We are honored to share this piece with you, written by Wendy York, senior at UCLA and member of the UCLA Body Image Task Force. This piece feels very timely with all that is currently being shared in the media. The trauma stories and experiences that brave souls are coming forth with can be healing for some — but for other’s, maybe threatening to their recovery and mental health.
There is empowerment and inspiration in the stories that we share. Wendy reminds us that when sharing our stories there is so much value and healing when focusing on the fact that the fight for recovery is worth it. She reminds us as storytellers, that we have a responsibility to ourselves and others to be mindful and honor that recovery is non-linear and what we put out into the world may be triggering. Yes, we must create space to speak our truth and process the emotions that come with those while being mindful of how we do so. Thinking about who has earned the right to hear your stories and what platforms are most appropriate for sharing them are ways of doing this.
Sharing an Eating Disorder Journey with Care
Upon being discharged from my eating disorder treatment center in 2014, I re-entered the world feeling rejuvenated and enlightened. How was it that I had gone through 19 years of my life with so little knowledge of eating disorders? How had I not known that they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, that they do not always fall into the neat boxes of either anorexia or bulimia? Equipped with newly acquired knowledge along with personal investment in sharing my own journey to be of service to others, I quickly developed a passion for educating the world on the issue of eating disorders.
The drive to share this personal story is not an uncommon one within the eating disorder community; many survivors emerge from their eating disorders feeling compelled to share their own stories in an effort to educate and help others who have been affected. However, unfortunately, good intentions can only go so far. If not handled with care, the sharing of one’s journey can often do more harm than good.
A common error in sharing about one’s eating disorder is the tendency to emphasize specific behaviors and mental processes that were occurring when things were at their worst. While it is certainly important for people to understand the myriad of experiences that are common for those struggling with an eating disorder, it is not appropriate for any individual sharing their personal story to outline those details, particularly when people who are still in the throes of their eating disorders could potentially be absorbing such information. Rather than educating people, these types of stories become more of a “how-to” guide for those still struggling, giving instructions for new behaviors to incorporate into already-unhealthy patterns. These stories generally serve as models to compete with or new goals of “self control” to strive towards, prompting survivors to compare their own methods with the ones being shared and potentially worsening their relationships to food, exercise, and their bodies as a whole.
Beyond being detrimental to people who are still battling their eating disorders, these types of stories can be harmful for those in recovery as well. Reaching a place of complete recovery is a non-linear process, meaning that some days are inevitably more challenging than others. Although for some, behaviors may be in the past, plenty of survivors still struggle with their relationships to food and their bodies on a daily basis. For others, the behaviors themselves may re-occur every so often as well. Hearing stories that inadvertently glorify the trauma of engaging in such behaviors can undoubtedly lead to setbacks for those in recovery and even for those sharing their stories.
By no means does any of this suggest that people who share stories such as these do so from a place of malicious intent. There is no doubt in my mind that all survivors share their stories purely with the hopes of shedding light on the serious physical and mental tolls eating disorders take on people all over the world. However, we must acknowledge that placing so much stress on the specifics of the disorders themselves is often not conducive to healing. It can instead make it feel as though the eating disorder – a never-ending cycle of despair – is the only conceivable coping mechanism available, when this is not the case at all.
There are plenty of mental health and medical professionals who are qualified to educate people on the intricacies of these disorders in responsible ways. However, as survivors, our stories of recovery must reinforce the fact that the fight is worth it, rather than dwelling on the battle alone. Instead of sharing stories of despair or hopelessness, we can choose to share stories of resilience, triumph, and hope. This is not to say that the recovery process should be misrepresented as a simple or painless experience. However, one can acknowledge that there are inevitable challenges throughout recovery while still primarily emphasizing the fact that the journey is worth it.
Beyond the realm in which the eating disorder voice seems to be the only one that exists, there is another voice that speaks the truth. This voice has the power to take each and every recovery warrior to a place filled with an abundance of hope, happiness, and healing. Although it may lie beyond the pain that comes with facing whatever the eating disorder has been suppressing for so long, it is there within. It is merely waiting for an invitation to bloom and flourish.
For more information about the UCLA Body Image Task Force, please visit their website.