- A reader asked me: Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
- How to stop dwelling on the past
- Difficult experiences help you evolve in the most important way
Last week a reader named “J” emailed me to ask:
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
This question highlights something so many people don’t get…
Eating disorders are about SO MUCH more than food.
And often these struggles are kept secret due to:
- (unnecessary) shame
- the fear others will interfere with rituals that ease their anxiety
- & the desire to protect loved ones from worrying
As you can imagine, these secret struggles can lead to behavior that’s easily misunderstood.
What you see is often very different from what’s actually going on.
Ok… so first a big shout out to J for sending me this question.
Sending you a big (socially-distanced approved) virtual hug right back.
And now an A to your Q:
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
Here’s what J wrote:
Another thing… did you lose a lot of people along the way? I look back and while many people still have friends from high school and even earlier, I don’t. I have a couple but nothing like many people I know. Have you ever attributed not being able to maintain relationships because of a preoccupation with food? I know there can be many reasons for this though!!
In short, J wanted to know:
Well, first you need to know:
If it’s happening to you, it’s happening to a lot of people.
You’re not that special and you’re not that weird 🙂
Whatever you’re going through… other people are too.
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? is a timely question
For the last few weeks people have been self-isolating all around the world because of the COVID-19 crisis.
But to me it’s felt extra-strange.
Over the 10 years I had an eating disorder, I’d often self-isolate.
“How so?” you might ask, while raising your loose-leaf brewed tea to your lips, along with your eyebrows.
Well… As soon as I broke my (self-defeating) diet I’d cancel everything for the rest of the day.
I’d skip class, miss committee meetings and rain-check a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g social.
Saying “No” to going out, meant I could stay in
I couldn’t enjoy other people or even be present when I was so upset with myself.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.— previously thought to be said by Albert EinsteinThe only way I could soothe the anxiety building inside me, was by shutting off the world and writing out yet another food, exercise and study plan—strict rules around any activity I sabotaged after breaking my diet.
…I did this restrict-binge-purge-draw-a-line-in-the-sand-and-start-a-new-diet dance for a decade.
Making a new weight-loss plan felt proactive
And it always gave me hope.
Each time I believed my new diet was the one.
The one I’d follow p-e-r-f-e-c-t-l-y and finally lose weight.
Then I was sure I’d be able to redirect my energy toward:
wearing clothes I like
taking detailed notes in class with perfectly formed letters & color-coded headings
writing a spoof advice column for the school paper
congregating in a friend’s dorm room to make fun of ourselves (for some reason I LOVE doing this)
sending homemade cards to people back home
& hey… maybe meeting somebody my grandparents would call “Kelly’s special friend.”
In my mind it made perfect sense to cancel the rest of the day, since I was absolutely certain it would spark an epic turning point.
I mean, giving up TODAY was a small sacrifice to ensure tomorrow would be different.
…Dare I say,
So I’d tell myself it was worth missing Oscar Parties at a friend’s house, pub nights in the student ghetto and painting the town on New Years.
And my absences escalated from there
When my parents took our family on holiday I wanted to stay on the boat when they went to a restaurant for dinner because I ate (what I thought) was too many almonds in the afternoon (I was starving). I said I felt sick because I wanted to stay back, get rid of them and then plan a new diet.
On another occasion my little brother came up to visit me at university with a bunch of his friends that I’d known for years.
We’d been super close since we were kids.
But his group ended up going out with my friends because I said I had to study.
Reality: I was so anxious. I had to fix my life!
So while they were out I found a store on the main street where I spent my last 17 dollars (meant to buy meals over the weekend) on a silver ring to draw a dramatic line in the sand and symbolize a fresh start.
At the time of his visit, I’d barely gone to class, hardly kept anything I ate down and was completely broke. I thought if I followed my new diet perfectly everything else would fall into place and I could climb out of the deep hole I’d spiraled into.
