Five steps forward, Twenty Steps Back?
May 23, 2012 7:05 PM   Subscribe

My roommate has an eating disorder. I USED to have an eating disorder until I moved in, and I cannot move out. Help me survive three more weeks without relapsing?

Backstory: I am a recent alumna back at my alma mater to take care of something for about a month. I live on campus, with a roommate. Room and board have been graciously covered by another party. I don't want to disclose more, because I might be easily identified IRL otherwise.

The girl that I'm living with has an eating disorder. Assume that her having an ED is something I've witnessed since moving in, and the symptoms - such as the new, lingering smell of vomit in our suite - are omnipresent. At first, I ignored one of her friends' jokes as she moved in: [redacted] doesn't eat, she just lives on sunshine. She's like a plant!" But seeing her return from going out to dinner, go straight to our shared bathroom and audibly purge has triggered me.

I have a history of EDs. I had not relapsed seriously before moving in, but being around her at night - when we're both home - has flared up some of my old habits. I've started counting calories again. I started comparing myself to her this morning, thinking about how much weight I'd have to lose in order to look as good, if not better. It's worth noting that although I had my ED under control, my body issues are still...highly problematic.


I tried earlier this week to move into a single, but the housing department has me on a "waiting list" - all of their available rooms are full, and not a single student has dropped out of summer school or relocated off-campus. I cannot move off-campus into a hotel, and would have no transportation getting to campus if I couch-surfed for the next 3 weeks.

What are my options? What should I do? Are there free resources that I can turn to that will help me keep my eating disorder from coming back in full swing?

Sorry if this is a little incoherent. Thank you for your advice.
posted by Ashen to Human Relations (19 answers total)
Talk to her, but phrase it very clearly as your problem. I want to say that you should try to help her with her eating disorder - as someone who has been there and can relate, you're actually a pretty good person to address this with her.
But you need to focus on you, primarily. Tell her that her behavior is triggering your past ED (tell her the specific behaviors) and that you'd like her to accomodate you by not doing them in your presence/where you will notice. It might just embarrass her sufficiently that she will stop triggering your past issues.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:14 PM on May 23, 2012

Can you go to the school's health services, explain the situation, and have them petition the housing department?
posted by geegollygosh at 7:15 PM on May 23, 2012 [12 favorites]

Your RA or housefellow or whoever your Residence Life person is in charge of your living area is somewhat trained (or should be trained) to deal with these types of issues and refer to the proper folks. Your campus almost certainly has support available through the student health service for the physical and mental challenges posed by this living situation. No matter how small your school is, they should still be able to refer you to more comprehensive support services.

Have you tried talking to her? Do you think you could do that without it turning into a who-has-the-best-technique situation?

You are not responsible for her health. You are responsible for yourself. However, alerting someone like an RA or a residence life staff member is the smartest thing to do to keep yourself in good health. Your RA can help talk you through it and assess your options (possibly moving her or you into someone else's room), and can help take the burden off.

These recommendations should still apply even if you're an alumna.
posted by Madamina at 7:15 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Do you know anyone on campus? Talk to whatever housing person you can (RA, Dean of Student Life) and offer to switch with any students who may be having problems with their current roommates. Find a friend on campus and see if they will switch housing for a month (or even a week!) until something more permanent gets worked out (you guys could switch rooms in the evening/ night, but they don't actually have to move all their stuff).

Obviously, try to avoid this roommate as much as possible.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:15 PM on May 23, 2012

Have you told the housing department the reason for your need to move? At the colleges where I worked in residence life, this would be a reason to move heaven and earth.
posted by freshwater at 7:30 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

You tried to get switched into a single, but did you ask about a double? I know it might be better for you to not have a roommate at all at this point, but still, it could be easier to wait out better options with a different roommate that isn't triggering you nightly.
posted by coupdefoudre at 7:41 PM on May 23, 2012 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify a little: Housing was already iffy about finding me a room to stay in, because I turned in my deposit late (the circumstances in which I discovered that I'd *need* to be housed on campus were after the deadline). That I have a roof over my head at all is because another person cancelled out at the time. That department has historically not worked in students' favor, so much as to be pretty damn near incompetent. I cannot say in confidence that telling them about my ED - or that of the student - will remain in confidence with the proper authorities.

I forgot to mention that I'm also really, really troubled by the potential consequences of outing this girl. I had contemplated going to an RA, but I'm afraid that if anyone confronts her now, she'll just work harder to hide it. That I noticed may actually be because I used to do it.

