech. Your friend probably needs to be heard more than she needs somebody talking to her; what she needs from you is affirmation that you are aware of her suffering and you want her to feel better.
posted by Orinda at 3:58 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Kataclysm, I think I can feel your pain and the reality of your love for your friend. Good for you that you are aware of this issue in your dealings with her.

I agree with pointystick that you're being kind to your friend and perceptive about yourself. Body image can lead to these sorts of bizarre reactions. But I'm going to jump on board with the caution about following sinnaith's advice (though his or her points about honesty and empathy are important) about sharing your own struggles with unwanted jealousy over her thinness with this personal perspective --

My partner has been dealing with a debilitating cancer that caused her to lose a substantial amount of weight and several dress sizes. To the casual observer, including neighbors, acquaintances, and former colleagues, she looks absolutely great - thin in all the ways approved by our culture. She gets told again and again how good she looks. This is very painful for her for several reasons. Please don't make clear that your dear friend's emaciated body makes you somehow jealous of her weight loss. Your feeling is natural, I think, since it seems to happen a lot -- but please try to follow your instinct about trying to disguise this reaction for her sake.

Something damaging her so much shouldn't be an object of envy, as you recognize. As others have suggested, you don't need to focus on her weight loss when you talk to her, there are many other things you can share and commiserate about with her.
posted by Rain Man at 4:16 PM on August 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fake it with your friend. When those thoughts pop up--tell yourself you'll deal with those thoughts later. And then, set aside an appointed time--make a note on your calendar, for you to wallow and think bad thoughts, jot down notes in a diary or whatever. First time--30 minutes and you have to use all the time. Next time--25 minutes and so on. Yes, it's a trick, but if you can trick yourself into thinking you're a hippo in a miniskirt, you can trick yourself the other way too.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:17 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Health at Every Size is a website whee you can put in your height and weight for comparison.

You have so tied up your sense of self with your friend that you are having problems. If you are becoming so focused on your weight issue, you really need to deal with that issue. Get some support. You will really be more help to your friend if you can and do.
posted by annsunny at 4:36 PM on August 23, 2011

I'd like to join in with the chorus of those advising that you not further burden your sick friend with this issue right now. However, it might help a little to think of this not so much in terms of "faking it," but more in terms of focusing on one set of problems at a time. Your heart is clearly in the right place, and you clearly feel deeply for your friend's situation, so there is no faking it necessary. When you are with your sick friend, continue to focus your energy on how much you love your friend and how much she needs your support. Those are very real things to hold onto. Then, when you are apart (and hopefully with someone who can offer you the same level of support you are offering your friend), you can focus your energy on processing and healing your own pain. Because your needs are just as real.

As hard as it will be to keep your focus given the subject of your pain, I honestly think that continuing to maintain the appropriate division of your issues that you have already established will put you in a better mental space for success on all fronts.

Trust yourself. You are strong enough to do this. But make sure you find someone appropriate to help give you the best chance to succeed. Good luck!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:20 PM on August 23, 2011 [7 favorites]

Nthing "don't tell your friend." You are not a bad person for feeling the way you do, but it is unlikely to come across well.

IANAD, and this wasn't really your question, but - please google "body dysmorphic disorder" and see if what you find describes you. I mention it because therapy can be very effective for this condition. But you have to know what you're dealing with first.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 6:13 PM on August 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: As others have said, I think finding a way to get some light and air onto these feelings without burdening your friend is key.

Therapy is great, but also an eating disorder/body issues group might help too.

Sometimes when we are working on our sh*t we just need vent a bit with people who know where we're coming from, even when we have a particularly funky thought that feels so very wrong and weird. We don't necessarily need full-blown therapy, just a place to talk and maybe laugh at totally inappropriate stuff.

You're not a bad person. This is hard.
posted by pantarei70 at 6:51 PM on August 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

How about this:

Feel the strength and warmth in your body, which allows you to help her and others. Your body is healthy and strong, which allows you to care for your friend. Yes, she is slender and delicate-looking, but she doesn't have the rosy robustness you can feel pumping through your muscles whenever you close your eyes. You have that, vigor and soft strength, and you can move easily -- feel that, feel how good it feels.
posted by amtho at 10:33 PM on August 23, 2011

Please don't make clear that your dear friend's emaciated body makes you somehow jealous of her weight loss. Your feeling is natural, I think, since it seems to happen a lot -- but please try to follow your instinct about trying to disguise this reaction for her sake.

2nding this. i have been your friend--still am, though my appetite issues are much better and i've gained weight now, thankfully.

she may well feel like she's living in a body that has betrayed her. it may feel like a body that's not her own--hipbones and elbows sticking out painfully, swimming in small clothes. that sort of dramatic, unwanted body change can be really disturbing and strange. the weight loss is a physical manifestation of misery.

you envy her because, maybe, you feel like your body has betrayed you as well, by not being as thin as you'd like? but really it's your mind, warping reality. look into therapy, or a support group or something, like many have said. your feelings are illogical and unhealthy. please get the help you need.

and meanwhile, with your friend, nthing fake it.
posted by JBD at 8:00 AM on August 24, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. These are great suggestions. I'd like to reiterate that there is no way in hell that I will ever bring this up to my friend, for the reasons that above posters have already eloquently explained. Unfortunately, having just graduated, I'm sort of temporarily-uninsured ATM so therapy isn't a viable option right now. I'll go back when my insurance kicks in again. But I like the support-group option. I can't use my university's ED support group since I'm not a student, but maybe I can see if the counseling center has any resources they can refer their slightly-deranged alumnae to :)
posted by kataclysm at 11:27 AM on August 24, 2011

This is not a response to your original question, but have you tried looking for sliding scale therapy? Granted, the lowest some therapist can go may not be low enough for you but you may find someone willing to work with your budget.
posted by houndsoflove at 4:37 PM on August 24, 2011

I'm wondering if there are any places online where you can talk about these issues? Maybe ED support groups or forums? This is just a stab in the dark, I have no idea where these are, but it could be good to have an online place where you can talk about these problems.

Also, I want to commend you for how you're coping with this. It's incredibly difficult to cope with these kinds of unhelpful thoughts and feelings, and you're really going about it the best way by owning and acknowledging how you're feeling while being mindful of your friend's needs. I'm just saying this because it's easy to get into that trap of 'what is WRONG with me? I'm SUCH A TERRIBLE PERSON!'
posted by nerdfish at 2:42 AM on August 25, 2011

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