Knowing When Friendships From Treatment No Longer Support Recovery

Having been in outpatient and inpatient settings, both personally and professionally, I have had an unique advantage of seeing the upside and downside of making friends from treatment.  As you venture through your journey of recovery, you will meet many people along the way.  Some will journey alongside you as a professional, while others will have the special role of being co-patients/co-clients. It is the latter community that I will make reference to in this post. 

No one likes to think that certain friendships that were once so helpful have shifted into being unhealthy for recovery. Throw in wounds from past relationships and the idea of having to say, "good-bye" to yet another friend or the need to set up boundaries, can seem unnecessarily painful and risky. So, with this in mind, I broach the subject honestly and compassionately.  As with all my posts, my intention is to raise awareness as well as to add a different perspective for you to ponder. 

It was told to me, and I continue to tell my clients, how we "heal in community".  Absolutely! We are not islands. Likely, over the course of your illness, you have pushed others away to some degree or another.  Maybe it was because of shame, a lack of emotional availability, or it was just easier to engage in ED behaviours when no one was around.  There can be a sense of belonging and comfort when you meet others who know so intimately the struggle you face because they face it too.  It is like you finally met someone who speaks the same language as you.  They understand you and do not look at you like you have two heads. 

Friendships in recovery can also bring a sense of accountability.  When walking beside those who also struggle, one may feel more comfortable in sharing when a slip, relapse or struggle occurs. There is this sense that "we're in this together" as both parties are working towards the same goal. Individuals can rally together in support of one another, making the burden of the fight a little lighter.  

Depending on what type of programming or treatment you are undergoing, you may meet those who are in various stages of recovery. This can be such an invaluable gift. Those who are just starting out in recovery can see the progress and hope of those who have been doing it for longer.  The latter group can also look to the former group to see how far they have come, while at the same time, reinforcing what they have learned by modelling it to others. 

While "healing in community" is necessary, it is crucial to "protect your recovery".  Recovery is full of ups and downs and it is easy to be triggered by someone who has slipped or who is no longer pursuing recovery.  It can be difficult to be working on recovery when supports do not have the same values, behaviours and goals.  It is, also, a slippery slope when confessions turn into jokes/sarcasm revolving around the unhealthy behaviours with no intention for health or change. 

There is also more to life than therapy, recovery, treatment and so on.  It is easy for friendships made in or around treatment to always come back to topics of treatment. It can be refreshing (and in the beginning unfamiliar) to be around those who do not struggle in the same way you do. Topics of conversation are forced to develop on non-therapy related topics.  There is also a chance to learn more about yourself in these contexts as you are doing something new. 

When in treatment, the commonality within the group is the fact you all share in a particular struggle/treatment.  There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but sometimes it is the only commonality shared. The friendship may become strained after awhile if no other healthy aspects of the relationship develop or grow when treatment ends.  You might start to realize your values are very different than those you befriended while in treatment, which lead onto different life paths. 

Issues with food/weight/exercise is about so much more than just food/weight/exercise. There are always underlying issues.  When they do not get addressed, unhealthy coping behaviours will inevitably play into relationships that may not be healthy for either party.  For example, is someone uses rescuing as a coping mechanism for needing to be needed, it is easy for them to fall back into this role when around those who's coping mechanism is being a victim. Ultimately, this keeps both the rescuer and the victim in their respective unhealthy roles.  It can be difficult for individuals to see these behaviours as they can be subtle at times.  It's a fine line when 'helping' turns into 'enabling'.   With eating disorders, there is also a high rate of perfectionism, which can lead to competitiveness between individuals in recovery.  This can serve as a distraction from one's own recovery as there is a tendency to always 'one-up' or compare to the other. 

As with most friendships, there is a coming and a going. Some friendships expands overs years, while some only months. Some friendships end naturally while others may need a more deliberate ending.  There is nothing wrong with having friends from recovery, just like there is nothing wrong with having to protect your recovery, which may mean having to saying good-bye to certain people.  Health and wellness is about so much more than just having a healthy and normalized relationship with food, weight and exercise.  It includes relationships as well (amongst many other factors). A part of healthy relationships is knowing when and how to set boundaries, which will look differently for each friendship.  It is tricky having walked with someone through a very difficult period in their life while at the same time walking through yours.  There is a natural bonding that occurs as such journeys are intimate. Sometimes when these relationships fade, or become unhealthy, it can be natural to question your recovery or their friendship.  Don't forget the helpful role these individuals once played in your life.  How they were a god-send in the beginning of your journey.  Celebrate and be thankful for them, while at the same time knowing there may be time to continue the rest of your journey (or perhaps section) on your own... and there is nothing wrong with that!