Then there was the night I burned my diaries to punish myself… rather than hooking up with friends to watch Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. (Remember when everyone went to watch it twice, because it was so good on the big screen? Neither do I.)
As the tomorrows became yesterday’s and the yesterday’s became years… I started to think that if I put more of my life on the line, the better chance I had to change my life because I was adding more urgency to following my diet.
But weight-loss is NOT about willpower!
I could go on and on
I’ve missed exams.
Left a friend’s abruptly so I could drink my last diet pop ever before the stroke of midnight; my RIGID Cinderella-start-a-new-diet rule. (Surprise! That wasn’t my last diet or zero calorie soda).
Oh, and then the time I decided to run, instead of drive, to the doctor’s office for an annual physical (b/c it was my only chance to exercise that day). So I arrived late and sweaty 🙁
It took years for me to realize my black & white, all-or-nothing thinking was so destructive.
And that my “what to eat” information was all WRONG.
Measuring my effort
What a tough combination of nature (OCD) and nurture (diet info) to navigate. I really feel for 14-year-old me—that was the first time I applied my “all-in attitude” to bad info and strategies (like don’t eat anything but fruit before noon, only eat the white of an egg and if you take one extra bite you ruin everything…).
I accepted nothing less than perfect. And guess what? That got me nowhere.
When I stayed up all night studying (literally my dad would find me awake at my desk in my clothes from the day before) and ran miles and miles a day (in Gr. 5 I won the school’s 100 kilometer club by Friday of the first week)… it was easy to reach goals.
I remember my dad sternly saying: “Don’t burn the candle at both ends.”
But I couldn’t feel good unless I KNEW I was trying my best. And the only way to measure my effort was straight A+’s on my report card and red ribbons at running races.
…Now apply that work ethic to DIETING and you’ve got a huge disaster.
News flash: DIETS DON’T WORK. Diets are short term. A healthy lifestyle is long term! The ridiculousness of dieting is just more evident when OCD people follow diets!
And all these times I tried to self-isolate happened before others understood the chaotic day-to-day life I was living because of my mental health.
…So in these situations I could’ve appeared:
Or any delightful combination of the above.
That’s not to say I wasn’t supportive, warm, caring, good company and kind too… Just my OCD applied to terrible food info could give me tunnel vision.
The good news?
Once you start to see self-defeating patterns in your life it gets easier to spot them, interrupt them and redirect your energy.
When redirected toward something productive, that determination can be your superpower and take you everywhere you want to go.
And for the most part really, it was just me who missed out in all the stories I’ve mentioned.
When I was at home isolating myself in my room to plan my next diet, the world carried on without me.
People don't miss you as much as you think they do. It's you who's missing out.— Chris Evans on Virgin Radio 2001
I got used to having a secret crisis
So I was saying to Alex’s parents over Skype that this whole COVID-19 self-isolating experience was extra-strange for me because I was used to walking around, pretending everything was normal while battling a big secret on my own.
While believing everyone else’s life was unfolding as the universe intended.
…I’m just not used to the whole world going through a problem together and everyone’s life being disrupted.
My reply to: Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
So now that you know some tip-of-the-iceberg behaviors and the truth of what was going on… You have a better understanding of what J was getting at when she asked: Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
Here’s what I wrote back:
…You’ve asked such a great question. No matter what people go through, I think it’s normal for friendships to be chapters in our lives. (1) And no matter how beautiful a chapter is, it’s natural for them to come to an end and new ones to begin. (2)
FOR SURE some friendships “faded” because of my eating disorder. Like, I wouldn’t want to go out and in hindsight, friends probably took it personally. (Reality: I stayed home to write out a new diet and not going out eased my anxiety and was also a way to punish myself. At the time I was too ashamed to explain, slash, didn’t really understand what was going on).
Having a secret is tough on any relationship. (3)
For ages I dwelled on the past, (4) but then I realized that all the sh*t you go through is fertilizer for the future! You know what I mean? All those tough experiences make you an even better friend now and will make you a wonderful partner because you have empathy, and other great traits.
