June 2 is World Eating Disorders Day, a day meant to provide awareness of the challenges that cause so much suffering and shame for those who are afflicted. I am happy to observe that we, as a society, are becoming more open to discussions about eating disorders and their treatment. As an eating disorder survivor with two daughters who also had eating disorders, it’s a topic that holds a lot of interest and resonance for me.
My daughters benefitted from both individual and residential treatment, but treatment was never an option for me. Besides being too ashamed to open up to anyone about what I was going through, such a problem would also have been embarrassing for my whole family. There was almost no way to talk about it. So I lived isolated and deeply ashamed of my bulimia behaviors.
When my daughter Lucile was battling her own bulimia, she also felt a lot of shame. Neither of us knew how to talk about it, so we did most of our communicating by text. In retrospect, that turned out to be a less threatening way to share the uncomfortable feelings we were both having.
For example, Lucile might text me: Mom, I feel so fat, I just ate so much. It could take me five or more minutes to type out a response on my tiny first generation iphone with my chunky fingers: Oh no. Maybe you could stop buying bagels or just eat them on weekends or eat oatmeal instead?
Luckily, before I hit send, I read through my response again, and thought, “Am I adding to her shame by being an expert and trying to fix her problem? Yes, I am.” Delete, delete, delete. I tried again: Oh shoot, that sounds really difficult, Lucile. Or: I can imagine that must be uncomfortable. Usually I stuck with some variation of That sounds hard, sweetie.
I remember praying that she would be open to getting help, but I also knew that any suggestion of treatment from my husband or me could push her further away from us and any possible therapy. So I just kept replying to her texts: That sounds really tough.
Eventually Lucile told us she would be moving back home, and by email we offered her the option of going into treatment if she wanted to do that instead. She answered immediately: Yes, I want to get help.
The rest of the story wasn’t neat or easy, but Lucile did get help and she is now living a physically and mentally balanced life. She was able to recover much more quickly than I, which I attribute that to the fact that eating disorders are no longer as hidden or shameful as they were when I was young. The more shame we attach to our loved one’s eating disorder, the harder it is for them to acknowledge it and come forward to get help. Thanks to many individuals, associations, eating disorder support groups and therapists, talking about it now is a little easier than it was when I was young.
During Lucile’s residential treatment, I visited her and we attended an Anorexics and Bulimics Anonymous (ABA) meeting together. At the end of the 1-hour meeting, the leader began handing out chips for girls who had been “sober” from their Eating Disorder for 1 day, 2 days, 1 week, etc. Lucile got up and accepted a 1-week chip. I felt a lot of pride in her strength and willingness to get the help she needed.
When the leader asked if anyone had been sober for 10 years or 20 years, I slowly stood up. This was the first time I had publicly acknowledging my own eating disorder history, and accepted the small red chip in front of my daughter.
Now, whenever I look at that chip sitting on my meditation altar, I think of all of the unnecessary shame triggered by eating disorders. We can help reduce this shame by acknowledging our own struggles and by speaking out about eating orders honestly and compassionately whenever and wherever we can.