On New Years Eve, I received this note from a young woman asking for help ...
My name is Helen. I'm writing to you to ask for your advice. I'm 16 years old and I think I am suffering from bulimia. It didn't start out so bad. I was fourteen and studying for my year 9 SATs. That's when I first started to binge eat. When it finally came to sitting those exams I started to make myself sick. But I got good grades and after that everything seemed fine until my final year at secondary school. I started to revise early so I could be prepared, and then things started to get bad again.
By the time I was sitting my GCSEs, I was purging up to four times a day. After my exams, things just got worse until I got my results.
Again, I got top grades and I thought things would ge better once I started college. Now I'm at college and things are getting really bad. I can't concentrate on my lessons. All I can think about is my next binge and where it's going to be and how I'm going to purge. I'm pretty good at hiding things and as far as I know, no one knows about my problem. But it's getting harder to hide each day, and I know that I need some kind of help.
I know I need to take that step and finally tell someone, but I'm terrified of telling anyone. They might not understand and hate me for it. I've decided to tell my personal tutor at college, but I don't want him to tell my parents. I don't even know how to approach him, and I have no idea what to say to him.
Do you have any advice on how I can find the courage to tell him and what I should say?
Thank you for your time and patience.
A few days later, I wrote back and said ...
Thank you so much for writing. And for asking for my help. Believe it or not, it still flatters me when someone writes, even after these many years. So thank you.
Sixteen and in college, eh. You must be very bright. I'm not kidding. Or have a lot of demons driving you from the inside. Or from the outside. Or from both places. Or from all three.
Me, I'm intelligent, too, although it's taken me almost my whole lifetime to get used to admitting this to people. I used to hide this part of myself, too worried about what people would think, I guess. That and that they might see me as bragging. As if bragging was the worst fault. It's not. Not even close.
I also used to worry my being smart might make others feel less than me. What I found was, most people like this about me and do not feel threatened at all. What a loving experience this is to feel, especially after hiding this part of me for most of my life.
In addition, I also used to be the most driven person I know. I never felt like I was getting anything done. And always feeling guilty for what I had not finished. Not anymore. Not since I realized that I was simply running from my fear of not being loved.
Why am I telling you all this? I guess I'm telling you in order to preface what I'm about to say. You see, some of what you wrote in your e-mail really touched me, Helen. Especially the part about, "I know that I need some kind of help, but I'm terrified of telling anyone. They might not understand and hate me for it."
You're right. People might not understand you. But don't assume they won't before you even try talking to them. If you do, then it's not them who has rejected you. It's you who is rejecting yourself.
Now please, take a breath. Now another one, slowly.
Now hear these words spoken in a kind loving voice.
I don't at all hate you for being scared. Or for throwing up every day. In fact, on my first read through your e-mail, my eyes keep welling up with tears. In fact, I was so touched by what you wrote that I sent the following words to all the teachers last night. I wrote:
Helen, you inspired these words in me. You and your honesty. And your courage. So please stop thinking that the worst problem you have is that you keep throwing up. This is not your worst problem. Your worst problem is that you are afraid that if people really knew you, they would not love you. And that perhaps, they might even hate you for who you are.
I think you are very brave. And very honest.
You are also very afraid. And very lost. And very scared.
Helen, none of things is a crime. They are simply the class your soul is currently enrolled in, a class, which, if you find the courage to carry to completion, will certainly turn you into one hell of an amazingly compassionate woman. Something our world is surely in desperate need of.
As for you feeling you will not be understood, most of the things I say to people they do not understand. Most of what I say. How I keep trying to help them then still amazes me, especially as this used to be one of my most feared inner demons. You see, I used to feel entirely responsible for other people understanding me. Not any more, though. Now, WE, you and I both, are responsible for trying to understand each other. And for honestly admitting to each other when we don't understand each other. That is all.
Finally, you made no mention of spiritual beliefs. Not that you must have them. On the other hand, while I am not a religious man, my heart is filled each day with the spirit of compassion. And if "God" is compassion, then I am filled with the spirit of God. My point? Prayers help. Even if you are not even clear to whom you are praying. In fact, I believe that somewhere out in the Universe, there is a group of beings whose sole purpose, and responsibility, is to hear the prayers of people just like yourself.
That's it. To "hear."
Even just "hearing" is a big job though. And often, a thankless job, I imagine.
My point? Please don't insult them by thinking no one has heard your prayers. I have heard them, even if you've never directly spoken them to me.
And you deserve to be heard. And to be helped And to be happy.
Okay. You know what you need to do. Now go and tell every single person, who you are, and that you are scared. Counselors to family members. One and all. And remember, if any of them do not understand you, well, then, put them on your s&^t list and just move on to the next person.
Now go and have a better life.
