I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was forty-two, although I’ve wondered if I didn’t have at least vestiges of the disorder when I was a young adult. For a long time, I tried hard to hide my condition or at least deflect concern about me onto others . . . anyone, as long as people didn’t guess my secret: that I was anorexic.
I should have saved myself the trouble, because the majority people I knew figured out what was wrong with me long before I would even admit it.
I often wondered what would have happened if either:
a. I had talked to someone when I first began restricting at the age of eighteen, or
b. If I had chose to keep silent about my eating disorder.
I know — two different scenarios.
Yes, Disclose Your Eating Disorder
I believe one of the keys to erasing stigma associated with any mental illness is to be open and honest about it. Sharing with others helps to show that people with mental illnesses can have a rich, full life, and that we are pretty much like anybody else. We have hopes, dreams, and fears; we care for our family and friends, and worry about paying the bills, just like everyone else. We are married, single, dating, widowed; fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons. We love music and movies, and try to express ourselves through various creative outlets; we live and love and laugh.
We are you. And we have no reason to feel ashamed…
Sharing our struggles and triumphs also creates a connection between ourselves and others who are similar. I value the connections I have made with those who also are struggling with eating disorders. It adds to the healing process, and allows me to bounce off feelings and questions that come up during the recovery process.
Having said that…
No! Don’t Disclose Your Eating Disorder
Natasha Tracy, author of HealthyPlace’s award-winning blog, Breaking Bipolar, recently wrote about why she writes about mental illness under a pseudonym, creating a firestorm of protest from some readers.
I had two thoughts about Natasha’s choice. First, I completely disagreed with it. Then I rethought my position, and put myself in Natasha’s place, thus understanding why some people don’t share their mental illness with others.
First, there is job security. Some employers just aren’t going to be open to those with a known mental illness. People can protest that that’s illegal, immoral, and wrong — and they would be right. But reality is reality, and some employers can and will find a way to not hire people with mental illnesses.
It’s an ugly truth, but one grounded in reality.
I remember when I was a social worker for a community mental health agency. I worked with people who were homeless and had a serious mental illness, such as depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. One of my jobs was to help find housing for my clients. I learned early on to not identify myself, because as soon as a prospective landlord knew it was the social worker from CMH calling, he or she put two and two together and figured out that I was looking for housing for a person with a mental illness — and suddenly there would be no vacancies. One time, I protested that that was illegal. I was told to go ahead and try suing.
I worry about my full disclosure of my mental illness(es), because I will be looking for a full-time job after completing my master’s degree in August. I wonder if I have simply made things harder for myself, and I have googled myself and to my dismay, found about a million hits that pretty much screams that I am someone with a mental illness.
However, it is too late. I simply can’t erase my presence online. Perhaps I could change my name again…
My deteriorating condition was obvious to most people in my small town. It’s kind of hard to hide a weight-loss of forty pounds.
Then the speculation started. I had gastroenteritis. I had AIDS. I had cancer. I was dying of some unknown, exotic illness.
That I was anorexic.
That was my family’s guess, after cancer. Of course, they were terrified of cancer because it runs in my family. My mother is a four-time cancer survivor, including lung cancer that took most of one lung. My father had colon cancer. And my niece had a severe form of skin cancer when she was in her early twenties.
It is up to each one of us to decide whether to disclose our eating disorders, or any other illness or condition. In the end, I’m glad I did, if only to end the speculation and stop the worry.