Please note: do not read this blog if you feel vulnerable to triggering issues.
This blog originally appeared on the Time to Change blog. Join the conversation here.
I'm sure many of you have seen the TTC campaign showing a nervous man attempting to bargain with a fantasy monster. It's meant to show that talking about mental health needn't be terrifying. But, when trying to disclose my eating disorder, I sometimes think I'd rather face the monster.
I suppose my fears about telling people I have an eating disorder come from stigma that I've seen. I know there are too many people out there who don't know or 'don't believe' that eating disorders are actually illnesses.
People mock my nervousness around food. I remember clearly from my school days, students who starved themselves were accused of 'doing it for attention'. Around the same time, the hit song 'Stupid Girls' told us that eating disorders are not only hilarious; they also mean you’re an idiot. And we've all heard the comments people make within earshot of perfect strangers who are too thin, or too fat. It seems that everywhere I go, people will judge me.
I'm more afraid because I'm not anorexic or classically bulimic. Without a diagnosis, I'm guessing I have Binge Eating Disorder. It's a condition that has only recently been recognised by psychiatrists, let alone by the general public. I'm afraid people might just think I'm greedy; that it's not a real eating disorder because everyone eats too much from time to time. There is stigma to face in my own head before I tell anyone.
But I know the truth is I've got a mental health problem
But I know the truth is I've got a mental health problem. I spend much of the day just obsessing over food and I have strange and nonsensical rules about what I eat. Meal times and any time food is offered are huge causes of anxiety. I dread any event with a buffet. Because I know I'll eat and I'll keep eating and I won't even enjoy it but I'll eat because I feel somehow I have to. I'll eat even when I'm feeling full, when I'm feeling bloated, feeling pain in my gut, feeling sick.
And a few hours later the despair will hit. I'll feel repulsive and swear to never do it again. Then, the next day, that guilt and anxiety from last night's binge will trigger me to eat an entire loaf of bread between meals. I do it because it's a distraction. I'll eat to avoid the stress of what I'm meant to be doing or to comfort myself for the stress I can’t avoid. I'm afraid of not eating or eating too little. And now I’m afraid of eating at all.
The first GP I told was clueless
I found it difficult even to tell my GP. The first GP I told was clueless and advised me to eat low GI foods. I think he misunderstood; it’s got nothing to do with hunger. I felt discouraged from seeking help but when I blurted it out to a different GP in an appointment about physical health problems, it was very different. She encouraged me to tell her more and I learnt about the help I could get from an eating disorders clinic and advice on my self-help methods.
Outside of the clinic, I've told my boyfriend, my housemates, and my parents. Not all of them understood that well at first but it felt momentous to have a calm and ordinary conversation about it. No one accused me of faking an illness, no one made fun of me or got angry. I'm not sure what I expected! They just made some supportive comments and I explained things they were confused about. It goes to show, I suppose, that although it may feel like facing a dragon, it's not as bad as I'm imagining it. I'm not yet fully 'out' but it's a good start.
It inspired me to really try to talk openly about my condition
Two weeks ago, I went to a Time To Change event for the first time and it inspired me to really try to talk openly about my condition. Because the more I do, the more people learn the truth about eating disorders. When people know the reality of a condition like this, their attitudes change. And so maybe one day, people won't feel the shame and the fear that I do. So I'm aiming to be braver; the more we talk, the easier it gets.
Eating disorders can feel like they're taking over your life, but there is support available. Visit your GP or contact your local Mind.