Should I Tell People I've Been in Eating Disorder Treatment?
On Tuesday, I started studies for my Master's degree. (In expressive arts therapy, if you were wondering.) And around the country, schools and universities are returning to session and one of the most common "get-to-know-you" questions is "What did you do this summer?" If you were lucky enough to go to an eating disorder treatment center during the summer months, or during a school break, you might be able to make something up. But what if you're in a career and just had to take off three or six months for eating disorder treatment? How do you explain that?
I have, unfortunately, been in both situations. In 2011, I had to take 6 weeks off from my job to return to partial hospitalization treatment. How did I explain that one away? I knew I was walking a fine line. I needed to be sure my employers understood that the need was legitimate and urgent, but didn't need my business broadcast to the entire workplace.
Factors To Consider When Disclosing Your Eating Disorder
One of the things I had to consider in this situation was whether or not I would need some sort of accommodations when I returned to my job. Would I need to request breaks during the morning and afternoon for snacks? Would I need to request special foods at meals (I was working at a residential camp at the time, so this was actually a legitimate question)? Would I need to take hours off from work to go to therapy or dietary appointments?
In my situation, I decided to disclose my situation to one of my direct supervisors (who had noted my strong work ethic and high aptitude for the job earlier) and to two good friends who worked with me. Everyone else (including corporate) was told that I was going on "medical leave" but not given any more specifics. I was gone for six weeks and when I returned, got a few questions, but they were of the "Are you doing better?" variety not of the "Have you eaten today?" variety. My co-workers who knew were gracious enough to not share my "secret," but were helpful in keeping me accountable upon my return. (I cannot even tell you how many times I was handed a cookie or an extra piece of bread randomly, with the silent expectation that I would finish it.)
Choosing to disclose your eating disorder in a work situation is certainly not to be taken lightly. I would be lying if I said that every employer would be as gracious as mine - some might not allow you to take a personal leave, as I did (I was not yet eligible for FMLA, which requires that they give you leave and hold your job in certain situations). And some employers might not allow the accommodations you asked for and leave you to hand in your resignation, or risk your recovery. (However, on the latter point, employers are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, including mental illnesses.)
My suggestion? Talk to a trusted friend or two. Talk to your therapist and dietitian. Talk to your clergy[wo]man. (Watch: How to Disclose Your Eating Disorder to Family and Loved Ones) This is definitely not a decision to be taken lightly, but it IS a decision that will affect your eating disorder recovery immensely. In the end, I believe that your recovery should always come first. I actually refused a job offer once because the hours would have made it impossible to see my therapist and asking for flex time or time off weekly would not have been plausible.
Returning to School After Eating Disorder Treatment
In a school situation, a lot of the same questions apply: will you need accommodations (such as extensions or missed classes) when you return to school? Will you need to eat a snack in the middle of class and have to ask permission for this from a professor or teacher? Will you need to make use of the student counseling center for further treatment?
In my case, even though I am beginning at a new school where no one is likely to ask me about my activities over the last few months, I'm not going to walk into the first day of classes and shout, "I am recovering from anorexia!" for all my professors and classmates to hear. That said, I write for a national mental health website, and a thorough Google search would probably reveal my eating disorder. In fact, as soon as I add any one of my classmates as a Facebook friend, they will know -- I post links to articles here and across the web and am not at all shy about my recovery.
If you're in middle school or high school, you'll likely need to let your school counselor know. And that can be a great resource - someone to talk to if things are getting stressful and who can help you navigate any situations with faculty and staff. If you're in university, you are well within your rights to take advantage of your university's Office of Disability Services. A mental illness is considered a "disability" as well - and if your eating disorder (or co-occuring disorder) has the possibility of disrupting your school work or keeping you from working at 100%, these are the people who can help you. These are the people who can keep you from flunking a class if you miss two weeks because you were stabilizing medication in the hospital, or who can get changes made to your exam schedule if it conflicts with a mealtime or snacktime or therapy appointment.
The bottom line?
It's not realistic to think that you can disappear into treatment for any length of time and not return to questions. However, it is realistic that you can practice recovery by setting healthy boundaries. Sometimes I feel like I have to tell people if they ask, but the reality is, I don't. If it's not necessary for them to know (e.g., they cannot aid in the situation), I don't need to tell them. If I feel like I absolutely have to say something, I tell them I have a chronic illness but am currently stable.
And if I do need to let someone (a professor, a friend who could be a support, an advisor) know, then there is nothing to be ashamed about. Having an eating disorder is nothing to be ashamed about. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed about.
How are you all planning on answering these sorts of questions?
For more information, you can look at HealthyPlace's advice on how to be an effective self-advocate.
Hudgens, J. (2013, August 22). Should I Tell People I've Been in Eating Disorder Treatment?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 20 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2013/08/should-i-tell-people-ive-been-in-treatment-for-my-eating-disorder
Author: Jessica Hudgens
I've been dreading that question all summer and had thought of a few different ways to phrase my non-disclosing explanation. But today my mind just blanked and as warmly as I could just blurted out the typical:
Luckily the guy dropped it after that. Whew!
All of my close friends in law school, including past professors, and the Utah State Bar, all know about my treatment stay and my history with an eating disorder. I am also not ashamed of it, as I have no reason to be, but I don't put it out there before I know the person, just because it's my decision to disclose ANY personal information.
Thanks for your input! I agree that being "forced to act normal" can be a good thing -- I think that sometimes in treatment, we hang onto behaviours longer than we otherwise might because our eating disorder voice tells us that if so-and-so is still cutting her food into a billion pieces, we should be, too.
I agree that you have nothing to be ashamed of! It sounds like you have a great idea of how and when and to whom to disclose this information -- I'm glad that you have set up those personal boundaries and are taking care of your recovery!
Best of luck,