I was diagnosed with an Eating Disorder in 2009 at the end of my first year of high school. I was hospitalized immediately at my first appointment with eating disorder specialists . Even while I was bed ridden, attached to monitors, hoping my heart wouldn’t stop, I did not believe I was sick. The eating disordered brain has an incredible way of convincing the entire body of being “fine”. Even now when I look back I know I must have been in pain, but yet I can’t remember feeling anything at all.  The memories of this time is an all-encompassing anger, hopelessness and an overwhelming physical and emotional numbness.
During my four years of illness and five years recovered, I have not posted a single status, comment, video, photo or acknowledgment of any kind on social media regarding my struggle with anorexia.  The reason for avoiding making my struggle visible via social media is difficult to unearth. Likely it is a combination of a) the embarrassment and stigma regarding eating disorders and mental illness, b) My personal shame for the suffering I caused the ones I love and c) an intense desire to strip my identity completely from my past. Today, only a handful of people that came into my life post recovery are aware of my past.
The avoidance of participating in the mental illness and eating disorder discussion on social media is a source of immense conflict.  Many strong and admirable people that I know are active in raising awareness via social media to the realities of eating disorders and mental illness. I admire these individuals and their strength to admit their struggle and  fight for health. However, I always wondered how they maintained a normal life? To me, admitting the struggle publicly meant never being seen as anything other than sick.  For a long time, especially while I was still sick, preserving the illusion of normalcy was immeasurably important to me. I protected this illusion vigorously.
This importance placed on normalcy stuck with me post recovery. I felt as though I could manifest “normal” in my real life if I did not acknowledge my suffering.  Quite honestly pretending to be ok helped me to move on. However, this silence made it increasingly difficult for me to speak out about the suffering I experienced at the hands of this unforgivable disease.  To make this pain visible on social media seemed utterly impossible. Social media seemed to be a far too vulnerable space for me to be open in any way about my personal realities.
After almost 3 years in and out of hospitals, my doctors were weary of my chances of a full recovery. “Intractable” they called me. I was sent to a residential treatment facility in the United States, where I spent two months with very little outside contact. This experience  has had a lasting impact on my life. In my previous hospitalizations, the patients were kept relatively separate from one another and were never out of sight from nursing staff. Here, from morning until night you were surrounded by women in all stages of illness. Many with various co-morbidities such as trauma, drug addiction and self harm.
I was certainly still sick at this time, but after years of treatment I had regained a fair bit of mental clarity. I recall feeling horrified of the suffering I witnessed.  Not long before, it was me in the wheelchair, emaciated, emotionally, physically and spiritually empty. I  was driven to help these women.
For the first time in my recovery, I was not thinking about myself. However, as much as I like to think I was able to help some of these women during our time together, they helped me more than I could imagine. Especially when I met Sarah. Her life, her generosity of soul, her inability to see her complete beauty, the gift of her powerful music allowed me to love  unconditionally for the first time in a very long time. And her death….  I knew I could never go back to my eating disordered ways, as hard as that would be at times. She saved me.
When I came back from residential treatment I had several more appointments before I turned 18, and was no longer able to take part in the youth treatment program. While sitting in the doctor’s office at my last appointment I remember feeling hope for the first time. When my team of doctors, who had been following me for years, came into the room what they said next would stay with me forever. Following their commentary recalling my stubbornness and resentment towards them during this process, my doctor said “we really didn’t expect this, but we believe you are cured”. Hearing the word cured after years of everyone telling me I would never fully overcome this demon, was an immensely powerful moment. I truly didn’t believe “cured” was a part of eating disorder discourse, and I certainly never thought it would apply to me.
And so here it is… my story…on social media. Although I still struggle with mental illness on a daily basis, I feel that each day is another step forward. I am finally ready to take the leap and make myself vulnerable. “Hope” is a concept that I feel is lacking emphasis in the medical dialogue around eating disorder treatment. I was able to beat this disease for a reason and I have a responsibility to share.
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If you would like to share your stories, writings, and art, please email Kmccarthy@Sheenasplace.org
If you or someone in your life is struggling with an Eating Disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) at nedic.ca
For information or to register for groups at Sheena's Place, please visit www.sheenasplace.org