- Sara Mann
I cannot begin to describe the shame that accompanies having and/or recovering from an eating disorder. The definition of shame according to good ole goole is, “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” The amount of shame that I have felt over the past two years is astronomical, and I know I’m not alone. Every person that I have encountered that is recovering from an eating disorder has expressed the exact same feeling of humiliation and distress about it.
Since there is such a large sense of shame when it comes to our eating disorders, it’s easy to choose to isolate and not talk about it. This leaves us to suffer alone, have little support and also have encounters with people that are so triggering it can send us reeling and worse case scenario into relapse.
I know for me one of the biggest causes of shame was the weight gain. Our society is so fat-phobic that the minute you gain weight there is a deep sense of shame that accompanies it. It is deemed “bad” to gain weight. There MUST be an explanation for the pounds that are packing on and since just gaining weight is unacceptable we must either be pregnant or lazy. When you are stuck in a situation where you live in a fat-phobic society and gaining weight is the only possible way to get healthy, and maybe even becoming overweight for a bit while your body heals is likely, it sucks! What we are asked to do in treatment is to allow our bodies to recover, go through weight gain and do our damnedest to not be ashamed about it while people watch us going up size after size. It’s pretty impossible.
When the weight gain started to happen, all I wanted to do was hide in my bedroom because I was so ashamed of my body that I didn’t want anyone to see me. I couldn’t stand the thought of what they might think about me when they saw me getting heavier and heavier and heavier still. Did they think I let myself go? Did they think I just decided to over indulge?
What's sad is that there was and is reason for me to be nervous. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked if I’m expecting because of my weight gain and shape during recovery. I have had friends from my support group text and say their aunt asked them if they ate their cousin they are getting so big. Others have had family members ask if they are sure they should eat that slice of cake, or proceed to give them diet tips while at the dinner table about how to lose those few extra L B’s they have put on. It’s literally ridiculous!
There are a lot of reason we typically keep our E.D.’s and recovery private. Shame is a big one, but there are also a LOT of opinions out there and most of them come from people who aren’t the slightest bit educated about eating disorders. They say dumb things like, “Well why don’t you just eat more, duh!” or “You should really just start to exercise, that will make you feel better and the weight will start to come off.” These things are frustrating because its actually extremely difficult to “just eat more,” and I know in my case as well as others, exercise is forbidden in the beginning stages of recovery and then slowly reintroduced. This is because our bodies need to heal and/or we are also recovering from over-exercise. (If you want to hear something really crazy, sometimes exercising will cause us to gain MORE weight because our bodies will be afraid it is starving and stressed again, so it will hang onto even more fat as it heals instead of trusting us to stop beating it up! How about them apples?!)
There is also the poor reputation surrounding mental illness. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, but that doesn’t mean we are cookoo for coco puffs. We simply deal with our anxiety and emotions by restricting or over eating or purging etc. and we don’t do it on purpose, it just happens. People don’t know how to talk about mental illness. It’s not really “P.C” to talk about such things, even though a LOT of people suffer from them. Mental illness’s I believe are still looked down upon. So there is a lot of shame knowing that I am walking around with something that is slightly out of my control and that most people would pass judgment on if they knew.
Another reason we typically don’t talk about it is because recovery is really hard and unless you go through it, I don’t think it is possible to truly understand it! It’s probably like having a baby. Until you have one, you just don’t know. It is difficult for people to truly understand how hard recovery is from an eating disorder. It is physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, you name it. Until you have restricted for seven years and then had to take that first bite of pizza and not restrict or purge or compensated with a behavior after it, you just don’t know what it’s like.
So here we are, recovering from eating disorders, living in shame, completely isolated, miserable and not talking about it….
BUT THERE IS GOOD NEWS! I don’t think we have to live in this deep shame and silence. In fact I KNOW we don’t. I am living proof that when I decided to do and change a few small things, a lot of the shame was lifted and now I go through recovery much free’er, less isolated and less ashamed.