Basically, I'm afraid of making any large movements. If possible, I'd like to deal with this as quietly as possible. I've never ever been in a circumstance in which I'd have to report, to an official body, someone else along these lines.

But that's all I wanted to add. I'm not at all in a condition to advise her on her ED at this point, because I'm struggling to distract myself from really damaging thoughts.

Thank you again.
posted by Ashen at 7:46 PM on May 23, 2012

Best answer: Based on your update, skip everyone between you and the university ombudsman. Because you have history with the school and with housing, I trust your judgement call that they may not keep this in confidence. Good on you for wanting to protect her, you are absolutely right that others finding out may cause her to work harder to be secretive. Shame and eating disorders are deeply related. Her response to being outed could run a huge gamut. Dealing with her response to being outed is not likely to help you cope with her behaviors. Voice your concerns about confidentiality with the ombudsman, explain the relevant historical information that led you to those concerns, as well as the obvious social stigma around ED. You might just show up at the ombudsman's office first thing in the morning, but calling at 8am might work as well.

You need a doctor note from whoever treated your ED in the past, and whoever can see you ASAP to address your current worries and developing/recurring habits.

While you work on getting this note, you need to contact, in this orer: RA, res life coordinator, res life director, dean of students, ombudsman of the school. Your best bet right now is probably not a single room, and I say that because being alone with thoughts of {whatever your behaviors were} running through your head may make it more likely for you to engage in them.

Make it clear when you talk to each one that if you cannot get a healthy living arrangement in the next _x_ hours, you will be escalating this problem to the next level.

Because this problem is that serious for you. Getting into a safer living situation before you relapse is critical. If this waits until you engage in unsafe behaviors you may have a much harder time healing. Do not use language like "maybe" or "prefer" or "soon."

You need to be clear clear clear, "My roommate has purged in our suite _x_ times, I can hear her doing it, I can smell it for hours afterwards. While no student should be exposed to this, it is absolutely unsafe for me to remain as her roommate. For my short and long term health, it is critical that I avoid triggers to my own nearly healed eating disorder. I have begun to experience the emotions that I have learned precede episodes of {behavior}, and I have begun counting calories, which I know is a very bad sign for me. How can you help me get a new roommate?"

Do not use judgment words like disgusting or irresponsible. Focus on your health and your safety and that this is a mental health issue. Universities are rightly very concerned about student mental health, and they will not want to be seen as knowingly endangering a student. You have to make it clear that this is dangerous for you.

Please, begin tonight with the RA. Via email if yours isn't on call. If email is necessary, CC the director of Res Life if emailing, include dates and times of the incidents if you can.
posted by bilabial at 7:53 PM on May 23, 2012 [17 favorites]

Best answer: IF YOU CAN'T GET SWITCHED*, which I agree should be your absolute first choice if at all possible, then:

-Drink an Ensure every day WITH breakfast. You need enough food and vitamins in you to keep you from getting into that irritable stressed out no-energy low-calorie space.
-Does your school have an eating disorder recovery support group, probably offered through the student mental health center? Many do because so many college women struggle with this. Even if you aren't technically a student, I don't think they are going to turn you away if you want to attend three weekly meetings.
-If not your school, here is a list of ED support groups in the US. Some include options for participating over the phone or online. Often places like Catholic Charities or other community clearinghouse organizations offer community mental health resources. I would google "CITY mental health resources" and "CITY eating disorder treatment" and "CITY eating disorder support groups" and see what you find. Out at an evening ED support group = not in dorm around symptomatic roommate.
-Don't be around your roommate. It will seem mean, but she's making you sick. Can you go to the library at night? Is there a lounge you can be in in your dorm until literally ten minutes before you go to bed? Coffeeshops on campus? Even a stairwell is better than listening to this poor girl vomit. Do you have any friends living on campus this summer who would let you study there at night or just hang out? Could you arrange to have, like, "Tuesday movies" so you get out at least on those three days over the next three weeks?

*What if you did a swap? Some schools will allow you and another student to swap rooms as a way to resolve roommate conflicts. Living with a roommate with an active eating disorder is really difficult, but there are people out there who won't be actively triggered by it the way you will, especially if it only lasts three weeks. You might also be able to do this unofficially without the housing people being in the loop.

Hey, this is hard. Take good care of yourself.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:57 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with Snarl Furillo - as much as humanly possible, try to not be in that suite for the next couple of weeks.

