Ask Me: About Shame, S*x Toys and Panicking Friends

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Dear Bronwyn,

I recently stayed at a friend’s parent’s beach cottage and was placed in a difficult situation when I found a d*ldo in the nightstand. I knew it wasn’t mine but I didn’t want to leave it there in case it was found and my friend and her parents thought that it was. In the end I asked my young friend how many people had stayed in the cottage and, when she mentioned a long list of people, I showed her. Together we decided to throw it away.

The problem is that my friend, who is a staunch Christian, has got it into her head that it belonged to her mom and she is not coping with this idea. She suffers from an eating disorder and  believes that sex is disgusting. This has made it even worse for her. She sees a therapist but the therapist does not do Christian-based therapy and thus is not helping too much. I feel awful for having shown her in the first place.

Please HELP!

A Panicked Pal

Dear PP,

Firstly: I think you handled the situation at the cottage as best as could be handled. You were honest with your friend and wanted to honor everyone’s reputation. Perhaps, if you had a do-over, you might decide to have just ignored it and let the matter go after hearing there was a long line of guests that had been at the cottage – but what’s done is done. I’m guessing I would probably have done the same thing.
However, you are now faced with seeing your friend have a very unhealthy, shame-based reaction to all this, which is very sad indeed. Even if her therapist is not Christian, as a professional she should be equipped to address some of the body-shame issues which underlie eating disorders. It’s a pity to hear that’s not happening.
This is the hard part: I don’t think there’s much you can do to help or fix this situation. It happened to both of you, and it can’t be undone. While you did show it to her, you are not responsible for her reaction to it. This is part of the difficulty in negotiating healthy relationship boundaries: learning the difference between saying “you made me feel this way,” and “when you did that, I felt this way.” Our instinct is to go for the first option, but that wrongly apportions emotional responsibility to people. The second way is better: you said something (and you are responsible for that), and then your friend felt a whole heap of shame and confusion (which are her emotions, for which she is responsible.)
It is not your fault that this incident has tipped her into a downward spiral. Where there are such deep hurts and shame wounds, there are any number of things which could trigger disproportionate responses: it could have been song lyrics, or a joke over dinner where someone wondered whether their elderly parents still had sex, or one of the latest romantic comedies watched with friends.
So: you can’t take it back, and you can’t take responsibility for her feelings. So what can you do? I think your only options as a friend are to apologize if you feel that you showed her something in error (responsibility for your own actions), and to lovingly point out to her that this incident seems to be causing her a disproportionate and unhealthy amount of anxiety (which is her responsibility) – particularly on the topics of sex and her mom. You could tell her that you care about her and from what you see, you think there’s more going on here than just her being horrified at the thought that it might have been her mom’s, and encourage her to talk this through with her therapist. And, you could say that if she didn’t feel like her therapist was helping her develop healthier perspectives on her body and sex, that you would support her if she needed help finding a better one.
And then? You pray.
I can just imagine how torn you must feel after all this. I wish I had a magic formula to make it better for you and your friend, but I don’t. This is part of the hard road your friend needs to walk in learning responsibility for her own emotions and moving towards health. I hope that in some way, your loving friendship and gentle encouragement as a friend who has walked through a triggering experience with her, will move her towards healing and wholeness.
Best wishes,
Bronwyn
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6 thoughts on “Ask Me: About Shame, S*x Toys and Panicking Friends

  1. As someone who has wrestled with both bulimia and anorexia, I can partly understand the friend’s thought patterns and how difficult it might be for the friend to bring it up with her therapist. In my experience, having been to four counselors, two psychiatrists, and a nutritionist, most counselors won’t bring up the topic of s*x. (All these “experts” are Christians, incidentally. Why did they hesitate? I have no idea.) She’ll have to bring it up, more than likely, and that’s going to be difficult if she associates it with fear. If she’s that uncomfortable talking about it, she might consider writing down the incident (along with her feelings, thoughts, etc.) and reading it to the counselor. Just an idea.

    Also, and the letter writer may know this already, but it bears repeating: People with ED aren’t thinking clearly. When I had an ED, my thoughts were simply bizarre, often frightening, and the only thing my mind ever dwelt on was food, hunger, the next binge/purge, and my body. Sexuality was frightening, even though I had NO reason for it to be. I was panicky and anxious all the time. I couldn’t sleep. An ex-boyfriend told me I was self-centered and needed to get over myself, but my mind wouldn’t stop focusing on the disease. People who tried to reason with me (as some of my counselors did) didn’t get anywhere. The ED thoughts crowded out everything else. It really feels like the ED is a separate being residing in the sick person’s mind and putting horrible, vicious thoughts into her mind. That frightened me more than anything, I think; I simply couldn’t control anything in my brain or my moods and yet other people expected me to be able to do that.

    It’s a really tough disease to fight. For me, the prayers of other people made a huge difference; even if they didn’t understand the disease, God used their prayers to help my mind and body to heal. Another big help was learning my identity in Christ.

    The nutritionist who taught me how to eat healthy, balanced meals was valuable, too. Once I started eating–as opposed to the starving/binging/purging mode–my mind was slightly more balanced. If your friend hasn’t seen one, that might help her physically.

    Sorry to write such a long comment. I hope that some of this helps someone, somewhere to understand the mindset of an eating-disordered person better.

    • Laura, thank you SO MUCH for your comments here: weighing in with wisdom and experience and such practical insight. I appreciate you.

      • I’m always a little scared to write about EDs, because I know how easily people with ED are triggered by what appears to be casual or insignificant to those on the “outside.” I really hope that the letter-writer and her friend are helped by your words and mine!

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  3. Bronwyn, I think you answered this young lady’s letter beautifully! I battled anorexia and bulimia for almost 35 years before I gave it to Jesus. Had I been in her friend’s shoes I think I would have felt the same. As a matter of fact, I did. Sex, and sexuality for that point, were vile and vulgar to me. It took me many, many years and finding the right therapist with whom I feel comfortable. Not an easy task by any sense of the word. And as Laura had commented, people with eating disorders are not thinking clearly. If I had a penny for every twisted thought that used to run through my mind (all caused by extreme malnutrition), I would be one wealthy woman. So many people — including therapists who work with eating disorders — do not fully understand the mentality of the person struggling with the disease. I DON’T UNDERSTAND IT!!!

    You wrote, “It is not your fault that this incident has tipped her into a downward spiral. Where there are such deep hurts and shame wounds, there are any number of things which could trigger disproportionate responses: it could have been song lyrics, or a joke over dinner where someone wondered whether their elderly parents still had sex, or one of the latest romantic comedies watched with friends.” Similar situations would trigger me as well. They still do to some extent to this day. But you are right; this young lady cannot take responsibility for the reaction of her friend. If that were the case, we would all be guilty of one another’s emotional outbursts and reactions.

    Thank you for sharing this so gently. Eating disorders are tough…

    Praying for this young lady!

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