The Hill Life: Should you help a stranger?

Mar 14, 2012


I have a question that is sensitive and may be one too uncomfortable to answer on your blog, but at the same time I think it is a crucial issue.

Every couple weeks, I end up in the bathroom at the same time as another woman who is purging. Because of the time of day and frequency of this occurrence, I can only assume she is bulimic. I have an idea of who she is but I’ve only seen the back of her head. I refuse to leave the stall until she has left the bathroom, which has allowed me to avoid her face. Every time I feel so compelled to confront her and ask if she is ok. At the same time, I don’t feel it is my place. Do you have any advice in this situation? Is it my duty as one woman to another to check on her? Or as a stranger, should I remain a stranger?

Sincerely, Anonymous

When I first read this email, it stopped me in my tracks.  There is such a fine line between trying to care for a stranger in the name of sisterhood/humanity, and letting people have their privacy.

Several years ago, I read an article about a woman who was struggling with bulimia.  Every day she would walk down four flights of stairs to a public bathroom, on another floor of her office building, to purge.  

Then, one afternoon, she walked into the stall and saw a piece of paper taped to the inside of the door.  It said, “You are more beautiful than you know, and stronger than you can imagine. I hear you purging in here every day, and I want you to know that I care about you even though we have never met.” Below the message was a phone number for an eating disorder help line. 

I don’t know if this will work, or how the girl will react, but I think it’s worth a shot.  

If you know someone who you suspect has a problem, don’t let your fear of being intrusive stop you from trying to help her or him. That nagging feeling in your gut is your conscience telling you that the right thing to do is to get involved.  If you are in a position where you can talk to the person face-to-face, take them somewhere private and say, “I’ve noticed that (describe whatever behavior is scaring you).  I care about you, and I’m concerned.  Is there something going on with you that you need to talk about?”

Maybe they’ll open up to you, maybe they won’t.  But that is their choice, so be prepared to step back if necessary.

Working on the Hill, you get very close to your colleagues.  If you’ve worked in an office for any decent period of time, you’ll know more about your co-workers than you ever thought possible.  If you learn something that concerns you (eating disorders, substance abuse problems, you suspect someone is being physically abused, etc.), in my opinion, you should try to help him or her.  And if the issue begins to impact their work or your Boss, you may need to take it up the chain to a higher authority, but that is a last resort.

It’s completely normal to be concerned.  Too often, we let our fear of the intangible get in the way of helping others.  This girl might have a problem, and it’s noble of you to want to get involved. She may not react the way you want.  So it’s a risk. But I think it’s one worth taking.  

Leave your thoughts in the comments, I’m by no means an expert here. I’m just telling Anonymous what I would tell anyone who asked me what to do.  

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  1. Elyssa says:

    While I think your concern for this woman is coming from the right place, I wouldn't make any hard core assumptions. There are a number of health reasons this woman could be vomiting, not just an eating disorder. First off she could be pregnant and in the first term (therefore she might not be showing yet). Morning sickness doesn't always occur in the morning!

    She could have another digestion issue. She could be on chemo or some other type of intense medication. I'm just saying you don't know. So if you want to talk to the woman, I think your approach shouldn't be so accusatory.

    I actually like the idea of the note. Some might say this is the wimps way out, but you don't know this person personally. She doesn't work in your direct office. So this might be the best way to go about it. If she does in fact have an eating disorder it might jolt her so much that she gets help. If she is just pregnant she might ignore it (not thinking it's for her) or respond in another way (another note perhaps).

  2. Belle says:

    Elyssa-Those are good points. I think, if someone expressed concern that I might have an eating disorder and it was another health problem, I don't think I'd be insulted or anything. I'd just correct their misimpression and thank them for their concern. But there is no doubt that people will have different reactions, which is why I thought the note was a good idea.

    You're right that it would certainly be a different situation if she knew the person.