I know people whose lives have gone tickety-boo (!) but they lack empathy and that makes them difficult people.
You have insight and strength that’s come from overcoming the heartache of hard knocks.(5)
So keep looking forward and good things will come your way…
Expanding on my reply to: Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
J asked such a great question and I thought:
If J’s going through this and I did… many other people are too.
So I promised J to expand further in a blog post.
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? #1
No matter what people go through, I think it’s normal for friendships to be chapters in our lives.
We’re all evolving at every stage of our lives. I think anybody with any life experience understands that we’re not always at our finest during adolescence (and other times too). So much happens during those formative years. Whether it’s:
- going through a parents divorce
- your family moves around a lot
- you’re understanding your sexual orientation
- you’ve experienced trauma, abuse, or an eating disorder…
Many people go through all sorts of things that affect friendships. Drifting apart is natural.
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? #2
And no matter how beautiful a chapter is, it’s natural for them to come to an end and new ones to begin…
It’s just not possible to keep up with everyone in a meaningful way.
…how many friends do adults actually have? Turns out, 16. The average American has three friends for life, five people they really like and would hang out with one-on-one, and eight people they like but don’t spend time with one-on-one or seek out.
– study into social dynamics by OnePoll
For instance, the photo at the top of this post is me (hiding in the back to conceal my weight with our dog, Casey) and my rowing crew who slept over that night. We were all really tight. But I haven’t spoken to any of them in years. In fact there’s so many great people I’ve known but not in touch with.
Do I care about them? Absolutely.
But you move around to different schools and scatter in different countries and life marches on. (There was also no email or social media back then to use as your stable contact.) That doesn’t change all the great memories you have—many that have played a part in making you, you.
Everybody gets busy and it’s easy to stay out of touch, especially when people adopt a whole new family through their partner and then nieces and nephews arrive and children of their own come into the picture.
Also, people grow and change. And that time in your life that you’re close with someone was when you were perfectly matched.
My friend Duncan (who I love but have only seen once in the last 20 years) wrote this beautiful, short poem:
It’s strange that in this world we live
Our hearts should meet with love to give.
I apply these words to friends, mentors, past boyfriends, neighbors, pets that come into your life at just the right time that you can adopt them, and so on:
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My first Friday night without this little guy in almost 15 years. Oliver aka BEAST (because he's so gentle) is the first living thing I was responsible for. He opened us up to 4 more cats and a dog, he helped me write "Who Is NOBODY?" and some books and he taught me about unconditional love. And to stop, even when you're too busy (or too ill) and feel the sun on your face. He also taught me: 1. Healthy habits make you. Right to the very end he fought to stick to his routines. Why? They make you feel good. 2. Each day is precious. "Nothing is worth more than this day." – Goethe 3. Magic is a word that's overused and underappreciated. 4. Animals only want what you CAN take with you: Love Love doesn't disappear. "It's strange that in this world we live our hearts should meet with love to give." – Duncan Browman I met you on a snowy night and now we're entwined forever. #adoptdontshop #cats #catperson #love #forever #animals #stolenmoments #pet #family #today #beast #connect #the10principles #habits #healthyhabits #routine #change #changed #unbroken Alex: "You kissed his head millions of times."
Trying to recreate that perfect time you had with someone, years later isn’t always possible because life has pulled and stretched, squished and squashed us. Everyone keeps evolving. But that doesn’t change that important part of your life.
Also, it’s so easy to blame yourself for a friendship drifting when in reality there are so many factors that come into play. And Type A people are quick to blame themselves (just like I blamed myself for 10 years… instead of my TERRIBLE weight-loss method!)
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? #3
Having a secret is tough on any relationship.
Any kind of secret puts a huge strain on any kind of relationship.
