Twenty Years is Too Long
By Stacey Huget
I struggled with an eating disorder for twenty years. Literally two decades of my life were darkened by this disease and by my eventual descent into alcoholism as a way to “cope". Today, 15 year later, I am the Executive Director of the Looking Glass Foundation, and am privy to countless conversations about eating disorders, about other people’s struggle to recover. As I listen and learn, I always return to this one thought: let it not take twenty years.
No one, no matter who they are or what their story is, should suffer this disease for years on end as I did. And yet, that is exactly what is happening. Thousands upon thousands suffer silently from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and overeating. Usually, they do so with profound shame, fear, and isolation - alone, desperate, and without hope. Not for months, but for years.
As I see or hear of young women and men whose lives are beginning to be ravaged by this disease, I wonder: how long will this go on for? Will their eating disorder be a brief encounter with despair, or will they struggle with it through their twenties and thirties as I did, living in the shadows along the margins of a life that might have been.
I don’t know the answer to that question, but through my life experience with disordered eating, this is what I do know:
Someone with an eating disorder must have a tremendous store of courage to come forward - particularly in a society that is not ready for one to do so. The misunderstandings about this disease are appalling. All one need do is read the comments section of any online article about eating disorders to see how the world - or outspoken voices within it - still condemn, insult, diminish the sufferer. But one needn't look to strangers. Even today, years afterwards, if I tell a friend I recovered from an eating disorder, their first instinct is to cringe, look away, change the subject. They would rather not know.
I get an entirely different reaction, by the way, when I tell friends or colleagues I'm 11 years sober. For that, people easily congratulate me. Some of them readily confess concern for their own alcohol use, and tell me about wanting to cut back their own drinking. Apparently, unruly relationships with alcohol are something we are prepared to share and be empathetic about. Not so with disordered eating.
Coming forward for treatment would be enormously less daunting with the caring intervention of another person - yet other people, even loved ones, simply don't know what to do, so they do nothing. My own experience with this disease was a lonely one. My family and a few friends knew I had sought counsel for depression. Amazingly though, very few people - even those who loved me - ever did more than comment on how thin I was, or admonish me to not lose any more weight. People close to me knew something was wrong, but they didn't feel right interfering - and I didn't feel safe asking them to. It was an ironic and painful deadlock that continued from high school and university through countless workplaces and a dozen broken relationships.
Being told there are treatment options for eating disorders is not the same thing as being successfully treated. Several factors come into play here and, through twenty years, I bumped into all of them.
First among them is one's own readiness to respond, which waxes and wanes in ways that are too complex and elusive to be summed up or anyone's fault. Mental illness is boggy ground and one doesn't get traction just by wanting to.
Second, is that there's a difference between the availability of a program, and the availability of a program. The only thing gluing together my self-esteem - my ability to hold a job and earn an income - was the very thing I'd have to have given up to accommodate the requirements or the scheduling or the expense of several eating disorder programs I was told about - assuming I actually met the admissions criteria and survived the waitlist.
Third, is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all therapy for eating disorders, nor are all programs and treatments going to apply or resonate equally well for everyone. In my case, treatment was a rough patchwork of day and group and outpatient programs; psychiatric, psychological, and nutritional counseling; and a decade-long pharmacological crapshoot. I tried to follow the game plan and play by the rules and just make it something helpful - but I didn't feel helped. I just felt tired of trying, weary of pretending.
The shame of this disease grows with every failure to respond to treatment, with every relapse. One doesn't develop an eating disorder feeling "right" in the world. One feels more and more wrong as the struggle to recover continues. I cannot count the occasions or describe the deepening resolve with which I just wrote myself off as someone who was simply not meant to cope the way other people did. I became increasingly isolated and, in my isolation, began to really drink. It was in this boozy haze that I botched several suicide attempts - attempts, no doubt, that I intended to fail. I've always wanted to live. Which was why, without realizing it at the time, I was painting my pain in new colours that someone would notice and respond to. Fortunately, for me, they did.
Eventually, there comes a point when all of one's therapies and counseling and support, when all of one's own hard work, will come together in a kind of sweet release. For some, it happens quickly. For others, like me, it's a matter of hanging on, of trusting in the process and in oneself. When it does come, when one feels truly free from mental illness, life is more than simply good. It can be better and richer and happier than one ever imagined. I look back upon my darkest years and am inexpressibly grateful to everything and everyone who helped to pull me out - bit, by bit, even without my knowing they were doing it. It was in me to get beyond my depression, my eating disorder, my alcoholism - but I couldn't have done it without help.
Recovery is something we give ourselves in the company of people who genuinely care. Something Stephen Covey wrote in one of his books has long stayed with me: Love is a verb. Caring for someone with an eating disorder - whether as a parent, sibling, friend, peer, colleague, or as a practitioner - is something we must do, not just say or feel. Creating a safe place for them to risk coming forward for help. Comforting them through their fear. Reminding them of their strength. Encouraging them through the ups and downs of treatment. Standing by them if they stumble. Honouring their dignity as individuals - who are worthy and cherished and so, so, so much more than their eating disorder.
More than anything else, we must do it now. At the Looking Glass Foundation, we are.
Stacey is The Looking Glass Foundation’s Executive Director. She lives in Vancouver, BC and is an avid jazz and opera buff, enjoys playing bridge and shooting pool, and looks forward to a day when eating disorders are something we sadly remember, as a thing of the past. You can reach Stacey at firstname.lastname@example.org.