First of all, I decided to talk about it. This is very hard to do because ED wants us to live in shame and secrecy. Ed tricks us into believing that everyone will judge us and no one will support us and if we talk about it, and it will only bring bad things. This is not true. I remember laying in my bed, sobbing on the phone with my mom because yet another person asked when I was due. I couldn’t stand the idea that if this person asked me how many other people are out there noticing my weight and are having the same thought if not other thoughts. I was so ashamed of my weight and angry at my situation. My mom then gave me some of the best advice I have gotten my entire recovery. She told me to tell people about what I was going through. She said that people gossip and judge and have opinions, why not just put it out there, let it spread and be done with it. This way people have the facts. They will know EXACTLY why I’m gaining weight and aren't left to make assumptions.
So I did it. I told a few people what was going on and sure enough it spread. This didn’t make the shame I felt about my weight entirely go away, but it did alleviate a lot of the insecurity and anxious feeling of the unknown of what people are thinking about or assuming as to why I was gaining weight. I also decided to tell my extended family, my friends, my bible study group and anyone I bumped into. The only place I didn’t share it in the beginning was social media and the world wide web. The more people I told the easier it got to talk about and the more confident and sure of myself I felt about sharing what I was going through. I didn’t always go into a lot of details, I simply either said I have personal health issues going on, or I am currently recovering from anorexia.
It wasn’t until I was over a year into my recovery that I started this blog. I started the blog for multiple reasons, but one of the reasons was it was an easy way to get it out there that this is what I’m going through so I no longer had to feel ashamed of my weight or feeling bad about becoming a bit MIA for a while.
Second, I decided to let people know what I need and set boundaries for what is not ok. I don’t know why but for some reason when people are out of line or rude I often don’t have the guts to look at them and let them know it isn’t ok. I think it's because ED stole my self respect. If someone hurts my feelings, ED would rather I sit alone and starve away the hurt rather then deal with it. There is a friend of mine who is currently recovering from anorexia. She has a male co-worker who constantly talks about her weight at work parties. Because of this she either avoids the parties or goes and then feels so anxious before and terrible after that it causes more depression and eating disorder behaviors. It seems like it would be the worst thing in the world to tell this co-worker that she would prefer he not talk about her body, because it might make him feel bad or cause work drama. I again think this is because ED tricks us into believing that we don’t hold enough value or worth to stand up for ourselves. We don’t have to go ballistic on people, but a simple, I’d rather you not talk about my body, or discuss my weight is simple, pointed and perfectly acceptable. Another example is that many of us have sisters! I have a friend who’s sisters talked about their diets or how they need to work out after a meal and how they stay skinny the entire day during a Holiday vacation. This is incredibly insensitive and some people just need to be told, “Hey, I’m happy you guys are feeling good, but honestly, this is really triggering for me and not helpful at all to my recovery, so I would appreciate it if you could stop discussing this while I am present.” It takes guts to start setting boundaries with people, but it is crucial in order to gain back some of the self respect we lost because of our ED’s. It also helps to create a safe space for us to continue to recover! I have had to tell multiple people that I would appreciate it if we didn’t partake in “diet” talk while I recover as well as let people know that I do not want my picture randomly taken and posted on the internet as I go through this challenging time. It helps and it also takes us from living in shame to living empowered and with self respect.
Last, I rooted myself in something more then my eating disorder. When my worth is completely wrapped up in my weight and looks it is devastating and feels shameful to walk into a room feeling heavy, out of shape and ugly. When I put my worth in who I am as a person I walk into the room much more confidently. You can say I’m heavier but can you say I’m not generous? You can say I’m fat, but can you say I’m not really fun to hang out with? You can say I am really packing on the pounds, but can you say I didn’t just take a beautiful photo of your child? You can say I have a mental illness, but can you say I’m not a child of God? Nope! You can’t! It’s important to really try and fix our eyes and mind on these other things as our bodies heal and adjust. It reminds me of my favorite verse and the one that I based this blog on, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”
Here are some more perks to sharing what we are going through instead of hiding in shame!
