For so long, I’ve been keeping a part of myself hidden, and I think it’s about time I let it be known:
I had an eating disorder.
For three years of my life, I struggled with anorexia and orthorexia nervosa.
Yet, despite the fact that I am a strong advocate of raising awareness about mental health and illness, I have only told a handful of people about my personal experience.
A number of reasons, but I suppose a lot of them have to do with the stigma surrounding mental illnesses that I attempt to eradicate. And the majority of them are the same reasons that prevented me from reaching out for help in the first place.
Reason 1: I undermine what I went through
Whenever I think about my eating disorder, I always compare myself to others. Those others mainly being the authors of ‘thinspiration’ who I religiously followed when I was anorexic. I often think I never ate that little. My weight was never that low. I never broke down that much. Those people had it so much worse than I did. That was struggle. I was never that bad. Perhaps I sometimes convinced myself that I didn’t really have an eating disorder at all…
And then I remember the torture I subjected myself to for those three years. Obsessively counting every calorie I consumed and bawling when I ate even one hundred more than I allowed myself. I weighed myself at least four times a day. Every pound lost filled me with unimaginable excitement and every pound gained was a failure, giving me even more reason to punish myself. Walking more than ten minutes left me fatigued and on the verge of fainting. Some nights, I would be woken up by a sharp and stabbing pain in my heart that would leave me breathless. I was drastically underweight. I lost a third of my weight in less than a year. And at my lowest point, I could only fit into children’s clothing. My mind was my own personal torture chamber – one that I couldn’t escape.
Reason 2: I still can’t face telling my family
I don’t want to hurt them. I couldn’t handle the unimagined guilt I would leave them with if they knew how much pain their daughter was in and that they did nothing to stop it.
Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise. They noticed the weight loss, the change in eating habits, my irritability. But whenever they questioned me, I denied any mention of me being sick. To them, what I was doing was nothing different than normal dieting. They desperately wanted to believe me and so they did.
Reason 3: I am afraid of what people will think
Part of me imagines absurd and unrealistic judgements people would inflict on me if I were to be open about my eating disorder. They would think it was a cry for attention; that I was superficial to believe my weight mattered so much; that I went out of my way to create problems in my life when I really had none. Of course, the reality is – or, at least, I hope – that people are not that cruel to think such things. And even if they are, it should not prevent me from telling my story, but only empower me to tell it more in order to help them understand what I really went through and why.
But why now?
Of course, none of my fears have completely gone away. But I still think it’s important that I begin to start talking; to show others that there isn’t such thing as “sick enough”. And for those who haven’t experienced an eating disorder, to shed light on what it is like to have one, and how they may be able to help those who are facing the same battle I did. In the end, all struggles are struggles, and none deserved to be undermined. Recovery is always possible.
So here I am – all my cards are on the table, my secret exposed.
My arms are wide open, and man, how good it feels to have that off my chest.
Stephanie Bertolo is an Arts & Science student at McMaster University. A strong advocate for youth health and wellness, she is a founding member of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, a volunteer at McMaster’s Children’s Hospital, and a subcommittee member of COPE: a student mental health initiative. Other than studying and volunteering, she spends her time baking, spending hours in used bookstores and coffee shops, and finding herself on enthralling adventures. For three years, she suffered from anorexia and orthorexia nervosa, and is still coming to terms with life as someone who has ‘recovered’.