It builds an invisible wall between you and another person and sadly, secrets often lead to telling lies to keep secrets, secret. It all becomes very complicated 🙁 I tried to hide my eating disorder because I didn’t want people I love to worry about me. I also wanted to fix myself because I didn’t understand that being strong (smart & efficient!) is about asking for help.
The result? Shame led to secrecy and I isolated myself with misinformation which prolonged my disordered eating.
Don’t reinvent the wheel!
Learn from people who have already discovered a solution, so you can get back to your own expertise.
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? #4
For ages I dwelled on the past…
…and not just about relationships with friends or crushes-that-could-have-been, but also what:
- art I could have created during my free time (I’m not talking masterpieces… I just LOVE turning things into things (!) like this mosaic that Alex and I made years ago made from random plates we found. Alex calls it: Morning has Broken – scroll down till you see the sun)
- dog walks I could have been on – I didn’t even let myself touch our dog Casey to punish myself any time I broke my diet
- scholarships and opportunities I could have applied for (before my eating was disordered I always went for awards like “athlete of the year”, got on the honor roll, was chosen to go on leadership retreats, etc. but that all stopped in university when I focused 100% on fixing myself (instead of focusing on my interests) which put all my problems under a microscope and made things worse
- volunteer positions I could have gone for
- great outfits I could have worn: like using a scarf as a belt rather than throwing anything on as I ran out the door (because I slept-in after being up late planning a new diet)
- make-up techniques I could have learned from friends if I’d gone to their house and we got ready to go out together
- part-time jobs I could have taken at university
- career I would have pursued
And all the people I could have met doing all these things as a happy, healthy version of “me”… Instead of being alone in my room planning my next diet.
But then I realized…
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? #5
…but then I realized that all the sh*t you go through is fertilizer for the future! You know what I mean? All those tough experiences make you an even better friend now and will make you a wonderful partner because you have empathy, etc.
All that time I thought I was wasting I was actually learning about myself, the world and what matters to me. Going through a hardship when you’re young teaches you how to problem-solve, be resourceful and appreciate the small stuff. And there’s so many other things I couldn’t have learned any other way. I list a bunch of the things I’m most grateful for learning at the back of my book.
You learn a lot more when you’re on the outside looking in, than when you’re on center stage.Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected... The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive... and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.— JK Rowling, Harvard Commencement Speech
And I never would’ve created Who Is NOBODY? or written this blog (that I’m excited to get up and do each day). Or met so many beautiful people through it. Like all the people who’ve sent me their weight-loss stories or left a comment on my site or emailed me questions like this one! Or the people I met through writing courses and even Alex. Our paths would not have crossed if my life had been a straight line.
I believe the problems we have help us evolve in the most important ways and these lessons can’t be found in a text book or lecture hall.
For instance, difficult experiences help you figure out your interests.
Then you can share what you learn so others can focus on their own expertise. (Like discovering a vaccine for this pandemic. How many beautiful Type A minds, that would be brilliant at finding a cure, are stuck on starting a new diet?)
Connecting with others to share what you learn make all those difficult years worth it.
One of the best things my eating disorder taught me was that I HATE WASTE!
I thought I ruined my life and when I finally opened up and asked for help, just a little support got me back on my feet again. These days I love being able to pay that forward because I know first hand that a little support makes a big difference.
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We're all full of cracks. But it's the experiences that try to break us that make us the most beautiful if we learn from them and share what we've learned. Highlight rather than hide what's made YOU. * In Japan broken pottery is repaired with a lacquer that's dusted with gold powder. Seams of gold emphasize the fractures instead of disguising them. This art of fixing originates from the Japanese feeling of "mottainai" (regret when something is wasted) and "mushin" (the acceptance of change). * I challenge you to expose one of the seams that binds you together. Talk to someone you trust. Sharing is repairing. (Wish that didn't rhyme!) * #repair #eatingdisorder #talk #share #connect #love #askforhelp #recoveroutloud #recovery #bulimia #bulimiarecovery #healthy #recover
I don’t want to downplay: Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
For sure there are beautiful benefits to knowing people you have a history with. People who knew you at a different stage of your life—and all the mutual experiences that go with it. Like your Grade 9 gym teacher who paraded around in spandex or the school play where you dressed up in a leotard to be the sparrow in The Happy Prince… It’s always fun to have a “Remember when…”
But it’s also always important to remember… people who are going to be a good match for you moving forward are forgiving and kind. And you’ll find people were probably too wrapped up in their own problems to have noticed yours as much as you think.