  3. Terri says:

    I have regularly employed the use of the note. Especially since an act of concern for a high school student who was purging regularly every afternoon (right after lunch) became so prevelent. The result was a huge scene by the student which she carried to her friend group in front of a teacher and then a conference with administration, the parents and student where I was told to mind my own business. The thing that shocked me the most was the parent's attitude because afterall…thin is in and their daughter would not do such a thing. Stupid parents! The notes help keep me anonymous, the student non-defensive while increasing awareness and showing concern.

  4. Erin says:

    I think it's much better to be direct instead of leaving an anonymous note. Since you've never seen her face, presumably she hasn't seen yours either and won't know that you've noticed her before. Next time you overhear her puking, wait until she's finished and then say something like, “Are you alright? Can I get you a glass of water or anything else?” and try to make small talk with her. When you overhear her again, make small talk again, and keep it up until you've become friendly with her. If she does have an eating disorder, what she really needs is friends and support, not anonymous notes that she can easily ignore and that would probably push her into hiding her behavior even more.

    Having said that, I'm not sure you should jump to the conclusion it's bulimia. Lots of other things can cause this. Some pregnant women are sick daily through the second trimester. If she's not bulimic, leaving a note would just seem super judgy and probably offend her.

  5. Heatherskib says:

    I agree about the note being a good nonconfrontational way to attend to the issue. If the situation doesn't apply to her (Medication, pregnancy etccausing her to be nauseated instead) she may just choose to assume it's for some one else. Personally I think that the note is a wonderful message to put in all school bathrooms for girls to see.
    Personally I'd be touched by your concern and recently had people thinking I was bulimic ( Adjustment period for my Metformin had me throwing up several times a day and I was on weight watchers) I thanked them for their concern and explained I was sick due to medication. Pregnancy issues however might be more touchy.

  6. Tricia says:

    I think the note is a kind and sensitive way to express concern and if the person doesn't have an eating disorder they will assume the note was intended for someone else. My daughter has an eating disorder and I wish that people would leave messages like this for her. It is a difficult addiction to deal with. Thank you for your sensitivity.

  7. ES says:

    I think a note is a great idea. Eating disorders tend to involve a very high level of denial and so people who suffer from bulimia typically don't react well to anyone telling them they might have an eating disorder, let alone a total stranger. A direct confrontation in the bathroom would allow her to simply storm off and stop using that restroom, closing off all potential windows of communication for the future. A note might not work immediately, but could plant a seed that causes her to get help eventually. And a trained responder from an eating disorders help line will probably help her more than you ever could. You're right to do something to intervene–people with eating disorders often don't want to listen to what their friends and family have to say about their illness and may need to hear the message many times before they'll get help. A stranger's kind words in this situation could literally save someone's life.

  8. jen says:

    I think a note is the way to go.

    Keep in mind, if you do decide that you want to talk to this person face to face you need to be prepared to be ok with keeping the explanation confidential. A pregnant friend was “outed” much earlier than she was prepared to tell her boss by someone being helpful like this in the office. They thought the answer was good news and, therefore, immediately turned the story into water cooler chit chat.

  9. S says:

    As someone who used to purge, I can't imagine ever doing that in a crowded bathroom where other people can hear. My experiences might be different from others, but to me that seems like a cry for help.

    I personally would've been incredibly freaked out by the note, but ultimately would've decided to continue purging in a different bathroom. I think trying to start a conversation, just asking if she's okay even, might be better. She probably doesn't want to talk about it, but at least it'll remind her that she has a problem and that others are concerned about her well being.

  10. grlnextdoor says:

    Thanks for everyone's comments. As the person who submitted the question, I know the woman isn't pregnant due to the length of which it has gone on, but she could have other medical issues I'm completely unaware of. I'm very thankful for everyone's feedback, and especially to Belle for addressing such a sensitive, yet important, topic.

  11. Anne says:

    I totally agree with S about the cry for help– if the purger were trying to hide the fact that she's throwing up, she'd switch bathrooms. There are PLENTY to choose from, here on the Hill. You wouldn't have to be noticed. She needs help and she's (subconsciously) reaching out it.

