Part of this unknowing stems from the fact that, up until a certain age, the main thing you should do to help a roommate suffering from these problems is call his or her parents. And everyone knows from growing up that calling someone’s parents is a big no-no. I remember watching a friend throw up from drinking too much in the 7th grade (she later went to rehab in 9th grade) and thinking, “This was supposed to be a fun sleepover. If I wake up her mom now, then *I’M* going to get in trouble, too.” I think that feeling sticks as we get older in life and have a hard time remembering that our parents are (usually) there to help us, not shame us.
That being said, sometimes that logic isn’t true. Some of us fall into our problems as products of a poor home life or in reaction to our childhoods. When you live with someone you’re not necessarily that close with, and you’re not even sure what that person’s relationship with her parents is like, it can be hard to navigate the best method of helping when she’s struggling.
I think the first thing to do when your roommate has a problem is try to talk to her openly. Don’t surprise her with a scary intervention or call her parents or a guidance counselor (or whomever you deem to be “in charge”). Maybe she just needs someone to talk to. That way you can accurately assess the situation. If you’re watching your roommate refuse to eat for weeks and she tells you that she’s perfectly fine and eating when you’re not around (i.e. lying), then you know you have a bigger problem on your hands. If she breaks down in tears and says she hates starving herself (or binging) but she’s trying to lose weight for spring break, maybe you can try to tackle the problem together and help her find a good therapist to talk to.
There was a time that a girl I knew went so crazy – at the age of 28 – that a mutual friend called her parents, and it was for the best. She needed to be on a medication that she wasn’t taking, and no one could trust her to be alone anymore. After that moment I realized, “Hey, maybe part of growing up and becoming an adult is knowing when to act like a freaking adult!” Calling someone’s parents isn’t “punishing” the person; it’s helping. Just like taking your roommate by the hand and escorting her to a shrink or a university health center is helping. The important thing is knowing when it’s time to stop paying attention and act. When someone is covering up an abusive secret or attempts to overdose on a bottle of chalky Flintstone vitamins (which I had a hard time eating in normal servings as a kid because those things are sooo gross), then it’s time to, as Lilit might say, “stop acting polite, and start getting real.” Don’t forget to be your roommate’s friend, even if her problems are freaking you out.
Email me at roommates AT crushable DOT com to suggest column topics, ask personal advice, or share whatever is on your mind. But don’t be shy in the comments below. Nothing is more entertaining than reading and sharing your own roommate experiences, and we’ve all got a few. Or a thousand.