(I found out years later that one of my friends at school was trying to figure out how to come out and another was trying to stay sober at the same time I was at the height of my eating disorder.)
Do you have a friend you want to reconnect with?
If there’s someone who comes to mind as you’ve read this post, consider reaching out to them!
And apologize if you need to.
With eating disorders, like any big preoccupation in your life where you can lose control, “borrowing” money or food in a way that doesn’t feel good or right, even with the intention of returning it, is common.
Own up to it.
Why are people so funny about apologizing? I love apologizing when I’ve done something wrong. It’s empowering! It makes you feel good and the person you say sorry to feels respected. And it brings you closer together.
Wounds that have healed have thicker skin than skin that’s never been hurt.
And who isn’t flattered that someone is thinking about them years later?
Besides, everyone makes mistakes! But not everyone is a big enough person to apologize.
Any one worth knowing will understand, forgive and forget, feel honored you opened up to them and respect you more for coming clean!
In fact they’ll probably empathize with what you went through and be sorry they didn’t know or couldn’t help.
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve opened up to, who’ve said: I had an eating disorder too. Or someone they love has had a similar experience.
Making new friends as an adult
Whether you decide to follow up with past friends or not, there’s a great big world out there full of people to meet. A ton of courses to take, hobbies to pursue, volunteer positions to apply for and animals who need to be adopted (Ha ha! Had to slip that in. What better time to adopt or do a short-term foster – it’s tough, but somebody’s got to do it! – than during self-isolation. The shelters are full of animals who want a corner of your bed.)
…but I”m getting off topic.
Making new friends through your interests when you’re an adult is exciting. Keep looking forward (not backward)!
Plus, it’s much easier to strike up a friendship faster when you’re fully formed (!) and comfortable with who you are.
Thank you J for asking: Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder?
The fact you’ve taken time to reflect, worry and wonder about this questions shows great character and the ability to learn and grow.
All qualities people love in a friend.
At the end of J’s email
…Anyway, hope you are staying focused and getting out of this what you can. I believe we can all come out of this healthier and stronger.
J kind of answers her own question.
She was talking about COVID-19, but her words are true for any difficult time you go through.
We’ll all have better days.
Make Today Count
Who can you Skype, phone, text, friend on Facebook, organize a virtual house party or send some snail-mail to, just to say hello?
It could be an old friend or new friend. But make sure it’s a true friend.
Build healthy eating and exercise habits. A healthy weight will follow.
If you’re interested in making new friends now, why not start a virtual book club?
Book Clubs are one of those activities where you can ask someone you hardly know, but would like to know better. You can begin with as little as one other person. Or you can ask a few friends to each invite a close friend and you’ll instantly widen your circle.
Don’t wait! Choose a book and order online. Check out the Book Depository. They have free shipping worldwide. Boom!
You could read only biographies, thrillers, New York Times Best Sellers or… have no theme at all.
And when we get back to being able to meet in person… turn off “the” Zoom (!) and move your meetings (a term I use loosely!) to each other’s living rooms.
Here’s a speech I love that’s all about embracing experiences that didn’t go as planned and turning them into opportunities.
Did you lose friends because of your eating disorder? Or another tough time you went through? What was the biggest take-away you got from reading this post? Let me know in the comments below!
Stay safe. Stay home. Wash your hands.
Sharing what I learned makes the 10 years I STRUGGLED worth it