Finally, please do write back and tell me how you're doing. Please.
Your well being will remain in my prayers until then.
P. S. Remember, Helen. It is you who first inspired me. Not the other way around. And believe me, this is no easy task.
P. P. S. Are you a magician whose birthday is February 6th? Why, your e-mail address, of course <smile>.
Some weeks layer, I got this e-mail...
I wrote to you a few weeks ago about my problem with bulimia. I'm writing to you to thank you for taking the time to write back to me and to update you, as you asked, on how i'm doing. I read your email and it did give me the courage to try to tell people and you may be disappointed to here this but in the end I just couldn't tell anyone.
I did try to approach a couple of friends and two of my college tutors who had both asked me if I was ok because I looked distracted. But I got really nervous and embarrassed, so I made my excuses and didn't tell them. I also tried to go to the counselors at my college. I walked into the building and then cowardly turned around and walked straight back out.
I know it's really stupid to decide to tell people and then back out, especially when a big part of my head is screaming at me to tell them. But I felt so ashamed and I know for certain that as soon as I tell anyone, they're going to be really disgusted in me.
Deciding to tell someone was much easier than actually doing it, and I just don't have the courage. But I've handled this on my own for nearly four years now. I'm sure I can deal with it for a while longer. At least, until I finally do get the strength to ask for help.
P. S. no, I'm not a magician ( I just like the film )and my birthday Isn't the 6th of February. It's the 2nd of June. I'm also in Europe, so the day goes before the month.
That evening, I wrote back and said ...
Please hear this said with the gentlest of voices.
I am not disappointed in you at all. You are a very brave woman who is trying to find her courage. And finding courage is never easy. Especially for open hearted and sensitive folks like ourselves. We worry too much that someone will be disgusted with us or worse. But I am not disgusted by you, nor am I disappointed with you in the least. Not even one bit.
Then again, if you could believe what I just said; if you could believe that even one person could feel kindness and sympathy for you rather than disgust, then you'd probably tell and get the help you deserve, and finally you'd be done being afraid.
My eyes are wet, do you know that? Can you understand why?
I am remembering the many times when I myself failed to find the courage. Times when I felt like the worst coward. Times when I felt disgusted with myself.
God, being afraid to say who you are feels terrible, doesn't it? It occurs to me now that perhaps you hadn't considered me a coward. I have been. So many times, in fact. What I remember feeling was that as time went on, not finding the courage to ask for help became an even bigger mountain to climb than the thing I needed to ask for help with. Which then made me feel like an even worse coward.
I even remember romancing the whole thing once by imaging that my grave stone would read, "Here lies the coward. He tried to tell but couldn't." I can be such a drama queen, don't you think (smile).
At other times, I remember thinking I was such a coward that I should quit my work. After all, what gave me the right to offer advice to others when I was such a coward myself.
You know what though. I didn't quit. I couldn't quit, really. But it took me many years to find the courage to change. I pray this will not happen to you.
For many years then, I climbed a little mountain near my home. As I think about it, maybe I was making physical what I felt inside; that I was climbing a mountain.
Whatever the case, there I sat, three to four days a week. Eyes closed, meditating, tears running down my face. Most days I tried to pray but felt unworthy to be heard. I also begged many times for God to give me the courage to open my mouth and be myself.
Then too, so many days, I twisted my mind inside out, trying to find why I didn't have the courage. I never did find an answer. And on days when it was unsafe to climb, too cold or wet perhaps, I sat, facing the sun, in my home by a window. Day after day after day.
Always I asked the same question. Why me? Why am I so bad.? Why am I such a coward? Why am I so lost? Perhaps this is why, when I hear "Amazing Grace," I always fill up with tears. "I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see." God, if there was ever a lost soul, it was me.
Ironically, unlike the author of that song, I was the slave. I was bound to my own inability to face the fact that people might not hate me. Nor be disgusted by me. Nor even recoil. This, in fact, was the closest I ever came to finding an answer as to why I was so afraid.
Years later, I remember studying the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Do you know of it? Have you read it? In it, the tenth century Tibetan priests held their entire life's focus, the idea that if you could die consciously, that you need not come back and suffer anymore. To this end, when a brother priest was dying, they read this book to him, in an effort to help him to find the courage to be conscious in death.
What is significant to me here is the order of what they read. I break it down into four parts.
First, they read advice to the dying person which goes something like this. "If you can for but one moment be courageous enough to look consciously into the loving face of God, then you never have to come back and suffer. But if you can't... "
The next part then goes something like, ""If you can for but one moment be courageous enough to look consciously into the terrifying face of God, then you never have to come back and suffer. But if you can't... "
The third part then offers some combination of these two, and the fourth advises that if you cannot find the courage, do not blame yourself. Rather, choose your next family wisely so as to get the best instruction for the next time you die.
