Since this year’s NEDAwareness theme is “It’s time to talk about it,” we thought we would address a question we’ve both heard from other people and puzzled over ourselves:
When is the right time to tell people you have an eating disorder?
The short answer? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no “right time.”
Laura and I took different approaches to telling people we have an eating disorder. We did so at our own pace, in our own time, when we were comfortable with people knowing. I started one by one – Laura. One best friend, then another. My mom. My brother. My dad. My manager, when I came back from medical leave (which was terrifying.) Then progressed to small groups of people – a group of close friends from college. Other family members. A few of my co-workers who I grew close to. Until, eventually – well, everyone. Friends and strangers alike.
As we’ve spoken about before, the inception of this blog was at least a year before we finally bit the bullet and bought a domain, and another half a year before we finally launched. Knowing our stories were out there – that pretty much anyone with our names and a computer with which to access google would be able to find us, on this blog – was terrifying. In a way, it still is.
Telling people you have an eating disorder is never going to be easy. There’s a stigma surrounding eating disorders that makes us want to keep it to ourselves – to keep it hidden, away from the light where everyone can see. It’s awkward, and uncomfortable, and there will always be that little voice in your head telling you to be ashamed, that they’re judging you.
There are still days when my closest friends – the ones who knew first, who I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, would support me, even if my eating disorder told me they would hate me – will ask me how I’m doing, and if I’ve had a rough day, I’ll have to fight back the urge to say “I’m fine,” and tell the truth. The words literally feel like they’re being yanked out of me, like I’m playing a game of tug-of-war with my eating disorder, who keeps telling me to shut up, they don’t want to know, you’re just a burden, they have their own problems. Eventually, you get better at silencing that voice and telling it to jump off a pier (and the response you get is “You first.”)
Having an eating disorder is exhausting.
Putting all of this into words is often complicated. I can sit in a room with Laura and we’ll talk about our days and all we have to say is “It was a rough eating day,” and know exactly what the other means.
Say that to someone who hasn’t had an eating disorder, and they’ll probably assume you ate fast food for lunch, or you “fell off the diet wagon.”
Telling them, “No, I ate lunch,” will make them look at you like you’re from outer space. You ate lunch? And that was hard?
If this is what you’re thinking, I’m assuming you’re here because someone you love has an eating disorder and you’d like to be educated. So I’d like you, for a moment, to imagine a voice screaming in your ear while you’re eating – the entire time to EAT, EAT, EAT, even after you’re full. Reminding you of the exact caloric value of every bite you put in your mouth, screaming that you’re going to get fat. And when I say screaming, I mean screaming from the housetops. With an airhorn. At full blast.
The correct response to someone telling you they have an eating disorder is not, “Are you sure you don’t just need to go on a diet?” It’s not, “You just need more willpower.” It’s not, “Just eat.” It’s having a sympathetic ear. Letting us rant to you when we’re having a bad day, even if you don’t necessarily understand why. Letting it go when you ask us to explain the hows and the whys of what we’re feeling and we can’t manage to find the words – either because we’re too ashamed, or because we just don’t know how to explain.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you have an eating disorder – tell someone. Please. Telling someone you have an eating disorder is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. We understand the instinct to keep this to yourself, but recovery is long and hard and messy and you can’t go through it alone.
This isn’t to say you need to tell everyone right away – your cousin’s sister’s boyfriend doesn’t really need to know (unless you happen to be close with your cousin’s sister’s – you get the idea.) If there’s someone in your life who’s toxic, or who you know won’t react well and will make you feel worse, by all means, do not tell them. Be selective, at least at the start. Tell one person. Tell the world. Tell whoever you’re comfortable with knowing. Everyone needs someone to lean on, especially when you’re in such a vulnerable space.
So, tell someone. Start with the person you trust the most. Tell your best friend. Tell your mom. Tell us. We’re always available via e-mail or our contact page, and we’re more than happy to talk.
NEDA has toolkits that you can print out, and they are incredibly helpful for parents, educators, and even doctors. Have them on hand, as they can answer a lot of questions friends and family members may have. Laura made a list of questions that she thought she would be asked. She typed up answers and printed that off too, because sometimes telling the truth about your mental health is not just exhausting and terrifying, but quite possibly filled with crying, so words are hard to get out.
Anyone reading our blog – those suffering with an eating disorder and the people supporting them – shoot us an e-mail. Drop us a few quick sentences, or write us a novel. We love getting messages, and we’ll always respond.
Take care of yourselves – that’s the most important tip of all.
If you or someone you love thinks they have an eating disorder, then take this free, anonymous eating disorder screening. It only takes three minutes, and those three minutes can save a life.