DEAR KELLY: My sister’s boyfriend recently messaged me and asked if we could meet at Starbucks because he had something to talk to me about, but he didn’t want me to tell my sister.
He told me that my sister admitted to him that she throws up three or four times every day and is obsessed with her weight. He said that he tried to help her for the last three months and he thinks it’s getting worse.
He said that even a few weeks ago when they went to a dance at school, she threw up after they went to dinner with their friends before the dance. When he got mad, they got in a huge fight at the dance and he said it was pretty bad.
He found out that a few of her friends know and they’ve been trying to help her, but she still continues to do it. He said she promised that night not to do it again, but he found out this week she was still doing it.
He had told her to always call him when she wanted to throw up and he would talk to her and make her think straight. But according to him, she does it so much every day, even during school, so he can’t always talk to her when she needs him.
He’s afraid that if he tells my parents she’s going to be so mad and break up with him for breaking her trust. He told me so I can tell my parents and it won’t be him who she’s mad at. But now I think it will be me.
I don’t understand why my sister is doing this to herself. She’s smart, pretty, skinny and everyone loves her. She’s got all kinds of friends and no one would ever call her fat or even chubby. I just don’t understand any of it.
Do I talk try to help my sister stop making herself throw up before I tell my parents? I’m afraid if she knows I know and then I tell my parents, she will be angry with me and blame me for telling on her.
I’m so confused, and somehow I think I’m going be the bad guy in this whole thing, for telling or for not telling. I love my sister and I don’t know what to do. Do you have any advice for me?
– Scared in Sac
DEAR SCARED: Finding out that someone you love is hurting herself can cause an overwhelming mix of emotions. Perhaps you are shocked, angry, confused or even sad to learn that she is struggling so much.
Our first reaction is to want to help someone, especially someone we love, stop the behavior. So we try to talk to them, reason with them and make them realize what they are doing is not healthy.
Unfortunately, that is not always the best reaction and can backfire on us if the person is not open or willing to talk about what is happening.
Since some of your sister’s friends know what is happening, your best bet is to go talk with your parents immediately. Tell them what is happening and ask them to keep it in confidence that you are the one who told.
They can say that either one of her friends came to them or a friend’s parent to share with them what was happening because they were concerned for your sister.
Once your parents talk with your sister, they need to get her into counseling so she can talk with a professional about what has been happening. After bulimia becomes a pattern, it is very hard to return to normal eating without help.
Since your sister has been doing this for a while, she also needs to see your family doctor as well to make sure her heart is OK and her electrolytes are in balance.
Other health concerns might be to make sure she’s not dehydrated or that there are no problems with her esophagus from all the vomiting.
Your sister sounds like she has a lot of good things in her life, but for some reason she is focusing on her weight and using very unhealthy means to control it.
A lot of people who have bulimia struggle with either depression or anxiety, and the counseling can help get to the root of what is really happening with her.
Eating disorders aren’t really about food or weight. They are attempts to deal with emotional and stress-related issues.
You can’t force a person with an eating disorder to change, but you can offer support and encourage treatment. And that can make a huge difference.
Go talk with your parents as soon as possible. Show them this column if you need to. This is not a secret you want to keep and not something you should try to handle on your own.
Let your sister’s boyfriend know that your parents are going to talk with her but not mention either of your names. Assure him that your sister will not know who told her parents what was happening.
The best way to help your sister is to support her as she works through this very painful part of her life. Don’t judge her or criticize her choices, but rather show her unconditional love and encouragement to get better, even if she experiences set backs.
You are not the bad guy in this. You are the caring sister who loves her family enough to reach out to get help when it is needed. Stand strong in what you need to do. Know in your heart that you are doing the right thing for your sister.
Treating an eating disorder takes time and patience. The sooner your sister gets help, the sooner she can start to recover and learn to love herself.
Kelly Richardson, a Folsom therapist, works with adolescents.