CBT and meditation may help. If you can go to a support group, do so. Occupy yourself elsewhere on campus. Suddenly cultivate an extremely busy life for the next couple of weeks even if you're just camped out in the library.
posted by mleigh at 8:25 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone here has given great advice. I would both stay out of the room as much as I could, and immediately discuss this with the people in charge given above. They exist to help you, and you need to be safe. Don't hesitate.
posted by woodvine at 8:36 PM on May 23, 2012

She needs help too, doesn't she?

Yes, but it's not the OP's responsibility to get that help for her, nor is it the OP's duty to out this person to someone "official". Yes, it is good to help people when you can, but not at the expense of your own health. When you see someone drowning, you don't jump in the water if you know you can barely swim, right? This is the same thing.
posted by palomar at 9:57 PM on May 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Argh, hit post before I was ready... anyway, while the OP's roommate probably does need help, she's also an adult. And even when adults are doing things that aren't healthy, they get to choose when they stop, and they get to choose what kind of help they seek. It's not the OP's job to do any of that on behalf of the roommate, especially since helping in this instance will most likely bring on a relapse for the OP, and then you have two people with ED who need treatment, instead of one. From a pragmatic stance, that's just not good.

OP, nthing the suggestion to spend as much time away from your suite as possible, and please reach out to a therapist or a trusted friend to decompress about this as often as you need.
posted by palomar at 10:02 PM on May 23, 2012 [2 favorites] has a lovely forum... having some interaction with people who have been there and done that, might be helpful to you.
posted by misspony at 10:38 PM on May 23, 2012

Best answer: Try to think of some ways to actively mask the triggers, such as:
-Burning candles to hide the smell
-Listening to music whenever she comes home
-Spending your evenings outside (library or cafe)
posted by acidic at 10:43 PM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, on some level would you like to use this as an excuse to start engaging with the ED again? I can see a situation like this weaving its way into an ED narrative like this: "I was doing so well... UNTIL..."
posted by misspony at 10:43 PM on May 23, 2012

It speaks for you that you do not want to expose her but if that's what it takes to change your living situation and protect yourself from relapsing your health and well being have to come first - if she is 'outed' in the process and starts to work even harder to hide her illness that is a function of her illness, not your actions.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:15 AM on May 24, 2012

Also, on some level would you your ED like to use this as an excuse to start engaging with the ED again? I can see a situation like this weaving its way into an ED narrative like this: "I was doing so well... UNTIL..."
posted by misspony at 1:43 AM on May 24 [+] [!]
ED is a mental illness. As such, many people find it helpful to personify it. But suggesting that someone who is suffering from a mental illness wants to be sick is....nonsensical. Would you ask a cancer patient asking how to exit a situation that exposed them to benzene if maybe they wanted to go back to getting chemo infusions? Would you ask someone with COPD who asks how to avoid their cigarette chimney roommate of they secretly wanted to suffocate?

The OP is reaching out for help to exit the situation. Let's trust that she really wants to leave.

Ashen, the suggestions for distraction are great. Maybe pick up a sachet that's lavender or cedar or whatever not food scent is comforting to you. We're there any 'distracting' or soothing rituals that helped you in the initial stages of your recovery? Was there a particular person who was especially good at discussing this problem early on? Can you reach out to that person?

You are so strong, and in time this incident will appear on the horizon of your past as a small blip. Why? Because you are being so proactive and because you know that accepting no for an answer on this room change is unacceptable.
posted by bilabial at 5:09 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the new replies!

I've been talking to some very close friends of mine, who knew when I had the ED and took care of me. I'm going to take the necessary steps to try and move out; in the meantime, I've picked up some of those perfumed rocks to leave in the room, and will spend as much time as possible outside of it until they move me. My friends will also continue to check on me until everything's settled.

Talking to the RA, and then the school officials, will indeed out this girl (including, potentially, if we swap rooms). We have a school-wide policy surrounding mental illnesses where any administrator who becomes aware of a situation is required to act immediately upon it, ranging from suggesting counseling to requiring committal to a hospital (in cases of suicidality). Since our counseling office is closed for the summer...idk what the results will look like for her. The fact that she's *not* taken measures to quickly cover up the evidence (aside from leaving our window open) is weird. However (and this is why I don't want to ID my location), our campus has a HUGE problem with eating disorders, so much that articles have been written in the school newspaper, the administration has a bathroom stall campaign, and a sorority was shut down a few years ago for related reasons. It may be because she's used to being around other freshman/sophomore girls who do it.

Ultimately, though, I need to make sure that I'm well enough to finish my obligations here, go back home and find work. So off to the RA's office I go. @Snarl Furillo, I bought a protein smoothie with your advice in mind.

Thank you so much for your responses.
posted by Ashen at 11:06 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

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