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Heavy Meddle: Help! My Friend Is Addicted To Food

(chrisphoto/flickr)
(chrisphoto/flickr)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to advice@wbur.org. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I am in a quandary. I have had a close friendship of nearly 30 years with a person who has always been overweight and is now morbidly obese. Recently, we spent a week vacationing together. I found myself truly distressed, not only by the types of unhealthy foods consumed, but by the quantities.

My friend makes no effort to eat healthfully or to reduce portion sizes: multiple coffees per day (four creams and three sugars in each cup); pastries with breakfast; a large order of fries with lunch; chips with dinner; fried foods; cheese on overstuffed sandwiches; ice cream, cookies, shakes and more.

Instead of exercise, my friend drives everywhere and tries to park as close to a destination as possible, even if it means parking in the tow zone. In addition, when "forced" to walk places, my friend huffs, puffs and sweats.

Now 54, my friend lost an older sibling at the age of 50 to a massive heart attack. I fear the same for my friend, or that other dangerous health issues may arise. This friend has two children, and I worry that they may one day find themselves without my friend's loving guidance. I wavered on whether or not to initiate a discussion and on what I would say if I did. This issue has gnawed at me for decades.

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Steve, I need your guidance.

Thanks,
A Heavy and Loving Heart

Dear HLH,

Wow. The first thing you should realize is that this is no longer just a “friend issue” or a “weight issue.” This is a health issue. It sounds as if your friend is eating him or herself to death, or at least into grave danger. It also sounds like he or she is addicted to food, in the same way someone might be addicted to alcohol or to cigarettes. (I’m not equating these compulsions — just suggesting that the same self-destructive yearning prevails.)

As a good friend, it seems to me you’ve earned the right to express your concern, especially if offered in the spirit of love and support. There are all sorts of websites that can give you pointers on how to broach the topic. And it may be that saying something to your friend will relieve some of your anxiety, which could have to do with feeling complicit. That is: you worry that not saying anything makes you partly responsible for your friend’s situation.

Let me offer some reassurance on that front: this is not your fault. You are not the one making the gluttonous decisions. You are not the one who let this habit overtake you, and not the one who is responsible for your friend’s children (though naturally you’re concerned about them).

Furthermore, I’d be very surprised if your friend were completely unaware of your dismay. Good friends have a way of broadcasting their feelings to one another, even without words.

...you need to be clear on one sad truth: no matter how compassionate and eloquent you are, you cannot rescue this friend. That tough job belongs to him or her.

The toughest part of this situation, HLH, will probably be accepting the limits of your power to influence your friend. Based on your description of what you observed during your recent vacation together, and considering your friend’s other chronic behaviors, this does not appear to be someone who wants to change his or her lifestyle.

To be clear: I think it’s a good idea for you to talk to your friend and to be as honest about your fears as possible. As a close friend, you probably have some ideas about the underlying pressures that have caused your friend to turn to food for comfort. It may be useful to speak directly to these struggles, rather than to focus on the food issues, which are likely symptomatic of something deeper.

So I think it would be great if you could offer this friend your support, in whatever ways s/he deems most important. But part of the reason you may be holding back on doing so, for many years now, is because:

a)     You sense that your friend isn’t ready to change (and that you’ll therefore be left holding a big bag of frustration if you try to intercede); and/or

b)     You fear saying something will drive your friend away, or drive a wedge in your friendship.

Both of these possibilities are real.

At the same time, consider how you would feel if your friend were a chronic smoker or drinker and was clearly shortening his/her life by pursuing the habit.

As for what you might say: You know better than I do. You’ve spent three decades with this person. You love your friend. Your best approach is to speak from the heart. But before you do so, you need to be clear on one sad truth: no matter how compassionate and eloquent you are, you cannot rescue this friend. That tough job belongs to him or her. You can only pledge to be a support when s/he is ready to change.

I truly hope that your friend comes to this decision. But I hope even more that you can find peace and joy in the friendship regardless. None of us is perfect, after all, and many of us are hugely imperfect. That doesn’t make us unworthy of love. Just the opposite, in fact.

Onward, together,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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