    And girlnextdoor just clarified that the woman isn't pregnant, but as a pregnant person, if this had happened to me in my first trimester, I might have been flattered that someone noticed and was concerned, or humiliated (hey, you're sick in a bathroom), or anything in between, but I can't imagine faulting someone for taking an interest in me, a stranger. Pregnant women are people, not explosives, though we're often treated as such. Don't assume she'll be emotional or hormonal, and if she snaps at you, shrug it off like you would shrug it off with anyone else. I would think the same would be true for other medical issues. Sometimes being treated like a “normal person” is exactly what people want/need, so proceed with genuine concern and sensitivity, and be prepared to back off if you were wrong.

  12. Anon says:

    I agree with leaving the note. I have a medical issue that sometimes results in me throwing up, often at restaurants, and I am always mortified that the woman in the next stall is feeling bad for me and my eating disorder.

  13. gingerr says:

    I threw up on the Red line not long ago. The car was kind of warm and my tummy was iffy, the next thing I knew I was standing by the door getting off at the next stop so I wouldn't upchuck in the car. Luckily I had a newspaper with me. Some of us throw up more easily than others.

    I think a concerned, “are you alright” outside the door of the stall, or the note is worth doing. Once is enough. You don't want to make the gals life harder than it already is but it's decent to offer a friendly gesture.

  14. A says:

    As one who throws up frequently, because of a health problem, not bulimia, I would tread lightly on this one. On one had, she may be, and need help, but on another, she may not, and it can be irritating for people to jump to conclusions or not believe you. I frequently think people must think I'm bulimic, heck, I could be this girl. There is no right or wrong answer, just be opened minded that there are a dozens and dozens of reasons why she could be throwing up.

  15. Nicole says:

    Do any of you have suggestions on approaching a friend with an eating disorder?

  16. LE says:

    I think the note referenced above or a concerned “Are you alright?” are a good idea in this situation. It sounds like you're coming from a place of concern and caring, which can really help in a sensitive situation like this. If the woman is suffering from bulimia nervosa, it may help her – maybe not right at the moment of reading the note or being confronted, but hopefully later. My sister has struggled with bulimia nervosa and because this is such a sensitive topic she could be very emotional and defensive when concerns were expressed. If it were my sister, I would want someone to do anything to try to help her or reach out to her. On the other hand, if it is a medical problem maybe the person would appreciate being able to clarify that.

    As for approaching a friend with an eating disorder, I would suggest talking to her in a private and safe environment. I think it's important that what you say does not come across as judgment or criticism. I also know that my sister absolutely hated people saying anything to her about how skinny she was or how beautiful she looked. Because she had such intense feelings of hating her body, hearing people say she was so skinny was almost like torture. Best of luck in both of these situations.

  17. kourtney says:

    Hey there! I just found this article after extensive searching for “what to do when you hear a stranger purging/ that might be bulimic.” This was the only article I found concerning this topic and it was exactly what I needed to hear. I’m at school, and was in the bathroom after lunch alone with another girl. To hear the sounds of her hands in her mouth and forced purging instantly broke my heart. I sat there the whole time until she was done, panicking over what to do. I wanted to say something or ask if she was alright, but I didn’t want to be intrusive as I probably don’t know her. I’m not too sure that the note would work in my case, considering I go to a big school with many bathrooms and people constantly vandalizing them. This was also my first time being in that place at that time, so i’m not sure if it’s a regular occurrence. This article, along with other comments, has helped me understand my options in this scenario. I didn’t listen to that gut instinct feeling telling me to speak up and try to support her, and I immediately regretted it. My heart is hurting for this person, and I truly hope that what I heard wasn’t what I thought it to be. However, I wight make an effort to end up in the same place at the same time again. If this person is suffering from an eating disorder, I can’t let myself sit back and not at least try to offer some help, comfort, or advice.

    Thank you for your input and suggestions!

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