By Valeria Mertens
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of all mental disorders, yet they are often the most ignored. Most people think that eating disorders are vanity issues and that they are a choice. Thankfully, this stigmatization of eating disorders is constantly changing because of people opening up and letting the world know how devastating life with an eating disorder can be. On the other hand, those stories also give people with eating disorders hope that it can get better and that recovery is possible.
Having suffered from an eating disorder myself, I know how hard being vulnerable can be. I used to be very secretive about my own struggles because I feared prejudice and rejection. I couldn’t even say the words eating disorder out loud. This changed when I was forced to go to a day hospital treatment center, which focused on therapy and nutrition groups.
I spent five days a week with people who were suffering from the same thing that was eating me alive (pun intended), so I couldn’t fake a smile or try to act as if everything was fine like I used to do. I was with people who felt and thought the same things I did, so they noticed when I was trying to get away with something. I also met people who had fully recovered and that gave me hope. I started to think that if people with such devastating life stories did recover, then what’s stopping me?
If I wanted to get my life back, I had to stop lying to others and myself, and start doing everything the professionals told me to do. That included following my meal plan and talking about everything I had kept to myself for years. It wasn’t easy, but knowing I had people by my side that understood me made it easier. I have never met people more empathetic, kind and caring than the people I met at treatment.
Only a few people knew about me being in treatment because I was ashamed of being sick and, at the same time, I didn’t think I was sick enough (contradictory, I know. That’s how eating disorders are). I was also sick of lying to my friends and saying that I dropped school because I wanted to have a gap year.
One day I finally opened up to a friend (let’s call her Laura) and told her that I was in treatment for an eating disorder. A few weeks later, she told me she had been throwing up her food for months and that I was the first to know. I totally didn’t expect that to happen; I was in shock. She described to me her everyday thoughts and behaviors and I got scared for her because it was worrying how obsessed she was and how fast her eating disorder was developing. I didn’t want her to spend years fighting for her life alone like I did.
As I told Laura my story, the stories of the people I met at treatment and everything I have read on books and online, she couldn’t stop crying; I could see in her face that, before I started talking, she had no idea how serious this was. When I told Laura it was essential to tell her parents what she was going through so she could get professional help, Laura told me she could stop purging on her own because she was choosing to do it.
That’s an eating disorder in a nutshell: crying because you can’t stop throwing up the food you think is “forbidden”, obsessing about food, calories and how fat you are and, at the same time, thinking that you are choosing to feel this way. It is thinking you are actively choosing to live an unbearable life and, in other words, choosing to slowly kill yourself.
Luckily, Laura was at the early stages of her eating disorder and didn’t get to the point where you don’t want help. Eventually, Laura agreed that I could tell her parents about what she was going through and she is now getting treatment for her eating disorder.
This is why I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to let go of the feelings of shame and start raising awareness and opening up to people; you never know what life you might be saving.
About the Author:
Valeria Mertens is from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. She has been in recovery from anorexia and bulimia since 2012. Valeria is currently working towards getting her psychology degree in Austin, Texas. She aspires to become a clinical psychologist to help people with mental illnesses and also wants to contribute to the research of eating disorders. Valeria is interested in raising awareness to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness.