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My co-worker is getting scarily thin

From Friday's Globe and Mail

THE QUESTION

A woman where I work is getting too thin. Scary thin. A couple of people have approached her to broach the topic, but she just bristles and pretends not to know what they're talking about. But it's obvious to everyone that this is not just a matter of "slimming down" or whatever. Now a few of us are thinking of getting together for an intervention. Are we, as you suggested to someone else in another column, being "busybodies" or should we go through with this? Or is there another approach to take?

THE ANSWER

I'm not a big fan of interventions.

Interventions, in my view, are one of the truly dumb inventions of the 20th century, along with the Segway, the atomic bomb, "reality" television and edible underwear.

Someone's struggling, having a hard time, maybe has a monkey on his or her back. And your response is to say: "We've all been talking about you and your problems for quite some time, and now we've decided to throw you this horrible little surprise party to confront you about them."

And what if you're wrong? Wouldn't that be a delightful little scene?

Now, every once in a while, I get a question that falls outside the comfort zone of my skill set - and this is one of those.

So I've taken the liberty of enlisting a couple of specialists to assist me in my answer.

Sera De Rubeis of the National Eating Disorder Information Centre in Toronto agrees an intervention is not the way to go.

"It can be very threatening for the individual with an eating disorder," she says.

Lauren Goldhamer, an eating disorder specialist at Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, adds that if the person in your office isn't ready to hear it, an intervention may have the effect of causing her to curl up into a metaphorical ball and attempt to "protect" her behaviour.

Both agree the best approach is to nominate one person to take the person you're worried about aside and talk to her on the q.t.

But before saying anything, the person you've chosen should read up about eating disorders. That way, he or she will not come across as, in Ms. De Rubeis's words, "preaching from nowhere."

One of the most common misconceptions, she says, is that a person with an eating disorder can shrug it off, decide to eat again, have a couple of cheeseburgers and a milkshake and get back to normal.

But it's much more complicated than that. There may be root causes you can't begin to guess at - self-esteem issues, family problems and the like.

The best approach, Ms. De Rubeis says, is to start with a little generalized chit-chat then segue into something general such as: "Is everything okay? How are you doing?"

If you get a favourable response, follow with something to the effect of: "I'm worried about your health. ..."

Bear in mind, says Patricia Kelly, co-founder of the New Realities Eating Disorder Recovery Centre in Toronto, that it may not be an eating disorder at all.

"There are a number of reasons for a sudden weight loss," she says. Cancer, for example, or another serious illness.

Even if you're right, "denial is a big part of anorexia," she says. Your approach may be met with a rebuff and a fusillade of indignant lies.

If that happens, back off of your "scary thin" colleague. Try to leave her with the thought: "If you ever do want to talk, I'm available."

If you are green-lit for a heart-to-heart, proceed carefully and, above all, non-judgmentally. Try to convey, in the words of Ms. De Rubeis, that: "It's not good but it's okay." If she seems receptive, you could even gently try to nudge her in the direction of a clinic or a trained professional.

It also helps, all of the above-quoted agree, to take a look at your work environment. Do people talk a lot about food and what they eat? In particular, does this person's weight and or eating habits come under scrutiny? That can be a trigger, and if that's the case, you and your colleagues should try to find a way to dial it back.

No one I consulted thinks you're being a busybody for being concerned. Sometimes family or friends are contributing to the problem, and the person's best chance for recovery may be a supportive work environment.

The good news, Ms. Goldhamer says, is that though "it can be a devastating disease," the vast majority of people with eating disorders find their way to recovery sooner or later.

So even if you're rebuffed at first, you may have planted the seed that will help lead the person to recovery. And if you can be part of that process, I don't think that's a bad idea at all.

Just proceed with caution, discretion, and compassion - as always, right?

David Eddie is a screenwriter and the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad.

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