Using Your Voice: Telling Someone You Have an Eating Disorder
For most of us in recovery from an eating disorder (ED), coming to terms with our diagnosis, treatment plan, and day-to-day self-care are overwhelming enough. If we find ourselves in a position where we need (or want) to share our struggles with someone else, the task of communicating can be daunting. In this article I’ll include some things you might want to consider when talking about your eating disorder. I’ll also add some concrete thoughts on how you can effectively communicate your struggle to others.
Preparing to Talk
1. Piece together your motivation.At the onset, it makes sense to decide your reasons for talking about the ED before the conversation takes place. From a medical standpoint, few would argue that a person’s health history is anyone else’s business, so certainly you have the right to privacy. However, if you know your health is in serious danger or if the ED is causing you to withdraw, spend some time journaling or in therapy to decide how to approach the subject. Are you protecting your privacy from an employer? Are you hiding something integral from your partner? Invest some energy into trying to better understand your motivation and the conversation will be easier and better informed.
2. Consider who your audience is.Obviously you would approach breaking such serious news to your parents much differently than you would to a professor or a casual friend. Take into account your relationship with the person and approach the person within the framework that you both normally operate. So if you and a high school friend enjoy hanging out after school, a good idea might be to choose a time where the setting is just as relaxed, yet you both are alone and can really have a conversation about this very serious subject matter.
If you’re in a situation of needing to tell your boss, perhaps giving her or him some basic literature about EDs would be a professional, yet useful, way to convey what you’re going through. In academic settings, utilize school and university resources that are already in place to help direct your educators toward solid information. Does the school have a student group devoted to body image and eating concerns? Is there a counseling center or health services that could provide assistance?
3. Be prepared for any reaction. Often learning that a loved one is suffering from an ED can make a person feel anything from helpless to compassionate. Bear in mind that others may be in a very different emotional place about eating disorders than you are and, specifically, about your being ill. One thing that has been helpful for me to remember is that how the other person reacts to the news is not my problem. Of course, I want to be sensitive to how difficult this news can be to hear. But I know that part of my recovery is realizing that I cannot “fix” others’ issues and that they need to do their own psychological work and healing.
Once you have told someone you have an ED, your relationship with that person may change dramatically. He or she may not be able to spend time with you any more without focusing on the fact that you have an illness. Or, you may find that the other person refuses to believe you are sick since you may “appear” well. But most people want to help and will be supportive in getting you the treatment you need. I have also encountered family members who seemed to have no reaction to my illness and this, too, can be incredibly painful to come to terms with. It is important to bring your feelings about whatever reactions you get into your treatment and work through them in that safe space.
It’s normal to feel a range of emotions after divulging such personal information. Try to stay focused on keeping your recovery-promoting behaviors in place and on taking good care of yourself. Remind yourself that you have the right to the support and understanding of those close to you and, naturally, you’ll have to let people inside your experience with the ED in order to get that help. None of us can heal alone, nor can any of us stay well in secrecy and isolation. Deciding to tell another person that you are sick may be a complicated undertaking, but be aware that there is no shame in having an eating disorder.
One of the things I think we internalize about our own eating disorders is the notion that we are somehow responsible for the illness and could, voluntarily, be well as easily as we became unwell. There is no more truth to this thinking than there is in saying someone with leukemia caused her illness. When you use your voice to put your face and life story to the mystery of what an eating disorder is, you help chip away at the stigma that still haunts everyone suffering from a mental illness.
You are not alone in your struggle to regain balance in your life, and when you start to tell others your story on your own terms, you make more meaningful connections to people who will bolster you in your recovery. Of course not everyone who knows about your ED will be supportive, but some will “get it.” Use those people for support and find good company. When you reach out you take away one of your ED’s most powerful holds on you—the breeding ground of silence. Your eating disorder cannot thrive when you are connected to other people in honesty about the most basic truths of your life.
Take comfort in knowing that though it is difficult to tell someone else about your pain, our secrets almost always lose some of their grip when we can free ourselves of being alone with them.
By Robyn L. Hunter
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Fall 2006 Volume 4, Number 4
©2006 Gürze Books
About the Author
Robyn L. Hunter, 33, is in active recovery from a 20-year battle with anorexia. She lives in Boston, MA, with her college sweetheart and husband and their one-year-old daughter. She writes widely on the topic of eating disorders and psychological health.