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Being open about mental health: what about eating disorders?

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By Isla Whateley

Content note: Mental health, eating disorders

Society, in the last couple of years, has changed with regards to attitudes to mental illness. Depression and anxiety are becoming less stigmatised – people talk about them a lot, it’s more acceptable to use humour as a form of coping with them, and it’s more understood. Maybe this is just in my social circles and the corners of the Internet I personally inhabit, but it’s a change I have noticed and one I’m thankful for. The rise of mental illness memes too, for me, normalise these conditions without trivialising, and help those suffering find solace and a sense that they’re not alone.

But this is only really for the two ‘main’ (i.e. most talked about, most understood and most focused on) mental illnesses – depression and anxiety. Although I suffer from both, and find these online communities and acceptance very helpful, one of my other illnesses is still hugely stigmatised.

I have an eating disorder. My first appointment with the mental health services is next week, although I’ve suffered for nearly 5 years now. It was only a few months ago that I realised what I had was an eating disorder and went to the doctors to try and get help. Now I’m being open about it, both to myself and everyone else, I’ve noticed some things.

It’s a lot more stigmatised than depression or anxiety. Family members tiptoe around it, and ask me when my “special appointment” is, or will say things like “how’s the food thing” instead of being upfront. Every time I try and use humour as a way of coping, I’m met with awkward looks and uncomfortable silences. Although I have many friends who can relate to ‘depression jokes’, I have comparatively few who ‘get’ the ones I make about food and eating. I know it makes people more worried. People don’t know what to say. And it’s isolating.

A huge symptom of eating disorders is hiding it and denying the fact you have one. I should know, because I did it on and off for 4 years, and still sometimes lie about my eating to friends. So by nature, it’s not talked about nearly as much as it should be. There’s not the same level of understanding in the general population, so people are taken aback when you make a joke about food and how you haven’t eaten all day ha ha. Especially at the stage I’m at right now, where everyone KNOWS you have an eating disorder (because I’ve publicly posted and spoken about it online and to most of my friends), so there’s that constant level of concern every time you make a joke that implies you haven’t eaten, or that you’ve eaten the ‘wrong thing’.

I like to think that I’m doing the right thing by speaking up about it. I hope one day we reach the point that ALL mental illnesses are on an equal playing field with regards to awareness and discussion – even the ones with the worst stigma and stereotypes, like schizophrenia, personality disorders, bipolar and OCD. It’s isolating, and it’s lonely. There’s only so much that a couple of ED-related Facebook meme groups can give you. But I’m not giving up. I hope that someone might see my posts or my tweets, or even this article, and realise it’s okay to talk about it. It’s not easy but it’s okay. And the more you talk, the more people listen.

If you are worried about your eating habits or think you might have an eating disorder, beat is the UK’s national eating disorder charity. They offer a wide range of support which can be found on their website. https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services

Find Isla on Twitter at @islarosem

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