My Feature Writing class was gathered around a large wooden conference table. Gathering up courage, I pitched my story idea. I told the class I wanted to write a piece on men with eating disorders. My professor sounded interested, and asked me why I had chosen that specific topic. Did I just grab the idea out of thin air, or did I know someone with an eating disorder?
“Oh no,” I thought. “I really walked into this one.” But if I was going to write a story, it was not the time to hold back. And so I told my class that I had been in treatment for an eating disorder several years earlier.
Some were curious about my stay in the hospital. I told them about what we discussed in group therapy sessions and what had happened behind those closed doors. Others were curious simply because I was a male and I had had an eating disorder. All were surprised that I admitted as much — that I chose to disclose my history of mental illness in front of a group of individuals I had just met. I was relieved to see understanding and sympathetic faces around the table, including that of my professor, who thought addressing mental health among college students was an excellent idea.
I was excited. Cautious, but excited.
After I shared a brief story of my treatment experience with the class and had explained the direction I wanted to take the story in, another student in class spoke up. She was in recovery as well, and seconded my opinion that more page space should be given to mental health issues that impact students. Her support was invaluable to me.
What struck me was that we were two students in a room of twelve. Two students in their early twenties who had had eating disorders. That was quite a surprise, and it indicated to me just how prevalent this issue was. And that realisation left a lasting impression on me. I will never underestimate the reach of eating disorders.
If a person is not struggling with an eating disorder, they are more than likely to know someone who is. I’m reminded of the National Eating Disorder Awareness Week motto of 2015: Everybody Knows Somebody. While this is alarming and sad, there is a wonderful thing about that statement. And it’s this: it means none of us are alone. Even when I was at my lowest weight and my lowest ebb, I knew that somewhere there were advocates and academics researching better treatments. People were petitioning governments, and instructing clinicians to become more aware of the dangers and pervasiveness of eating disorders.
I managed to let go of part of my shame that day in class, when I spoke out about my diagnosis. The fear and vulnerability I felt when I talked about it was quickly replaced with comfort and kinship. The woman across the table made me feel better, and I knew then that not everyone bought into the stigma. Since that day, I believe more than ever that everybody knows a sufferer and I no longer feel ashamed about speaking about my diagnosis and recovery.
Whether at work or on an assignment, when I mention my history or advocacy with eating disorders individuals will often respond by sharing their own struggles or those of a close friend or family member. This connectedness has been invaluable in my recovery and has motivated me to enter into public speaking. By identifying these threads of similarity between us all and becoming more familiar with each other’s stories, we slowly begin fostering a community of acceptance, a network of people no longer bound by stigma or societal standards of what’s acceptable to talk about in public.
I admit that I was scared when I was sitting in that classroom, about to share my secret. I’m sure thousands of others like me are similarly frightened about what would happen if their secret came out (it’s easy for eating disorders to thrive in secrecy). But though I was never guaranteed a warm reception when I revealed my illness, I try my best as an awareness advocate to encourage people to make the decision to open up to people. There is a very good chance that, as I was myself, they will be met with the understanding and acceptance they deserve.