Dear Dr. Robert,
My girlfriend is and has been suffering from Anorexia for the past 2-3 years. We have only been going out for about 2 months but already I have very strong feelings for her. Recently she has been entered into a program at the local Institute of Living in an effort to control and eliminate her eating disorders. Unfortunately she has been put on a meal plan that makes her feel totally disgusting and suicidal. When she eats she feels huge and terrible about herself and the only time she is happy is when she is asleep. I feel completely helpless and worry a lot about her and her well-being. Your opinion on how I should help would be greatly appreciated.
I am afraid that your "strong feelings" for your new girlfriend have blinded you to the realities of her situation. In other words, you are not seeing this woman as she is, but rather as you wish she were or as you want her to be.
Anorexia is a serious, often fatal, mental illness which requires the strongest kinds of intervention if the life of the anorectic is to be saved. It is not the meal plan which is making your girlfriend "feel totally disgusting and suicidal," as you wrote. This young woman feels disgusting when she eats at all (that's part of what anorexia is), and her suicidal tendencies come from the inside out--from her own mental state, that is--and certainly are not the result of any eating plan. To be clear, your girlfriend was suicidal before she even entered treatment, and if you did not see the depths of her anguish and the extent of her confusion, it is probably because you were blinded by sexual feelings for her which have kept you from really seeing her at all.
You are going to hate these next words, but on this site, like a baseball umpire, I calls 'em as I sees 'em. You are not just helpless in this case, Chris, you are worse than helpless; you are a menace to your girlfriend in that your attitude further endangers this already very sick person, and threatens to interfere with the treatment she urgently needs. Your misunderstanding of your girlfriend's disease and of the protocol necessary to save her can only hurt her since you will tend to support her distorted ideas about food and eating as you already have done in your question to me.
To be absolutely clear, the last thing in the world that your girlfriend needs now is your sympathy with and support of her views of the world and of her body. Those views are anorexia, and they need urgently to change, not to be validated by you. Your girlfriend needs intensive psychotherapy administered by a trained, dispassionate person, not a boyfriend who will agree with her that her meal plan is disgusting.
Further, if you were someone who loved this young woman (sexual attraction is not love), the last thing you would recommend to her is that she begin a romantic relationship while she is so ill. At this point, she does not need to be anyone's girlfriend. She needs to get her life together first and then see about her sexual needs and whom she wants to be with.
I do understand that your attraction to this woman drives you to want to help her, but that very attraction makes you precisely the wrong person to help, and I suggest that you stop trying immediately. I do not imagine that you will follow my advice, but here it is:
1. Inform yourself immediately about anorexia. Read about it, and, if necessary, make an appointment with someone at the Institute of Living with a view towards having this disease and its proper treatment explained to you in detail.
2. Ask yourself why you would be so attracted to a person who is anorectic and suicidal, and why you would want to have sex with someone who hates her own body.
3. Stay away from this woman--totally--until she is OK again. Your presence in her life can only hurt her. If you are honest with yourself, you will know that in your heart.
Sorry, Chris, but that's the way I see it.
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