It’s no secret that eating disorders are competitive illnesses. In fact, for many, treatment can be made trickier because the eating disorder becomes triggered to be the “best” when surrounded by others who are also ill. This is why a number of treatment centers have policies ruling against socialization after discharge. However, having an eating disorder can be incredibly isolating. It can be a welcome change to have a friend who just gets it.

But when you both have an eating disorder, and you are both trying to recover, things can easily get dicey. Eating disorders are tricky illnesses. You can want recovery in your heart of hearts, and still feel a twinge of jealousy when you see someone else acting on behaviors. You can be working towards weight restoration with all of your might and still find yourself perusing how to cut calories. It’s difficult enough to manage our own symptoms and tease out if the eating disorder is in control at the moment. Now throw another person in exactly the same boat in the mix. You both want recovery. You both understand the torturous nature of this confusing illness. And you are both dealing with working through the ED thoughts and stopping the behaviors. On one hand, it’s beautiful to feel that type of camaraderie. On the other hand, you are now vulnerable to a particularly strong type of trigger- the relapse of a friend.

Anybody who has been through this can tell you- it’s incredibly difficult to watch a friend go through a relapse. It’s easy for the eating disorder to sneak in during this time and set off those competitive feelings. It’s equally as easy to take it personally. How could she do this when we are in this together? Doesn’t she know what this does to me? Additionally, there is the danger of feeling the responsibility to save a friend. You might feel the pull to begin to pour all of your time and energy into helping. The danger here? You begin to neglect your own recovery, and, again, the door is left ajar for the eating disorder to flare up.

So what is the solution? Do we, as those aforementioned treatment centers suggest, cut off all relationships with those who are going through a similar struggle? Or do we throw caution to the wind and jump into recovery friendships with both feet?

The truth is, only you can answer what is the right solution for you. I know some people who have felt that they need to keep themselves at arms length from fellow patients. These individuals have shared that they sought an identity outside of the eating disorder, and noted that they wanted to surround themselves with the healthiest people possible. One person told me that he felt it necessary to immerse himself in “normal eater world,” so that he could attempt to emulate his friends who have had historically healthy relationships with food and weight. Another told me that she was tired of conversations surrounding triggers and fear foods, and indicated that she felt the need to cut off these relationships if she truly wanted to recover for good.

I myself feel that my relationships with my fellow recovery warriors were vital to my healing process. A bond that I cannot describe in writing happens when you and a friend have shared a journey to the same part of hell and back. The bonds that I have formed with these friends are deeper than most any other relationships I have. And I am not the only person who feels this way-I have talked to many, many individuals who consider “treatment friends,” fellow support group members, or friendships formed in the online recovery community to be absolutely life-giving.

So similar to most everything about recovery, the answer to the question of whether or not relationships between two people in recovery are healthy is not black and white. I believe the answer is- there is no absolute answer. Just like any friendship- some may flourish and some may become toxic. Certainly, many find a sense of acceptance and peace in these relationships. Others may feel that it is best to keep a clear boundary between friends and fellow patients. No matter how you feel, it is important to be honest with yourself and others about what is helpful to you during the recovery process. No two journeys to recovery are identical, which means you must pay close attention to what is helpful to you. Don’t forget that you must nourish yourself before you can nourish those around you. So be the friend who is upfront about boundaries. Protect your recovery first and foremost. Your friendships (whomever they are with) will be stronger for it-I promise.

By Dr.Colleen Reichmann

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