Melissa and Jane had been friends since fourth grade. More like sisters than friends, they did everything together and shared their secrets. The girls were looking forward the transition to ninth grade together. At first, transitioning to high school seemed like a breeze. Then Jane noticed a change in Melissa halfway through the first nine weeks. Melissa began to compare herself to other girls. She became preoccupied with her body image; obsessed about her weight; dressed in layers or wore oversized clothing; over exercised; she skipped meals. At the beginning of the school year, Melissa was 105 pounds. By November she was down to 83 pounds and had developed a severe eating disorder.
Jane didn’t know what to do. Jane tried everything she could think of to convince Melissa she was losing an unhealthy amount of weight. Nothing was working, and Jane began to feel a lot of pressure. She was afraid to say “the wrong thing,” fearing that Melissa would become depressed and starve herself even more.
Anorexia Nervosa is a common eating disorder, affecting one in every 100 females, males to a lesser degree. Teens with anorexia fear gaining weight and restrict the amount of food or calories they consume, associating their self-worth with body image. They tend to be over-achievers, seeking their idea of perfection. They use food and eating as a way to gain control over something in their lives. Many teens do not see that anorexia robs the body of vital nutrients and vitamins. Untreated anorexia can cause damage to the heart, brain, and kidneys; loss of hair, brittle bones, disruption of menstruation, infertility, low blood pressure, and possibly, death.
Fortunately, Melissa’s parents became aware of the change in their daughter and involved her pediatrician. The doctor recommended Melissa visit a therapist who specialized in eating disorders. The therapist used cognitive behavioral therapy, which encouraged Melissa to challenge how she thought about herself and her body image. Family sessions were scheduled, as family support is crucial to anorexia treatment. Melissa wanted help and was very responsive to the treatments.
It was painful for Jane to watch her friend hurt herself. Jane came to Outreach Teen & Family Services to talk about her own personal stress from her friend’s eating disorder and learn how to be supportive. Friends may be tempted to push those struggling with an eating disorder to “eat more.” Jane and her counselor talked about being a compassionate friend—not being too watchful of Melissa’s food intake, as well as shifting the topic to the inner qualities Jane loved about her friend whenever Melissa asked if she looked “thin enough.” Learning that it was not solely up to her to fix her friend was difficult for Jane at first, but gradually it became a relief.
Because eating disorders are complicated, it often takes a team to work together for successful treatment. If you think you or a loved one may have an eating disorder, please reach out for help.
Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to teens and parents that are affordable, accessible and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.
This column is made possible in part by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.