Driving home late one night, I reached in my purse for my phone, only to realize I left it at home earlier that morning. I never forget my phone, and it certainly never takes me this long to realize I’m without it.
“Well, I don’t even need it,” I thought to myself, “I almost never do.” Unbeknownst to me, when I pulled out of my parking spot that evening, I ran over a nail and got a flat tire. I didn’t realize this until I was already on the highway, the nearest exit miles away. I couldn’t keep driving unless I wanted to do serious damage to my car, so I pulled over and put my hazard lights on.
When I put my hazard lights on, I thought that would be enough to attract attention from passersby. After several minutes no one stopped, so I got out of my car, and I started to wave my arms. Again, several minutes went by without anyone even slowing down. I became increasingly frustrated, glaring down every car and cursing them under my breath.
How much clearer could I be? I’m a lone woman, stuck on the side of the highway, hazard lights on, arms waving. Surely someone could do basic arithmetic and figure out what was happening.
Finally I began shouting, “I need help!” at the top of my lungs. Within seconds traffic halted, mostly to see what was happening, and two cars stopped to help me. Honestly, shouting like that actually felt exhilarating, like pressure valve being released.
I was finally being understood. I wanted to shout for hours.
Signs and signals
This is an experience that people have when recovering from an eating disorder. We tend to be sensitive, so attuned to others’ emotional states that we can identify how others feel long before they can.
For example, we notice our loved one’s slight tonal change in their voice. “Are you ok?” we ask, and they reply, “Yeah, I think so.” So we press, “You seem different today.” After some exploration, they reveal things aren’t going as they wanted, but they didn’t realize it until we asked.
People recovering from an eating disorder navigate the world thinking that other people are like this too – but they aren’t.
Other people need much clearer signs that we need help.
It is not enough to metaphorically put our hazard lights on and hope someone notices. It is not enough to hope someone detects our slight tonal change. We have to let people know we need help in more deliberate ways.
Putting my hazard lights on seemed like enough of a signal that I was shocked that people weren’t stopping to help me. I resented them. But in reality, they may have noticed and been concerned, but unsure how to act.
Shouting, “I need help!” was clear: something is wrong, and I needed someone to act. There’s nothing confusing about that.
This is similar with eating disorder recovery. It is possible people see that you may be suffering, but they are so preoccupied with their life that it is difficult for them to act, or they simply do not know how to help you. It is not personal. And it’s not a reflection on them either.
It’s our responsibility to make sure people know exactly what we need and how to help us.
In an alternative scenario, I could have helped myself by walking to the nearest exit, using a phone in a gas station and calling a tow truck. However, getting the help I needed from strangers who had no obligation to me changed my view of people.
I was so touched by the kindness of the man and his son who changed my tire that I asked them for a hug when they were done, and I cried all the way home.
It is important to note that though many cars slowed down when I shouted for help, not everyone pulled over. Some people are not equipped to help you in your recovery, and that is okay. Some people don’t know how to help someone as wonderfully sensitive as people with eating disorders. It is my experience as a therapist that eating disorders often come from more existential dilemmas of identity, belonging, and empowerment. These are complicated issues that some will not understand.
Just as learning about ourselves is an important part of recovery, so is learning how to rely on others. We just have to take the necessary leap to ask for help. Reach out to someone. They may surprise you.