Now consider what I've just said. These very wise men believed that what they read was the essence of human nature. Thus, the order of what they read is significant. That order says that the first and most difficult thing of all is to look consciously into the loving face of God. Can you imagine? Only then do they go on to what is considered less difficult, to look consciously into the terrifying face of God.
Helen, this book very much affected my heart. Even to the point wherein I feel it as we speak. And while I am not a Buddhist, I so respect and agree with what they have written. It is, indeed, more difficult to find the courage to look consciously into the face of love than into the face of disgust and judgment. This, in fact, is what is happening to you right now. You are more focused on the bad things you imagine people will feel than on the loving things they may offer you.
Like all human beings then, you cannot, in fact, even find the courage to consider this love. Yet here it is, right in your face, in this very moment, in my words to you; I am so trying to love you into finding your courage. Still you write saying you fear I will feel disappointed in you.
Helen, I am not. I only pray you will not stop trying to find your courage.
I also would like to ask you something. I would like to ask you if you would consider letting me post our exchanges. Anonymously, of course. Why? Because so many people write to me feeling exactly the same way you do. Probably many more never even find the courage to even write let alone to tell someone face to face. In this, you do have courage and so, your efforts in writing me may help and inspire someone less brave than yourself.
And do not quit. If you do, you make your suffering, and you, meaningless.
However, if you find it in you to even tell one person, a single risk, a single time, then your whole suffering will take on a meaning you could never even imagine. I promise you. I know. You see, my suffering is what gave me a reason to be alive. Part of which is to be writing these very words to you.
Do try telling again. No matter what their reaction, I will be proud of you.
I'm proud of you for writing to me here.
Some time later, Helen again wrote and said ...
Thanks for writing to me again, and I don't mind if you post my e-mails on your site.
I also thought a lot about what you wrote last. I didn't entirely understand all of it though until earlier today, when I told a friend about my problem.
I'm not sure why I told her. I've been planning what I could say to people and thinking about how I could tell someone. But it wasn't like anything I had planned. We were just talking, and she asked me how I was, and I burst into tears. I told her it was just that I was a little stressed but I don't think she believed that I was telling her the whole truth, and eventually, after a lot of stuttering and avoiding the truth, I told her I was bulimic.
I can honestly say it was the most terrifying thing I've ever done in my life. She didn't say anything for a while. She looked a bit shocked. I also thought she was just going to tell me how awful I was and stupid, but she didn't. She just asked me a few questions like how long and why I hadn't told anyone.
I couldn't answer her though. I was too ashamed and embarrassed but also slightly relieved. She tried to encourage me to go to the counselors, but I told her that I couldn't. So she just said that she was there if I needed someone to talk to.
Even though I was sort of relieved at first, I'm getting more and more scared about what she might tell people and if she's still going to be my friend once she's had time to think about it. I'm already thinking of things I could tell her so she'll just forget that I ever said anything.
Telling her was really hard but now I feel like I'm just going backwards. Everything's out of my control now and if she decides to tell anyone else, there's nothing I can do. I don't have any control over what's going to happen.
I know this sounds stupid because I've wanted help for so long. But I don't want anyone to try and stop my binging or being sick, which I know doesn't make much sense. I thought that telling someone would make everything easier but it doesn't and now i'm just so confused.
The next day, I wrote her back and said ...
Start with this; I'm very proud of you. Very proud.
And the fact that what you told all sort of slipped out rather than came out? Don't even question this. We all struggle to tell things we feel ashamed of. And you've been trying to tell for a while now.
As for what you might do next, I'd suggest you begin a journal. Today, if you can. In it, you could put into words your every shameful feeling. And your every fear. What you think people will think of you. Especially if they witnessed you binging and purging. The works if you can.
I'd also suggest you write out an imaginary letter addressed to all those whom you need to tell. Sort of what you would tell them if you had no fear they would stop you. Or judge you. Or leave you.
Know you won't ever send it. You'll just write it to get your words together.
As for your friend and her hesitation, know that when someone loves you and hears you are suffering, almost all people go into shock. Know this is not judgment of you but rather that they feel sympathy. And disbelief. Along with a desire to help you.
As for your telling not making it easier in the end, know that with each telling, the telling becomes easier. Eventually too you'll feel great relief as you realize many of your fears were for naught. People will still love you. And they'll want to help you even more.
Finally, please know, Helen, you are in my prayers. I've helped many folks with bulimic and not one finds it easy. This, in fact, is what makes me say you have courage. Doing things when you're afraid is what courage is.
To me, then, you are a very courageous woman. And I'm sure this will turn out very well in the end. No matter how many times you feel afraid.
You're going to be fine.