1 - There is a massive amount of support out there just waiting to be tapped into that our E.D. is keeping us from because of shame. The amount of support I received increased ten fold when I shared what I was going through. There are so many people out there just waiting to pray over you, build you up, hang out with you, encourage you and cheer you on as you recover.
2- You realize most people aren’t as shallow as you make them out to be in your head. Yes, there are the few D-bags that really are bothered by the extra pounds and changes you are making in recovery. Tell them to take a hike because literally most everyone else doesn’t care about the extra weight. They are happy you are getting healthy and want to go have a glass of wine whether you weight 120, 180 or 220 pounds.
3 - You are educating others. Like I said, we live in a fat-phobic, diet centered, brainwashed society. Choosing to no longer participate in those things and learn the truth about dieting, restricting, health and eating disorders is radical and worth more then gold! I know from my experience alone I have helped people learn what restricting actually does to your insulin and pancreas, not just the number on the scale. I have also helped people to see that you can be still struggling with anorexia at a normal weight, or how detrimental it is mentally to cut out food groups and count calories! Sharing our recovery educates others.
4 - Family parties (and other parties for that matter) are WAY easier. This past Christmas I was at home and we had our annual Christmas Eve party at my parents house with 30-40 family members. Every single one of them knows what I am going through. They offered me support, encouragement and I felt free to be myself and laugh because there wasn’t this big elephant in the room. It was out there and it was what it was.
5 - You can walk out the door or through a door feeling confident in what you are going through. Shame thrives in secrecy. When we hide and isolate, our shame grows and our negative thoughts grow stronger. When we are open and out there it actually lessens the anxiety and grows our confidence. Last week I shared about how I ran into my high school cheerleading coach. I at first felt very ashamed of how I looked. But afterward, as I thought through the situation, I realized I have nothing to be ashamed of! I am recovering! That takes a strong person! If she looked me up in two seconds she would find my blog and immediately know whats going on. If she got in her car and leaned over to her husband and said, wow she got fat, well then, shame on her! She only knows the surface level of my situation.
6. You give people the chance to be better. There are people in my life that I was VERY afraid of talking about certain aspects of my recovery with. I thought they would be judgmental or opinionated and hurtful. I found out that when I talked to them they were actually the opposite. To my surprise they were very supportive, validating and kind. Sometimes our fear and assumptions get the best of us and it keeps us from growing in relationship with others and others with us. Yes, there are times that it backfires and they are the true evil people we thought they were, but we just tuck that nugget of info away and move forward knowing that this is definitely not a person to discuss this with, no sweat.
7. You will find that you are 100% not alone. There IS someone else out there going through the same thing and if it isn’t exactly the same thing it’s close enough that you can relate. Sometimes I feel shame about how out of shape I am. When I shared this with my sister she immediately made me feel better by sharing that after having a baby she felt the same way! Two different reasons why we have/had extra weight on our bodies, but the same feeling of being flabby, weak, overwhelmed and frustrated. I felt encouraged to keep going because she made it through, and so can I! When I started my blog I couldn’t believe how many people I had never met reached out and shared their experience going through the same thing! It was beyond wonderful!
If you are struggling with an eating disorder or are going through recovery and are constantly battling shame, I really encourage you to start talking. Pull that one trusted family member aside and let them know what you are going through. Sit down with your friends and ask for support as you navigate a really hard time. Let your bible study group in on your desperate need for prayer and watch them come along side you and fight along with you. If you don’t trust anyone in your life, find a therapist and be open with them.
Don’t live in hiding! People are waiting to love you and support you! Heck, you can message me and we can grab a coffee and chat! You are not alone and you do not need to live in shame.
- Sara -