February 22 to 28 is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. We'll be sharing information about this important issue throughout the week, from what to do if you or a friend is suffering from an eating disorder to how to love your body just the way it is! Be sure to check out all of our content here.
In college, sharing a living space with other girls is never perfect. There is always going to be some friction, whether it’s a difference in living styles (like someone who never takes out the trash), or “boy drama” between two of your roommates that you have to mediate. Though these little bumps in the road may seem dire at the time, usually everyone gets over the issues at hand, and you eventually find yourselves back to watching Scandal together and having “roomie dinners,” right?
Well, what do you do if some of those little bumps in the road seem more like barricades? What if some of the little disagreements you are having with your roommate actually stem from a much bigger problem she’s dealing with? Or what if it’s not your roommate that has a big problem, but your closest girlfriend?
It can no doubt be a very tricky situation to deal with, especially if you just suspect she has a problem and aren’t positive. If you think your roommate or friend is facing a serious personal issue – like depression or an eating disorder, for example – it can almost feel like you’re walking on eggshells around her in order not to upset her or make her problem worse. If you can relate to this situation, here are some warning signs to look out for to help you get a better idea about what’s up.
For an eating disorder, look out for:
- Obsession with calories, food, or nutrition
- Compulsive exercising
- Making excuses to get out of eating
- Avoiding social situations that involve food
- Eating alone, at night, or in secret
Laura Mizia, a JMU junior, has experienced living with someone struggling with this disease. “Every time I went out with her, I’d end up eating the rest of her food. She’d make up excuses like ‘Oh, I’m not hungry,’ or whenever she’d start seeing a new guy she’d say she was just so caught up and excited that she forgot to eat.” Mizia also recalled that her friend started smoking cigarettes and drinking a lot of coffee because she thought they “suppressed her appetite.”
Another indication that your roommate might be dealing with an eating disorder is if you notice signs that she is scolding herself for her appearance. “If someone had baked or made something fattening in our apartment, signs would go up like, ‘No more cookies, you are so gross, stop. Do you see yourself?’” says Diane*, who is also dealing with a roommate with an eating disorder. Other red flags she noticed were her roommate “making lists of what she was allowed to eat the next day, providing reasons of why she should get skinny,” among others. “Before she puts anything in her mouth, you can almost tell there is an internal struggle going through her mind.”
Michelle Cavoto, a registered dietitian with James Madison University’s H.O.P.E. team (Help Overcoming Problems with Eating & Exercise), says there are many signs to look out for if you suspect your friend has an eating disorder. For example, if you find an unusual amount of empty food wrappers in her room, this may be a sign of binge eating. “Look for unhealthy behavior, like 12 candy bar wrappers or a box of cereal disappearing in just one day.” Diet pills and boxes of laxatives are also tangible evidence of a problem. As for behavior, Cavoto says to “watch for them being withdrawn socially, being controlling around eating situations,” or always going to the bathroom immediately after meals.
Food isn’t the only source of “internal struggle” among college women. Sometimes a friend can seem like she’s had a serious mood change for no apparent reason. Although everyone feels a little down in the dumps sometimes, in some cases depression can be a serious issue, and it’s definitely something you should watch out for in a roommate or close friend. Here are some warning signs to look out for if you think she is depressed:
- Prolonged sadness that lasts longer than two weeks
- Losing interest or pleasure in activities she used to enjoy
- Increased problems with school and family
- Wanting to be alone or keep to herself more and more
- Trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting up
- More irritable and stand-offish to friends or change in mood
Beth*, a senior at SUNY Purchase College, has had lots of experience with dysfunctional roommates, but definitely still finds it difficult to deal with. “Sometimes they are your best friend, sometimes they are super-clingy, and sometimes they scream at you for no reason…It is really difficult sometimes because they are not thinking straight,” she says. Some of the most prominent red flags that she noticed (besides her roommate’s erratic behavior) were her irregular sleeping patterns. “I found that my roommate dealing with depression would often stay awake for the better part of the week, sleeping only 2 to 3 hours a night, if at all, and then spend an entire week in bed.” She also added that she was very paranoid, missed classes a lot, and when they tried to help her, it only made her “meaner and more selfish.” Beth says she’s found that dealing with that sort of disorder “can only be helped when they recognize they have a problem…all you can really do is be patient and supportive.”
Julia Urban, a grad student at JMU, is also familiar with the struggle of trying to help a depressed roommate. “We let her know we were there for her…She felt we would never be able to help her because we would never understand. She didn’t think it was worth ‘getting into it’ with us, even though we wanted to be there for her.”
If you feel that a friend or roommate is dealing with a serious problem, whether it’s an eating disorder, depression, or something else, here is a step-by-step guide to confronting them, courtesy of Celeste Thomas, M.S., Ph.D., the outreach and consultation Specialist coordinator at the Counseling and Student Development Center at James Madison University.
- Have a one-on-one discussion with her to let her know you’re concerned, but do so in a way that doesn’t make her feel attacked. Instead of using the term “you”, as in “You’re really depressed,” use “I” statements, like “I’ve been worried about you lately.” Cavoto also stresses how important this approach is in order to avoid your friend taking the defensive. “Tell them how their behavior is affecting you and ask what you can do to make things easier for them…Definitely stay away from the blame and shame game’,” she says.
- Be ready to have specific examples or memories of certain behaviors that concerned you. This will help your roommate or friend understand why you’ve decided to talk to her. For example, if you suspect she has an eating disorder, mention the times when she chose to go to the gym over hanging out.
- Have options with you to share with her. Whether it’s pamphlets, resources on campus and the surrounding community, or online support groups, let her know what’s out there that can help her. Also, make sure she knows that you’re doing this because you care about her, not because you’re trying to play therapist or make her feel guilty.
- If she agrees to go see someone, like a counselor or psychiatrist, let her know that you’re willing to come with her to the first appointment to make it easier. Sometimes people are hesitant because they’re nervous or feel ashamed.
- If all of these methods backfire and just make her more stubborn and angry with you, you can always come in to see your school counselor as the friend who wants to help, and find out how to handle things from there. Don’t give up just because she doesn’t agree to seek help herself at first!
*Name has been changed
Think you might be suffering from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorders Association has a free and confidential screening to help you determine next steps. If you're looking for more information, be sure to call the NEDA helpline. Looking for ways to help spread the word? Find out how you can get involved on your campus.