By: Jamie (CJ)
In honor of this year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week’s theme of “It’s Time to Talk About It”, I’d like to talk about the all too often forgotten stigma that caregivers hold onto as they care for their loved one in recovery from an eating disorder.
Within the eating disorder and mental health world, treatment providers often acknowledge the associated shame with having a mental illness and releasing this shame is often a part of a patient’s recovery process. As the primary caregiver for my partner who is in recovery from an eating disorder, I too, have experienced shame when my partner, OJ, was hospitalized and in treatment for over a year.
It might sound a bit strange, but telling others about my partner’s hospitalization was somewhat similar to my experience as coming out as gay. Despite having incredibly liberal parents who always accepted my sexuality (thanks mom and dad!), I still felt outside of the societal “norm.”
Similarly when OJ was hospitalized as a result of her mental illness, I felt like I was out of the “norm” since our society tends to have an appreciation and understanding for those who are suffering from a physical illness, but not a mental illness.
Coming out as gay is a series of uncomfortable steps. When I first came out, I only told those who were closest to me, as I felt the safest telling them. Then, I would slowly start telling others until I’ve now, reached the point in my life where I pretty much am open about it completely, except in a few instances when I feel like “outing” myself could be dangerous.
I also took these series of steps when telling people that OJ was sick and receiving treatment. I felt like people were judging me, were judging her, and judging our relationship. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Caregiver shame is real, too. At first, I felt like I had to justify why OJ was so sick. I felt like I had to justify why this happened 5 years into our relationship and not when she was 15 years old, when her symptoms first started appearing. I felt like people wouldn’t understand her illness without a detailed explanation.
This is obviously impossible to do since some of those reasons are personal and there are many contributing factors to mental illness. I was afraid of people’s judgment and would stumble over my words as I tried to give a very ambiguous and general “justification” as to why she was sick. At the same time, I was asking myself the similar questions. Why is this happening now? Did I do something wrong? Was there something I could have done to prevent this?
Although incredibly difficult to admit, I know that there is nothing that I could have done to prevent OJ’s co-occurring mental illnesses. There’s nothing that I could have done to prevent my partner from needing to receive treatment for these diseases. That’s why now as a caregiver and advocate, I try to break the shame, the stigma, and I try to talk about it. I tell our story as openly as possible and without justification. OJ was sick. She is feeling better now and together we work to build a life of recovery every day.
In love and support,
About The Author:
Jamie Dannenberg (CJ) is the primary carer of her partner, also named Jamie but referred to as OJ, who is in recovery from an eating disorder. As the partner of someone with an eating disorder and a registered dietitian, CJ has had to learn to navigate various roles in their relationship. With OJ, Jamie has become involved in global advocacy work and together they share their experience as a queer couple in recovery on their blog thirdwheelED. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.