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20 May 2008

There are no easy answers...

ETA:  I put this out here for awareness, mostly; because I know so many of you have daughters the same age as these girls -- the same age as MY girls -- if you haven't had a close-to-home experience like this yet, no doubt you will.

Life's been a little crazy around here.

Jenny* is a young person close to me who is in the thick of a situation and in need of advice.  I mentally ran through my checklist of potential sources of help, support and advice while speaking with her the other day, and "putting it to the blog" came up right quick.

Here's the deal:  Jenny's in college and shares a small apartment with Amber, a recent graduate.  Jenny and Amber have known each other for a few years -- they have mutual acquaintances and have hung out together -- they're friendly, but they're not really friends.  It's a pretty good situation as far as roommates go; there are no expectations beyond paying the rent and picking up after one's self.  They're not close, they don't call or text each other all the time, they don't go out for lunch or go shopping, they don't pop corn and watch movies in their PJs, they don't share secrets.

They didn't share secrets.

During the first several months after renting the apartment, Amber hardly ever stayed there.  She was always going home, traveling, staying with other relatives or friends, looking for a job.  After finding a full-time job in her field, she began working long hours and she still didn't stay there much -- or was there at different times than Jenny.

Jenny began to notice strange things -- particularly in the kitchen, particularly regarding her food, particularly regarding missing food.  At first, Jenny thought she was going a little crazy, but no...  It wasn't so much that food was missing, it was that extreme lengths were being taken to make it look as though it wasn't -- to make it look as if it was never disturbed, as if nothing ever happened.

If it looks as though nothing happened, then nothing happened.  Right?

One day, several weeks ago, Jenny and Amber were both home at the same time!  There wasn't a confrontation, so much, but there was a conversation... and an admission... actually, a heartbreaking, tearful, first-time, outpouring of a confession by Amber to Jenny that, indeed, she had an eating disorder -- bulimia.  Amber had never told anyone before -- and, really, she told more than Jenny wanted to know.  Amber seemed relieved to finally have made a confidant.

Jenny, however, is not so thrilled.  They're not much more than acquaintances who live together, remember?  Jenny is anything but insensitive, but there's no way in hell she's ready to make Amber's problem her own; the responsibilities and expectations in a situation such as this is not made clear in the rental agreement.

Now that Jenny is in the loop, Amber apparently feels that she no longer needs to conceal her food rituals from Jenny so much -- and Amber is around the apartment more often.  Jenny is made an unwilling witness to the binges; despite every effort to drown it out, she can hear the purging that follows; the apartment stinks.

Counseling, you say?  Yeah.  Amber's dad is a counselor -- an alcoholic high school counselor with an on-again off-again marriage and the baggage surrounding counseling and/or family in that poor girl's mind... has got to be a muddled mess and surely one of many countless contributing factors to her current state of mind.

I worked for a very short time with a woman so afflicted and, I'll tell you what, it is freakin' scary to be pulled into and made part of and witness to such a world, such an altered state of being.

The lease is up in August.  Does Jenny just suck it up?  Hold her breath?  Work a lot?  Tell someone?  Who?  Seek out counseling for herself?  Any words of wisdom in blogdom for either of these young women?

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Comments

Wow, that is tough. I guess if I were Jenny, I'd tell Amber that if she doesn't get some help, that when the lease is up she has to find a new roommate. Of course this can be done in a sympathetic way, and I think it is hopeful that Amber confided in Jenny - it is an indication that she may want help. But this isn't Jenny's problem and she shouldn't try to make it her problem. And she needs to be clear with Amber that she supports her efforts to get help, but she (Jenny) is not qualified or prepared to take on this problem. And if they do end up staying together, Jenny may want to get counseling herself to avoid enabling behavior and to understand how to be supportive without being sucked into issues that aren't hers to solve. Poor kid (both of them!).

1st thing: Jenny is NOT a counselor and she should tell Amber that she needs help that she cannot provide. If you were in Mass, I'd suggest the MGH clinic for eating disorders. I think this is asking more of a roommate than necessary.

Hope Amber finds a new place to live soon.

I lived with a roommate situation much the same as Jenny's and my roommate, in fact, also had bulimia, although it sounds as though Amber's is much, much worse than my roommate's ever was. Is Amber willing to seek out counseling? If so, I'd recommend that she check into her workplace's EAP. And if that isn't an option, she should go somewhere like Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Services or whatever religious affiliation works for her. These will all offer qualified counselors whose fees are handled on a sliding scale so she would only pay what she can afford, if anything. As for Jenny, I think her role at this time is to be supportive and provide an ear to listen to Amber when she needs to talk. However, I think she can make it clear to Amber that she cannot offer any advice and that, unless she seeks treatment, when the lease is up in August she will be seeking other accommodations.

Lora covered it pretty well - Jenny should try to make it clear that by hearing Amber's "confession", Jenny did not agree to become an accomplice to her illness. Amber needs help - NOW! Jenny can only help her find that help; the rest is up to Amber.

I guess if I were Jenny I'd try to stick it out until the lease is up. And I'd try to have a conversation with Amber about this and how awkward and uncomfortable it is.

