Deal discreetly with a bulimic down the hallway

Lily Garcia
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 12:11 PM

I read your column and appreciate the advice you give. Right now, I don't know where else to turn as I have pondered different approaches and none seems appropriate. I work in a secure office building and have worked here for just over two years. There are two offices on our floor and a total of three women who work in the two offices. The three of us are the only women who use the women's restroom. I am sure of this since my office is near the hallway and I can see who enters the restroom from my desk and neither of the offices has many female visitors. Also, one needs a code in order to enter the restroom, so I am quite sure no visitors to the building have access.

Over the last couple years, I have noticed that the restroom smells distinctly of vomit. At first, it was infrequent. In the last year or so, I have noticed the smell more and more often. Now it is happens a few times a week. Some days it is almost impossible to use the restroom without gagging, the smell is so bad. Recently, my coworker brought the subject up to me, asking if I noticed the smell. After some discussions, I know for a fact it's not either of us, which leads to the conclusion that it has to be the woman who works in the office down the hall. The smell is always most apparent at the same time of the day and always after she leaves the restroom and it lingers for hours.

My question is, is there anything we can/should do about this? We have gone from being kind of grossed out to being very worried about her. This isn't a situation where she could be sick because of the frequency. We don't know her well enough where we feel comfortable to approach her with the subject. We also don't want to make assumptions, but we are concerned that she might be bulimic. Any suggestions on how to address this delicate situation would be greatly appreciated.

Bulimia is an eating disorder that, according to information published by the National Institute of Mental Health, afflicts one and one half per cent of adult women in the Unites States. Bulimia is characterized by frequent episodes of binge eating followed by purging through vomiting or diuretic or laxative abuse. The illness can lead to a host of serious health conditions, including gastrointestinal problems. Bulimia is typically accompanied by anxiety or depression and it can usually be treated through a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Your hall mate might be bulimic, she might have another illness that causes vomiting, or she might be taking medication or undergoing treatments that make her severely nauseated at certain times of day. In any case, your concern appears to be well-founded. The question is: What should you do?

If you and your hall mate work for the same employer, you should consider sharing your observations with the human resources department. Especially if your hall mate's condition has been affecting her performance, HR could initiate a dialogue about how to help her to surpass the professional impact of her health problems. She might even have access to free counseling services offered through the organization's Employee Assistance Plan.

Because you do not have a relationship of trust with your hall mate, I cannot imagine that she would be receptive to an overture directly from you regarding her health. Think of how you would feel if you were in her position: A virtual stranger who has never had a serious conversation with you is suddenly at your door eager to discuss the most private of personal issues. Although I do not doubt that your concern is genuine, you should not expect your hall mate to see it that way. She might become defensive, she might become angry, or she might act like she has no idea what you are talking about.

If you, yourself, are a recovering bulimic, then you might be able to mitigate some of the awkwardness of the encounter by leading with disclosure of your own experience. You could apologize for the intrusion, allow that the vomiting might be due to a different health condition, and offer yourself as a potential source of support or guidance. Yet, even then, you should be prepared for an icy response.

If you cannot bear the thought of saying nothing, then you could try a more oblique approach. Although you have become convinced for good reason that your hall mate is the culprit, feign for a moment that the mystery of the vomiting remains unsolved. Ask your hall mate whether she has noticed the vomiting and tell her that you worry that someone who is using the women's restroom could be bulimic or otherwise seriously ill. I doubt that this will cause her to own up to any problems, but you will at least put her on notice that the behavior has become obvious. If she is bulimic, this could lead her to reflect on what she is doing and take her a step closer to seeking treatment. Then again, it could just embarrass her into finding a different venue for her purging. And if your hall mate is vomiting due to some other health condition, then letting her know your concerns will probably only lead her to be more discreet.

Although your impulse help your hall mate is noble, your ability to effect any good is unfortunately limited by the superficial nature of your relationship. The best that you could do would simply be to leave materials regarding bulimia and its treatment on the counter in the women's restroom. In this way, you will avoid making your hall mate feel singled out while still letting her know that the purging has been noticed and that someone cares enough to provide information. If she is, in fact, bulimic and ready to confront her issues, she might appreciate the gesture. If not, she can throw the pamphlets away.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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