Hope After Loss: An Interview With Michael Falk
Michael Falk lost his girlfriend Kayla to a long and bravely fought battle with an eating disorder. Now he is telling his story to let others know what he wishes he’d known and to offer hope, help, and powerful ideas for change.
Support Isn’t Just for the Person Struggling
When you care about someone who is dealing with an eating disorder, it is easy to find yourself wrapped up in the struggle. You want to be there, you want to be the source of support. But don’t forget that you need help and information, too. You need to understand the basics of what to say and do to help the person you care about. And you also need to make sure that the eating disorder isn’t isolating you from your own support system.
“Nobody ever really sat down with me and talked about it,” Michael remembers. “When I first became aware that she’d relapsed, we were fairly young in our relationship. And by the later stages of our relationship it was almost like people assumed I knew what to do. I remember I went in with her to her therapist and he said, ‘Don’t be the food police.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ But what I found myself asking later was ‘Well, what DO I do when I notice a change in her eating or a bad habit?’ I might be the only person who sees that and if I’m not supposed to talk to her about it or be that person, what DO I do? People assumed that I would know the answers or be able to figure it out, but nobody ever took the time to sit down with me and talk through this stuff.”
People with eating disorders often cut themselves off from the world of social interaction. Michael sees now that his girlfriend’s illness ended up isolating both of them, which made it harder for him to get relief and live a life that wasn’t dictated by the eating disorder.
“The disease kind of isolated us from everything else. We could never go out and eat with other couples. If we’d go on a double date, it would have to be short and not anything involving meals. There were all these things that really kind of cut us off from friends and life at times. Everything had to be planned and usually alone because having other people around would be stressful. I didn’t really realize it at the time because for me I was just hanging out with my best friend. But now I’m like, ‘Man, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed and how I’d fallen out of touch with people.’”
College Campuses Lack Understanding and Resources
Michael met Kayla when they were college students. Her eating disorder first developed in high school, but the intense pressures of college combined with Kayla’s perfectionism triggered a relapse. Michael found that while their university had good intentions, it was not equipped to help them in the way they needed. There were no specialized support groups on campus and there was no offer for counseling or transportation assistance for off-campus, outpatient services. Instead, the university seemed largely concerned about monitoring Kayla’s treatment in a way that seemed punitive to her and stressful for everyone.
“The school would set all these expectations,” Michael recalls. “Everything was always followed by this threat of, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re going to be kicked out.’ And that was constantly there. Kayla loved school. That was her dream. It was like somebody threatening to take her dream away. I think they were trying to make sure that she had motivation to keep working, but it kind of backfired.”
Unfortunately, Michael and Kayla’s experience is not uncommon. Though eating disorders are rampant on college campuses, NEDA’s collegiate survey found that most schools lack the funding and resources to adequately educate, screen, refer and treat college students who struggle with eating disorders or disordered eating issues. Michael is now working to advocate for better and more effective college outreach and intervention strategies.
Understanding and Advocacy In Place of Self-Blame
“I’ve never really allowed myself to go back and blame myself for what I could have done differently. I’m trying to look at it in a way that I can hopefully help other people,” Michael says. “I had tried to confront her and express my concern and encouraged her to seek help and make changes and she was never honest with me about how sick she was. That was one of the hardest things for me—looking through some of her things and seeing the dishonesty. It was really hard initially. This was a person I’d loved and we’d lived together for a year almost. But I was really dealing with two separate people—the Kayla I loved and her eating disorder.”
Separating Kayla from the illness that changed her personality has helped him to make peace with the sense of betrayal he felt when he learned that she had kept him in the dark about the seriousness of her struggle for the last year of her life. Now he is focusing his energies on remembering the good times he shared with Kayla, raising money and awareness for the causes she cared about and sharing their journey as a way to honor her.
“She was such an incredible person. This doesn’t make sense. She fought all the way to the end. That’s part of why it’s important for me to tell this story. She never gave up. She ended up losing, but she never quit.”
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