This post is in response to a question one of my lovely readers had regarding “how to come out” about your eating disorder, specifically with terms of seeking help.
I’m sure most of you already know this:
A. Most people do not view an eating disorder as a complex and serious mental illness
B. Many people who do perceive it that way may not realize how complicated “recovery” looks like.
C. Many people still cling onto the ideas that, in order to have an eating disorder, one must emaciated and skeletal.
D. Many people are misinformed about addictions and mental illness in general.
So, you’ve decided it’s time to seek some help. You’re going to bite the bullet and start therapy, attend support groups, or work some kind of recovery program. That’s already insanely risky and terrifying at the same time. Good for you for being brave! Magic happens at the end of your comfort zone! You’ve admitted to having some kind of problem, and what’s better is that you are contemplating ways towards healing. What an incredible first step you are taking.
Here’s how it went for me: Nobody knew I had an eating disorder, except the people I chose to tell. Nobody knew I was in “recovery,” except the people I chose to tell. I remained relatively secretive. It was easier that way. After all, I knew the eating disorder stereotypes, myths, and ignorance. Besides, my own shame prevented me from wanting to talk about it AT ALL. The reader who asked me this question is considering attending OA meetings for her first time. I started going a year ago and went rather diligently for six months before deciding the program was not suitable for me. At first, I didn’t tell a soul other than my therapist. I was ashamed to be there and humiliated that I needed support from an organization as horribly-named as Overeaters Anonymous. I hated it, to be honest, but I planted my butt in the seat. Rarely talked or contributed much. Came in on time, left exactly on time. Read some of the literature. Finally found a sponsor after a few months. Did three of the steps. Eventually, I started telling some people that I was going to a “support group for eating disorders.” That was all I disclosed, because it was all I felt comfortable saying. I didn’t beat myself up. For some of us, including myself, it’s not always easy or even accepted to talk about mental health in certain circles of loved ones. I knew some people would judge or ridicule me, so I avoided telling them.
Once you share that you have or had an eating disorder, the dynamic invariably changes. In other words, proceed with caution. The other person may not know how to react. He or she may entirely dismiss your experience or entirely overreact to it. This is normal. However, hard as it may seem right now, THEIR REACTION is ultimately NOT YOUR PROBLEM. Your problem is taking care of yourself, and that’s what you need to focus on. Thus, it’s critical that you choose to tell the people who will AID you in taking care of yourself, rather than telling the people who will HINDER you.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a safe space to essentially vent. It’s morphed into a creative outlet chock-full of experience and insight and learned lessons. I didn’t have anyone to “tell” at first. I had a therapist, but I kept her at a distance. I had parents, but they didn’t really understand, and they assumed that by going to therapy, I was getting better…they never brought up recovery or my eating disorder whatsoever. I held it all within. Eventually, through recovery, however, something amazing happened. I started seeing my friends differently: rather than as people I needed to take care of, I realized I could ALSO lean on them. In fact, through recovery, I learned how to be honest about my eating disorder to people I had known for years (people who had NO idea!) I finally felt empowered to do that. My current boyfriend knew from day one, and that’s something I NEVER thought I could share at the beginning of an intimate relationship.
It takes time. That process cannot be rushed.
So, what’s my “advice?”
Be organic. Tell the people who need to know, if anyone does need to know. Rather than forcing yourself to disclose about one of your deepest struggles, look at it as a discussion these people must EARN. Look at it as if anyone would be HONORED to hear your story. And, if you are in a support group or therapy, I urge you to TALK ABOUT IT in that safe space. Express how difficult it is for you tell people. Express the fears, concerns, ignorance you may face. You will find that you are not alone, and you will also learn what has worked for others in similar situations. You don’t owe your recovery to anyone but yourself. You’re doing this for YOU. If people ask where you are going, you can be as vague or as specific as you feel comfortable. Like I said, for a long time, I didn’t tell anyone I was going to meetings. I did tell people I was going to therapy (only because everyone knew I was training to be a therapist, so it was acceptable), but I absolutely understand that stigmatization exists. With time, I started growing more comfortable. Once I felt I had more recovery under my belt, I felt more inspired and even WANTED to talk about my eating disorder. In fact, last year, I even posted a Facebook status in honor of NEDA week for the world to see, something I never would have done in the past.
Today, essentially all the important people in my life know.
You don’t have to go into extensive detail if you do not feel ready. You can tell people you’re doing this because you struggle from time to time, because you’re seeking support, because you just need a place to talk…because, ultimately, each and every one us needs that. Please remember that your recovery is on your terms.
Ask yourself: What can I do now to strengthen my recovery today?
If the answer is to tell someone you may have been “hiding” it from, then you know what to do.
Be patient with yourself. Trust the process. And, as the Big Book would say, it’s CRITICAL to just live life on life’s terms.