For a long time, eating disorders were not something to be open about.
They were dirty secrets scribbled down in diaries and spoken about behind locked doors. They were whispered confessions and neighborhood gossip. They were ugly and hidden from view because they don’t fit into anyone’s ideal life. They were, and often still are, connotated with vanity, selfishness, and pure insanity. It’s not often that eating disorders are pulled out into the light for all to see, and when they are it often feels like the last moments of the demolition of a crumbling building- the feeble release and crash of something that had been falling apart for months, and yet seemed to maintain some sense of dignity when it still stood.
And yet, more and more, I’m seeing our society’s perception of eating disorders evolve into something much more constructive than scandalous gossip or outright judgement. There are marches to raise awareness, support groups, and seminars. There are online awareness campaigns, fundraisers to aid with the costs of rehabilitation, and distribution of information in every corner of the internet. Awareness and informative content is nearly unavoidable, but perhaps the most shocking development to me is the thread of personal connection that is beginning to appear.
People are talking about eating disorders- and more than that, they’re talking about their eating disorders. It’s one thing to discuss the mechanics of mental illness, but another to reveal how they really affect our lives. Men and women, young and old, white and black, are talking about their experiences with anorexia, bulimia, orthorexia, and binge eating, and it is perhaps one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
Two years ago, I never would have dreamed that I’d talk about my disorder the way I do now. Back then, it was a vague heart condition I sometimes mentioned, a missing space of time where I was neither here nor there, a discussion I didn’t want to have. I associated my experience with the shame, regret, and mistrust I felt at the time, and it kept me from not only validating my experience, but talking about it all together. Not only did I believe I would never be able to discuss it for fear of shame or being outcast, but I believed I would never be able to discuss it in the past tense. It felt like an ever-present being in my life, a devil on my shoulder relentlessly whispering in my ear and pulling my strings. Talking about an evil still in your life feels entirely impossible, the same way a boy with a broken leg feels like he will never run again, or a girl who’s lost her voice feels like she’ll never be able to sing the same way again.
This past September, CNN Health wrote a story about my journey with yoga. The headline was Teen Overcomes Anorexia Through Yoga. There was no beating around the bush. It was there, in big bold letters, for the world to see.
When the story was published, most people in my life knew about my struggles. But somehow, I still felt my heart drop a little when I saw the title. I fixated on that one word, that A word that had defined my life for far too long. I have always had a repulsion to the word, a visceral, guttural instinct to recoil away from it like a snake that could strike. My therapist, right after I left the hospital, pointed out to me at one point that I had never said the words “I am anorexic” out loud; when she said that, I realized that I had never said them in my head, either.
But as the support poured in, I realized that that headline, whether or not it was intended simply to grab the reader’s attention, served a greater purpose: it sent the message that anorexia is nothing more shocking, uncontrollable, or contractable than the flu or the cold or chicken pox. It sent the message that it is a disease that can be overcome. It sent the message that just like we don’t hide away illness, we shouldn’t hide away mental illness. It sent the message that it’s okay to talk about it, because it’s not going away until we do.
Keeping eating disorders as society’s dirty secret does nothing for the advancement of treatment, likelihood of sufferers seeking help, or rates of survival.
When I was admitted for anorexia, I was admitted on physical necessity. My doctor notated it as a weak heart, bad vitals. Had she admitted me as “an eating disorder patient”, my treatment would not have been covered by insurance.
That needs to change.
And it can, if this trend of talking about what eating disorders really are continues. They aren’t silly teens on diet bets. They aren’t vain girls wanting to get thin for summer. They are legitimate mental diseases that can, and do, end lives. Anorexia is the mental illness with the highest rate of mortality. It is more than its stigma, far more than that. It’s sleepless nights wrought with anxiety. It’s parents sleeping in hospital chairs. It’s panic attacks over bowls of cereal. It’s organs that shut down, hearts that stop beating, skin that goes waxy and pale.
Talking about the realities of eating disorders is finally beginning, and it amazes me every time someone feels supported enough to be open about their disorder. I had someone just today open up about their struggles with anorexia and body dysmorphia, and how it feels like a battle that will not end. And yet, for every girl that opens up, there’s another girl out there who is still afraid to speak. Afraid to seek help, afraid to heal.
I survived anorexia nervosa. Saying that, to me, is a victory in many ways. It’s admitting the ugly truth that I’ve avoided for so long. I suffered from an eating disorder, but the healing began when I started speaking up. That’s when I took an active role in my recovery.
Speak. Speak if you have struggled, speak if you are struggling, speak if someone you know has struggled. If nothing else, your words can encourage someone else to do the same.
Saying those words, saying that you have an eating disorder, feels like choking on air. But it’s the only way we can begin to change.
Confidential toll-free hotline: 1-800-931-2237