In case you didn’t know, it’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, a time to raise awareness about a dangerous and isolating mental illness that affects millions of women and men annually.
Every year, I go back and forth about participating in NEDA Week and I think that stems from the uncertainty of what it really means to “participate”.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders are serious but treatable mental illnesses that affect people of every age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic group. No one knows exactly what causes eating disorders, but a growing consensus suggests that a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors come together to trigger an eating disorder.
In my quest to determine how to participate in NEDA Week and support the mission to raise awareness this year, I want to share a story; but not about my struggle. I believe the online conversation around NEDA week needs to change.
The theme, Come as You Are, highlights the movement towards inclusivity in the greater eating disorder community. The campaign expressed that, regardless of your body shape, weight, race, gender, identity, ability, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or your stage of body acceptance and eating disorder recovery, your story is valid and deserves to be heard.
I love the theme this year and I believe it has sparked an incredibly valuable online conversation. Historically, our society has portrayed a pretty narrow-minded “look” when it comes to eating disorders. But the truth is, eating disorders don’t discriminate, and all those who are struggling or have been touched by an eating disorder deserve to share their story.
But here’s the thing: somewhere along the way, the support and value that comes with this week of awareness can easily get buried by an influx of before and after photos that seem to clutter the #NEDAWeek hashtag.
It may seem small compared to the volume of posts you see in your feed, but these side-by-side images inadvertently create a space that welcomes comparison and judgement while reinforcing the idea that eating disorders are all about our outward appearance; and that is simply not the case.
Eating disorders are not about the weight. Just like alcoholism isn’t really about the alcohol. For me, my eating disorder was a way for me to escape the uncomfortable emotions that I didn’t want to face; and it spiraled from there. Only recently have I begun to feel confident enough to speak out as a mental health and eating disorder recovery advocate.
In November, I had the privilege of traveling to Logan, Utah to visit Avalon Hills Eating Disorder Treatment Center. I returned almost 11 years later to share my journey of inpatient treatment to long-term recovery and it was a life-changing experience that I will never forget. While I was there, I shared details of my trip on my personal Instagram and I couldn’t believe all of the supportive messages I received from friends and family.
One specific message from a college friend really stuck with me. I hadn’t talked to this particular friend since graduating college almost five years ago, so I was surprised when she sent me the encouraging message below after I shared the details of my upcoming speech at Avalon,
“You’re going to kill it lady! So many people will be inspired and motivated because of you!”
She truly warmed my heart with such kind words. And a few moments later, she disclosed her own personal struggle with me. She shared a dangerously low weight, some of the trauma her body had been through due to deteriorating health and some of the behaviors she used to reach that weight. She then said,
“I never went to a rehab center, but I did talk to a psychologist a few times a week and I had a nutritionist.”
This response stopped me in my tracks, and I was suddenly paralyzed with this thought: “Does sharing my story about going to treatment make other girls feel like their struggle is/was less serious?”
I couldn’t help but wonder why she felt compelled to share intimate details of her eating disorder with me, as if to convince me that what she had been through was real. I felt like she was belittling her own struggle just because it wasn’t the same as mine.
Since my visit in November, I’ve thought a lot about this exchange, and I feel like NEDA week is the perfect time to break it down. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, and every story of diagnosis to recovery is unique. Think about it like this:
Two people can become sick with the flu. One person might develop a high fever resulting in hospitalization and intensive care while the other stays home to rest and nourish their body back to health. Both people had the same diagnosis and suffered through the same illness, but they regained their health very differently.
You see, it’s not about comparing rock bottom. It’s about knowing that you came back from your rock bottom.
Here’s what I want people to know: No matter the details of your narrative, your eating disorder is valid. Whether you have struggled for as long as you can remember, or you’ve been hiding recent thoughts of inadequacy, there’s no prerequisite to ask for help. You don’t need a hospital stay or a residential treatment center to prove that you were sick.
So, while you might see more than the typical selfie on your Instagram feed this week, remember that there’s no need to compare someone else’s journey to yours. No matter what photos you see of somebody’s low weight or times of despair, it doesn’t make the tough times that you’ve been through any less important. For anyone struggling, please realize that your story and your journey to recovery is worthy. Just as NEDA promotes this week, I encourage you to reflect on the steps you’ve taken to accept all of who you are so you can become the best version of yourself.