I agree with Lora. Except, I'd not hold the "unless you get treatment". I'd look for other lodging for August. I can't imagine being comfortable in this situation even if Amber gets help. (But I wouldn't drop all news at once.)

I can't see any reason why counseling for Jenny would be a BAD thing. If anything her counselor could affirm that this is not her problem and that she needs to set boundaries. But finding Amber a counselor would be best.

It's a fine line to walk to say "I care for you as a human being and will do what I can to help you get the help you need." and to say "I'll take care of you". She definitely should not be taking care of Amber. Amber needs to learn to take care of herself and Jenny can help Amber find the tools to do so.

My daughter is in recovery from an eating disorder so I can speak from a slightly different perspective. Your daughter's desire to get away from the issue is understandable. Many close friends stay away from people with ED's because they are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

The good thing about Bulemia is that it is socially unacceptable (compared to Anorexia which seems to be celebrated in certain sectors). This makes Bulemia easier to treat with better recovery rates than anorexia.

Your daughter has every right to tell the roommate that purging and stealing food are not OK around her. Trying to ignore it is not going to help the sufferer at all.

The Roommate has made the first step in admitting that she has a problem and she needs to get into treatment with a good therapist asap.

Your daughter needs to understand that she is enabling the disease if she doesn't stand up and demand a healthy environment. Since she is not a good friend, this should not be difficult.

Oh, ouch! The bullimia problem is Amber's but the roommate problem is Jenny's. Neither is easy to fix but each needs to take care of her own problem. Jenny is not her roommate's keeper.

Amber needs professional help. She should not expect, nor should Jenny try to "counsel" her. Eating disorders are VERY SERIOUS and sometimes there are other contributing factors. Vicki, when my girls were in high school, we had an exchange student from Germany come stay with us. When we went to the airport to pick her up having never seen her before, our mouths dropped to the floor (at least it felt that way). She looked like a walking skeleton. Come to find out, she had anorexia and the people who did her medical work-up never mentioned it to us. We didn't know what her problem was--aids or whatever. We took her to our physician and had blood work done and a complete work-up. She admitted that she had taken a dare from some of her friends to see how much weight they could lose. Our physician told us we needed to send her back home (which we hated to do). She was broken hearted and begged us not to send her home. We and the physician was concerned about heart problems and the school refused to let her participate in athletic activities. As it turned out, sending her home was the best thing that we could do for her. Now, as a college graduate she has done a complete turn-around with the help of her family and counselors. She comes to visit us often and thanks us for what we did. When she was here, she wouldn't eat what I put on the table--she would get up in the middle of the night and eat a whole package of luncheon meat--this was the beginning of our suspicions. Sorry for the long post, Vicki, but the bottom line is that the girl needs to get professional help. It's not up to the roommate to either condone her actions or counsel her.

I recommend Jenny contact her college's student health service, explain the situation, and ask them for advice on what to do. They may well have an eating disorders specialist who can not only give Jenny advice on how to deal with the roommate, but also help the roommate with hear eating disorder if she will accept it.

In any case, a new living situation for the fall is in definitely in order.

That would be "help the roommate with her eating disorder"

Hi,

I have had an eating disorder (binge eating), that's why I may have another angle than most here. I was living on my own at the time. I was very isolated, the only people I saw regularly were people at work. Since nobody said anything about my gaining weight, I talked myself into the idea that I did not have a problem. --
Noone can force anyone to seek out help (so I don't agree with the ultimatum). I do agree with pointing Amber to the right resources -- it's for her to decide whether to go get help or not.
I also agree with Jenny laying out ground rules for their living together: no binges in front of her, no purging when she's there that sort of thing (all else is enabling, and is also putting Jenny's needs as a person down).
And if the house rules are not adhered to by Amber, I guess Jenny needs a new home now, and not in the fall. -- as I am not familiar with US rental agreements, and nobody mentioned that, I guess that would mean paying double rent. Well, that's what I would do if I were in such an unhealthy environment (that is, if Amber does not comply to the rules).

I love Lara900's advice.

wow, what a difficult situation. I would offer a phone number where Amber could get help and I would move...simple as that. It is no longer a healthy living situation and most likely Amber will not help herself just to keep a roommate.

Such a difficult situation. And I agree that Jenny should not attempt to rescue nor counsel - yet she does have the right to draw clear boundaries about what is acceptable within their living situation. Amber's admission of bulimia does not entitle her to inflict her choices upon Jenny.
Although it may be a difficult conversation with someone she barely knows, Jenny has rights here too, and living in a peaceful environment is something she is entitled to. I know it may sound cold, but this black and white stance of zero tolerance in their common space might be helpful to Amber in the long run.

august 1st or august 31st? my thoughts change with the latter.

Eating disorders are more common than we think. I would say about half the women I knew in college had some kind of eating disorder.

I wholeheartedly agree with Kim. Ignoring this and/or pretending not to see it is not the best way to go. Setting limits and then following through with consequence is more appropriate in my mind. If, after conversation, the way that Jenny wants to live is not the way that life is led in that space - then she has every right to leave now (and pay rent until August if she cannot fill her spot) or leave in August.

What a shitty situation. I would also, if in that circumstance, gather some resources for Amber and make it clear that I believe she needs professional help.

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