Since setting up the SRSH (Student Run Self Help) group in Southampton for students with eating disorders, I have been surprised by some of the emails and communication I’ve received – one of the most abstract examples being a fresher who emailed to say they were losing weight due to dreadful catering in halls, and it was very costly ordering pizza four times week. I expected sufferers to email in requesting more information, with some communication from NHS services, but I didn’t expect the remarkable number of emails from concerned friends and flat/house-mates.
These are students who take on the emotionally draining task of trying to support their friend, despite feeling helpless and often distressed themselves. Due to the nature of the beast (often titled Ana or Mia by sufferers), eating disorders are very secretive and try desperately to protect themselves. Sufferers don’t cope well with someone being prescriptive or ‘confrontational’, and this is made worse when the sufferer isn’t ready to recover.
I’m very lucky. When I was suffering from an eating disorder my best friend was a consistent and honest support. She went on to volunteer for the University’s Nightline service, and now does great things for her local Samaritans. When I worry about how one sided our friendship was, I soothe my guilt by assuring myself I was valuable training! I often cite her as an example of fantastic support, but accept that every situation is different and this is what worked for me.
The fact I could tell her my deepest thoughts and most disgusting behaviours, and hear her reply with “That’s ok. How are you now? Ready for another episode of Prison Break?” was vital. My friend listened when I was ready to talk and supported me in decisions I was ready to make, but for the most treated me like everyone else (including inviting me to things even though I repeatedly declined). I had other friends that I lost because they couldn’t separate me from my eating disorder, which I note with no resentment – I was horrible and I put scales before them – but this friend always trusted that I’d get better and was willing to stand by me whilst I got there. She never commented on my food, but always had my Dad’s number in case there was a crisis. She assures me she never compromised her own studies or life to support me, and I really hope this is true.
I tell you this to highlight the far reaching nature of eating disorders, and to assure you SRSH is here to support the supporters as well as the sufferers. Today, October 24, 2012 SRSH Southampton is running a workshop called ‘How to Save a Life’ and it is entirely for the supporters. It is a 2 hour workshop and offers information and advice for dealing with friends, flat-mates and family. We hope it will help you to understand more about the illness and what can be done to help the cause. The event will be run by Nicola Bryom, founder of the UK-based charity SRSH; Elisabeth, SRSH’s lone member of staff; Charlotte Gatherer, university tour coordinator for Body Gossip; and myself, co-ordinator of the Southampton SRSH group. Nicola, Charlotte and I have recovered from eating disorders, and we hope that we can offer some insight on the best ways to support your loved one without compromising your own well-being.
Finally, for anyone keeping that big old secret: tell someone! I don’t regret it, it was the biggest step I ever made for my recovery. You don’t have to tell people eloquently, with this friend I only felt able to tell her once I’d run back to my room and had opened up Facebook chat (or was it MSN back then?). It broke down some of the isolation I was suffering. Plus, she already knew I was ill – the effort I put into secrecy was wasted energy.
The event will take place this Tuesday (15th May) at 6.30pm, in Lecture Room D of the Murray Building (Building 58 of Highfield Campus). More information can be found on the Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/events/408198979198377/