Space Relations: When To Help a Roommate With an Eating Disorder

I was talking to a friend about this column recently and she asked me if I’d considered doing a column on what to do when your roommate has a serious problem, like an eating disorder. She went on to write about her roommate experience in an email, saying this:

In college, I was assigned a roommate named “Michelle.” Michelle was shy, still dating her hometown boyfriend long-distance, and didn’t go out a lot. She was also batshit crazy. Being messy is one thing, but Michelle left dirty underwear on the floor, sometimes with used pads still attached. She also had an eating disorder. She had a permanent cold because her immune system was shot. I convinced her to start taking vitamins and the only ones she would take were Flintstones.

About halfway through the year she lost it. She found out her boyfriend was cheating on her with someone back home, and she went nuts. One night I came home to find Michelle puking gray fuzzy vomit everywhere. She had tried to kill herself by eating the whole bottle of Flintstone vitamins, and all that had happened was she barfed it back up. After that, Michelle’s parents finally realized that she needed help, and I got my own room for the rest of the year.

Obvious advantages of getting the room to herself aside, this is a version (granted, a somewhat odd version) of a story that I’ve heard many times before. And it doesn’t just happen in college. I have another friend whose roommate in her mid-20s suffered from severe anorexia and whose ritualistic habit of only “eating” a single, giant bowl of the same salad every day resulted in near-fatal weight loss. Eventually she went to a doctor who told her that if she didn’t get help immediately, the chances of her dying were very high. My friend encouraged her to move home with her parents, which she did, but the sickly smell of salad-y death lingered in her former bedroom for weeks.

I think one of the biggest problems with having a roommate who’s suffering from a mental or physical problem (oftentimes the two go hand-in-hand, from what I’ve gathered) is knowing how to help the person without overstepping your bounds. You KNOW that your roommate is supposed to do her dishes, help maintain a clean house and not have loud sex in the wee hours of the morning while doing his or her laundry. These things are understood. But what may not be understood is how to know when you’re “interfering” with a roommate’s problem – be it drugs, depression, an eating disorder – not to mention when their problem is actually interfering with you and your home life. If a roommate has an unabashed drinking problem that involves loud partying and hazardous, drunken interactions with breakables, you might feel comfortable casually mentioning that she’s been “wasted for nine days straight!”. But if the problem is more of a secret, like an eating disorder she wants no one to know about, when is it OK to step in and say, “You’re hurting yourself and I can’t watch it happen anymore.”?

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