Anyone who has ever struggled with mental illness has probably dealt with feelings stemming from the stigma around their illness. Of course, every mental illness is different and every individual’s experience is different. Yet, you would be hard pressed to find someone who has dealt with this type of illness and has not been affected by a fear of stigma accompanying it. It is terrible that 1 in 4 people struggle with mental illness, but we can hardly even begin to discuss them.
In my sociology class on Self-Help and Therapeutic Culture, we read a scholarly article about how stigma has gone down and mental illness is easier to discuss in our society. Words such as “anxiety” and “depression” have become a normal part of our vocabulary and not quite so taboo. Indeed, I am grateful a lot of progress has been made. However, I would argue that mental illness is not openly discussed in most environments. Many of my peers vocalized similar opinions: institutions, such as schools, are often not conducive to discussing mental illness.
At least my college has done a much better job than my high school did in providing spaces to discuss issues of diversity, including mental illness. During one of these diversity seminars , I did open up to two girls on my floor about my experience with anorexia. But during another seminar, I chose not to discuss it in front of my whole dorm. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it because I hardly know some of those people and am unsure of how they would perceive what I have been through.
Clearly I have been affected by stigma, I mean after all that’s why I’m dedicating a whole post to it! When I first entered treatment for anorexia, I didn’t tell anyone outside my immediate family. I feared what others would think of me. I feared I would no longer be perfect in their eyes. I feared that I wouldn’t be seen as normal. I feared how they would scrutinize my body. Dealing with recovery on my own was more than enough to handle without the added stress of others knowing about my mental illness.
Eventually I opened up to more people, but it took a lot of time and trust. Trust in myself to know that I was strong enough and trust in those I was telling that they would not think any less of me. I can never know for sure whether others who have found out about my struggles think less of me. I know some people actually think more of me because I have overcome huge obstacles and become a stronger individual. It shouldn’t really matter what others think about me, but it still does.
Now, being in college, I’ve had to think about how to present myself to all the new people I have met. Of course, the first thing I tell someone is not going to be “I’m in recovery from an eating disorder,” but rather something along the lines of “I’m a freshman from Chicago planning on majoring in gender studies!” Everyone chooses how to present themselves, and typically choose the best version of themselves.
Yet, I can’t help but ask myself: am I being a hypocrite by not talking about my struggles with anorexia? I call myself a stigma fighter, I even have a pin on my backpack to prove it. But I have not actively told a lot of people. It’s not that I haven’t told a single person, but that I have not told some of the people I have become closer friends with. I just haven’t felt like there has been a good time or place for it. I enjoy when I am talking and laughing with friends. I don’t want to ruin the moment by bringing up such a serious topic. There is a lot of stigma attached. It’s not something people bring up casually in conversation. I realized this while working on a group project in the library for my sociology class. One of my peers was talking about something and mentioned that she was in recovery from some sort of knee surgery. Recovery is a word that turns a switch on in my head. But I quickly realized she did not mean the same type of recovery that I had been dealing with. Her recovery was only physical. But for some reason in our society that means it is okay to discuss, while recovery from a mental illness is not.
There have been two times where my eating disorder has come up casually in conversation. This was because I brought up the fact that I have a blog. Then I was asked what it was about and I mean, I wasn’t going to lie. But now I have learned not to bring up my blog to people because then they will want to know what it is about. In both of those instances it didn’t ever amount to anything because they were only people who I had talked to once or twice (college can be like that). It feels weird to me that these strangers know, but I haven’t opened up to a lot of people I would consider my friends.
I owe it to no one to tell them what I have been through. I can share if I want to, but I am under no obligation to tell anyone. There may be a right time to bring up my story to others, there may not be. I have trusted my gut throughout this whole process and I would say it has done a good job. I just have to continue trusting myself to know when the time is right to share. Talking about mental illness is a hard thing because of the stigma attached to it. I would be nervous, even if I wanted to talk about it. I don’t know what other people at my college have been taught about mental illness, especially eating disorders. Most of the people I have told back home and in my family seem to understand that it is not an issue of “trivial “girl problems,” diets gone awry, adolescent rites of passage, or the acting out of juvenile rebels or “control freaks,” (Huffington Post) but knows they are serious mental illnesses.
I hope one day the stigma around eating disorders and mental illness in general will be gone. Thirty years ago breast cancer had a stigma and couldn’t be talked about. Look at it now, a huge cultural phenomenon dedicated to the betterment of women’s health. I don’t see eating disorders as all that different. EDs disproportionately affect women (90% of diagnosed EDs belong to women). Change takes time, but it is possible, as exemplified by the breast cancer awareness movement. I will do what I can to help de-stigmatize eating disorders because that is one of the biggest changes we can make to help EnD ED.
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