How I Got Over Shame and Stigma to "Come Out" to Friends and Family About My Eating Disorder

After having to “come out” about my eating disorder three separate times, I have found some helpful ways to make it less stressful.
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Christina Keefer
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After having to “come out” about my eating disorder three separate times, I have found some helpful ways to make it less stressful.

“I’m sure they already knew.”

That’s what my mother told me as I sent a Facebook message to three of my friends explaining that I have an eating disorder and am seeking treatment for it. The intensive therapy required for combating my eating disorder means I can’t easily lie about why I’m MIA for practically 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

But coming out and telling my friends was not an easy task, even if they did “already know.” Coming out and telling my family, even though my dad knew all along, was not easy either. 

Everything I've ever read about eating disorders only suggests talking about it with a therapist. Any mention of familial support glosses over the first time conversation of “Hey I have this problem that has spiraled into the danger zone and I kind of want to end up like Tom Cruise and not Goose, so…” and just jumps into the support that the family has or lacks. 

In Lifetime movies, it's always the family and friends that are coercing the eating disorder sufferer into treatments and discussions. I couldn’t imagine telling anyone that I had an eating disorder because I couldn’t find any literature that mirrored my situation satisfyingly (besides Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half blogposts about her depression).

Part of the problem was with the language of “confessing” itself. That word has both a connotation and denotation of guilt and shame. My disorder was propelled by guilt and shame, so the idea of that I would have to go through more guilt and shame to let my closest friends know was terrifying. I was getting help, but that did not erase the years I spent lying, hiding and isolating myself from them to ironically avoid the guilt and shame. In my mind, I would have to rehash ALL of that guilt and shame, and more, while telling my friends. I so did not want to.

But more than how confessing would affect me emotionally, I was afraid of how my friends knowing would affect our friendships. Somehow I convinced myself that sharing my personal problems would tip the scales for their tolerance of stress.

“Oh great, Tina has an eating disorder? I have to worry about that as well as studying for this French final exam? Ugh, great timing Tina, great timing,” is how I imagined their inner monologues. 

I worried that if anyone know about my food issues, they would drop me with no regrets. I have read accounts of friends distancing themselves from people with mental disorders and I did not want that.

My therapist kept reminding me of my friends' great track records so far. She also reminded me that I would be supportive if they revealed something similar to me. And even if they did cut me off, that just means they were not there for me in the first place. As homework, she had me write out a little speech of how I would reveal my disorder to a friend, just to get in the mindset of telling someone. The next week, she had me set up a phone appointment with my closest friend.

And while my heart beat rapidly, and while mid-speech I began to edit said speech, and while I tried not to say “April fools” anachronistically, I told my friend I had an eating disorder.

As far as I knew, no walls collapsed that day, no rivers flooded, no locusts plagued the Earth. Instead, there were a lot of “Of course I’ll support you,” and “You’re going to do great!”

I was elated to let go of such a heavy secret. I felt proud that I actually revealed something so personal and empowered that with her support, I had that much more of a chance of recovering. I sent some other friends a Facebook message detailing everything I had said over the phone and was met with the same response. My friends proved to be just that -- friends. I feel so grateful. 

Planning for slips helps prevent them from becoming full-blown relapses

Planning for slips helps prevent them from becoming full-blown relapses

I still had concerns. I was afraid of changing our relationship and being treated like a fragile bird on the verge of madness every day. I did not want to have to “avoid” any topics with them, even if it was food (because while at first in treatment that is an okay thing to avoid, eventually I will have to get used to the idea that not everyone has an eating disorder). I definitely did not want to be asked how I was every day with pitying eyes. 

So in my mock speech, and in my Facebook message, I said just that. I told them that I was going into treatment and that there would be days in which I felt so run down that I would not want to talk. There would also be days in which I would want praise for eating a sandwich and if they could not roll their eyes at such a toddler accomplishment, that’d be great. I explicitly said I was not fragile, that I could handle our old conversations and our same relationships – I just would probably be a little less Skeletor-looking and not make excuses to leave so soon after hanging out.

Off of that high, I finally told one friend face-to-face. We high-fived for my going into treatment and then I vented about the weird bathroom policies that one must follow when in treatment for an eating disorder. He laughed and made jokes about the nurses there. 

All of my friends had understandable questions about my treatment, but not my disorder. Either intuitively they knew I am still embarrassed by my behaviors, or they genuinely did not care. Not in an offensive way either -- in an “You’re in treatment now, so what’s the point of rehashing the past" way. But even if they did ask, I know I could tell them I was not comfortable talking about it, and they would understand. 

I’m finally able to cook in my kitchen, on my own!

I’m finally able to cook in my kitchen, on my own!

The most important part of revealing my eating disorder, though, is that I did it on my own terms. People say you should not break up with someone over Facebook, but telling a small group of people something so intimate was easier typed than said aloud. It was only until I was comfortable in my own recovery and ability to communicate that I felt ready to talk about it in person. And by allowing myself to take the baby-steps in “confessing,” I’m slowly erasing my own stigma about my disorders.