It seems especially fitting that a public statement about my past and present struggles with eating disorders should come weeks after National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2017. This year, as in past years, the focus of the public health initiative promoted by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) – to erase stigma, enhance understanding, and increase access to care – centred on speaking out. As the website encourages, “it’s time to talk about it.”
As someone who has struggled hard throughout much of my adolescent and adult life not just with anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive exercise, but also with the correlated mental health issues of trauma, anxiety, and depression, I know full well how important – and how difficult – it is to give voice to these experiences.
How do we persist in telling our stories and speaking our truths when doing so can both make us feel vulnerable and come with significant personal risk? How do we acknowledge and honour but still push through and open up to those deeply rooted feelings of shame that commonly define our experiences of living with an eating disorder?
Is ‘talking about it’ meant to be a one-time thing only or occur just once or twice annually, for example, in the event of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, or can it be an intrinsic part of other larger and ongoing, complex and far-reaching conversations about what it means and how it feels to live with mental illness?
We know that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, and that in addition to all the various complications wrought from bingeing and purging, starvation and over-exercising, the risk of suicide is great. Given this reality, ‘talking about it’ is not just simply a matter of sharing our stories and lightening our individual loads; it is also, more critically, for many of us a strategy for survival.
I was thirty-six, writing my doctoral dissertation, and in the middle of a complete mental and physical breakdown that was on a fast path to turning fatal when I finally found the courage and the language to speak about my illness and the abuse and trauma that preceded and precipitated it, and to do so for the first time publicly. Though my words were not well received from those closest to me who wished to remain in denial and felt that I was casting blame, I began, on the other hand, to receive heartfelt emails and messages from complete strangers whose experiences resonated with mine and who appreciated my honesty, vulnerability, and courage. I started to gain access to the secret knowledge housed within me, that so much of illness experience is considered “inappropriate” for the public realm and, thus, that talking about one’s struggles might be a legitimate way to create community and to form a public culture around illness, making visible and accessible those lived experiences that seem not to exist.
Talking about anorexia and mental illness helped me to create community and it also has helped save my life. I encourage everyone to ‘talk about it‘ so it can, if only, save another life.
~Dr. Alyson Hoy, University of British Columbia
About our guest blogger, Alyson Hoy: Alyson works hard to be well from eating disorders, anxiety, and depression. She writes to explore the ways in which identity and illness are implicated in each other and to consider how art-making can be a means for healing.