By Esther Mann, LCSW
I always felt that my friend Cindy was so lucky. It appeared she could eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, and still remain slim. I envied her svelte body and the fact that unlike the rest of us, who tried (often unsuccessfully) to live on salads, Cindy would gorge herself on pastas, desserts, everything—and still look great.
A few months ago, I started noticing certain behaviors that I hadn’t paid attention to before. I became more observant and began to put two and two together. We have a couple of mutual friends and I asked them if they noticed some of the things I had noticed, and upon reflection, they said they did. Long story short, I’m convinced that Cindy is bulimic. All the signs are there. It explains a lot of things.
My older sister was bulimic for a number of years. She wound up becoming very sick, and it was a serious matter for the entire family. So I know a little bit about the illness. Thank G-d, she is all right today, but I know that this is not something to be taken lightly.
I wasn’t certain what to do, and I discussed it with our friends. We decided that confronting Cindy would probably not be a good idea. She’s never been a particularly open person—I would call her downright secretive. I’ve been trained to think twice before asking her anything of a personal nature.
Despite the lack of depth in our relationship, I like Cindy and feel close to her. I am worried about her and don’t want to just ignore the situation. My friends and I decided it best for me to talk to her husband, Allen, who is a caring person. We felt he would be appreciative of our concern and take charge of the situation.
Unfortunately, I was elected to speak to him, since I was the one to stir this whole thing up. I wasn’t excited about confronting him and telling him what her friends and I have seen and what we believe to be the situation. After putting it off for several weeks, I finally found the perfect opportunity to have our talk.
I found myself standing next to Allen at a smorgasbord at a wedding and decided this was the moment. After some typical chitchat, I told him that I, as well as some of Cindy’s other close friends, was concerned about her health. I explained why. If Allen ever suspected this to be the case, he sure didn’t show it; I would say he was flabbergasted.
The color drained from Allen’s face. He excused himself and walked away. Even though it was clearly difficult for Allen to hear this about his wife, I felt good that I did my duty and shared our concerns with him. At that point, I figured the onus of fixing this problem was no longer on me, and I was thankful it was now in Allen’s hands. Mission accomplished—or so I thought!
The next day, I got a hysterical call from Cindy, shrieking at me about what a horrible, jealous person I am, and how dare I make up stories about her and spread them to friends and to her husband! I tried to get a word in edgewise, but it was impossible. She just yelled, cried, and finally hung up on me before I got a chance to explain that I was only looking out for her well-being and that I care deeply about her. I’ve tried calling her back several times, but she won’t take my calls.
I’ve spoken to our mutual friends and they tell me that Cindy is beyond angry at me but she doesn’t seem to be upset with any of them, even though in my mind we were a coalition, deciding together how to handle this situation. I’m also not getting the impression that any of them are running to defend me, but rather are covering their backs and sympathizing with Cindy. I feel betrayed on all levels.
So now what do I do? Cindy won’t talk to me. I don’t trust these so-called friends anymore. Do I speak to Allen, even though he managed to make me come out looking like the villain in all this? Do I continue to try and get through to Cindy? Do I just walk away from all of them, with the lesson learned that you stay out of other’s people’s business, despite having sincere intentions?
It takes all kinds. Some stand around, watching a train wreck about to happen, and do nothing. They stand at a safe distance, observe the imminent disaster, and make sure that they are far enough away so that they won’t get hit by any flying debris.
And then there are those people who run toward the train, hands flailing, screaming at the top of their lungs, hoping that the conductor will notice them and avoid the crash. Sometimes these people actually risk their own lives in an attempt to save others. Hopefully, most of the time, there is enough thought put into their actions to avert disaster without putting themselves at risk.
You fall into the second group. You do not go through life as an observer, but rather as someone who cares deeply about others, is troubled by serious issues, and does not rest until a solution to a problem is found. I absolutely applaud you for that. We are not islands. We need to look out for one another. Playing it safe and not sticking out one’s neck to protect another person—particularly a good friend—is a solo journey. I don’t think we were meant to live our lives in that fashion.
But that second group further breaks down to those who look out for others with a clear eye toward protecting themselves, and those who act in ways that may not necessarily be great when it comes to self-preservation.
Though you were not impulsive and checked in with your so-called friends about how to help Cindy, I think you missed two key elements that, had you considered more carefully, may have saved you from your present predicament.
The first question you might have asked yourself is whether you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Cindy is bulimic. As they say, “innocent until proven guilty.” Did you actually see Cindy put her finger down her throat and throw up? My guess is that you probably noticed her running to the bathroom after every meal and other telltale signs, but did you actually see her engaged in the act? If so, then this point is moot. If not, however, I think it becomes an important consideration before making the final judgment on Cindy’s condition. Sometimes (though rarely), there are alternative explanations that somehow we failed to see.
So if you hadn’t witnessed Cindy caught in the act, it’s possible that was your first mistake. And it would have inspired a totally different chain of events had you looked further into Cindy’s possible condition.
Secondly, I think it was a mistake talking to her husband. I understand you think Allen is a nice guy and someone you felt safe talking to. I understand how you became the messenger, since your friends probably understood that of the group, you had the strongest backbone and are the one with the most integrity.
No one knows what dynamics exist between a husband and a wife. Who can truly know how Allen reacted to Cindy based on the information you gave him and what kind of firestorm you set into motion?
Therefore, despite your actions coming from a pure and loving place, you’ve managed to ruffle some feathers in a big way.
We don’t get do-overs, though all of us would love such opportunities. But we can all take away some lessons from painful experiences and move forward. I suggest writing Cindy a note, explaining that because you care so much about her, you may have jumped to an incorrect conclusion, and furthermore that you apologize for not going directly to her with your concerns, rather than to Allen. She may or may not come around. If she doesn’t, I sympathize for your loss. Within the cycle of friendships, some last forever, but sometimes friends come into our lives for a limited period to teach us something and then move on.
I believe that you most probably came into Cindy’s life for a purpose, which you have served. Whether she is bulimic or headed in that direction, despite her anger, this event surely acted as a wake-up call for her, and hopefully you’ve done your job. For all you know, ultimately your intervention will have a stunning effect on Cindy’s overall well-being. You will probably never know for sure. But the possibility is heartwarming.
I hope you remain that rare and wonderful individual who doesn’t just stand by, watching the train wreck happen. Perhaps you’ll think your strategy through a little better in the future, but aside from that, you’re a winner!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.