I was talking to an incredible woman who I heard speak on a panel yesterday. She's a mental illness survivor, a social worker, and an author. I approached her after the talk to connect with another person who has actively put their voice and story out there.
She told me a couple of things that really stuck and got me thinking.
1. Don't be afraid, discouraged, or ashamed to share your story. It's brave.
2. It is SO important that we have people who can be vulnerable and share their stories in the healthcare world. It makes it easier for us to connect with our clients and help others feel comfortable coming forward.
I have had several people tell me that by sharing my story and experiences that I will have a greater impact on others. This is part of the reason that I decided to go into public health, specifically mental health. I feel as though I can create change in public health based on my lived experiences, as well as my knowledge of the experiences of those around me.
And the more I got to thinking about it, the more I realized there is such a huge need for more comprehensive education and training in this field. As I think back on the last couple of years of my life, I recognize that there have been experiences where I was not given the proper care right away, likely due to a lack of education.
So, I share my story for my first therapist, who couldn't see the connection between my sudden onset of panic disorder with my huge amount of weight loss. The therapist, who, when I was openly anxious and pretty concerned about my eating in particular, told me I wasn't "restricting enough". This sent me spiraling into my eating disorder further, because I felt completely invalidated that my struggles weren't real or serious. Even when they were.
I want to go into this work for the experiences I had at my doctor's office, when they saw me about a year into my active eating disorder. They marked on my chart several places that I had unusual/extreme weight changes, but never mentioned it to me. I only found out that they were concerned about this by looking at my own chart more recently. I was at the doctor several of these times for my anxiety disorder, and there was never any real mention about my eating habits or weight loss. I was asked two very general questions that didn't apply to the behaviors I was using, congratulated for my "hard work" and sent on my way again.
I slipped further through the cracks.
And I truly, honestly, do not believe that any of these misunderstandings were intentional at all. I do find it unfortunate that I went for several years without proper, comprehensive diagnoses, but I can't say I'm all too surprised about it.
People will often say, "Oh well, they were not an ED specialist, so how would they have known?"
But that's the point. Not everyone can actually have access to eating disorder or mental health specialists, and doctors, therapists, and health care workers are the first line of defense to getting people there. Only 1 in 10 people get treatment for eating disorders, and every single person who has an ED deserves and is worthy of treatment. But that can't happen with our current medical model and the biases that exist in the field about what mental health is, and what it looks like.
It shouldn't take someone an extended amount of time to get a diagnosis. There shouldn't be a delay between that diagnosis and the eventual treatment, if the person even gets that far.
As public health/health care professionals, we have a responsibility to help others in the best way possible. I'm not saying that everyone should know the DSM 5 cover to cover, but I think it's really important that there is a baseline of education and that people stay informed.
I am speaking up because in an MPH program, I am surrounded by brilliant minds; doctors, pharmacists, biologists, and humanitarians. There is a general lack of conversation about mental health, even though we learn about biology, and epidemiology, and biostats as requirements. We only learn about mental health as an option, as if it's an afterthought. We are all going to go in different directions when we graduate next May, but there will always be mental health concerns that arise, no matter what positions we accept next year. This may not be with your specific clientele, but maybe with your boss, or your coworker, or a loved one. Mental health is everything and affects us everywhere we go. We are the future public health professionals, and it is so important that we have a basic understanding and knowledge, even if we aren't directly going into mental health as a field.
If someone were to come to you concerned about food, stress, anxiety, or depression, what would you do? Where do you direct them? How do you help them? It's about having some of these tools to be able to recognize the red flags, the things that seem kind of "off", or just don't sit well with you as they're happening. Acting on those feelings, even just with a little support, can be huge for someone who is struggling.
It doesn't take a lot to make a difference.
If you are NYC based, consider checking out the Department of Health's mental health first aid trainings. They're free, and can help you so that you know what to do in different situations and how to truly help others. Check them out here.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, call (800) 931-2237 for the NEDA helpline.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 to be connected with the National Suicide Hotline.
If you are in crisis, you can text 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line, where a highly trained volunteer will be able to talk to you and connect you with additional resources.
Remember you are not alone, and there is always help out there for you.
National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is from February 25th-March 3rd, and I couldn't miss the chance to continue to share my voice and spread awareness about eating disorders and the realities of people living with them.
There are a lot of different ways that people in the community share their stories to raise awareness, and I think they're all important. This year is the first time I've participated in the awareness week, and I feel as though I've already shared some aspects of the negative parts of my eating disorder. I don't believe as though it's important to share a before/after photo because it perpetrates the idea that all eating disorders involve weight loss (they don't) and it continues the stereotypes that there's only one type of eating disorder (there's not). Eating disorders do not discriminate, they happen to all people regardless of race, gender, age, size, or sexuality. They can and do impact 30 million Americans, and chances are, you know someone who has been affected by an eating disorder.
This is why we need to talk about them and continue to keep the conversation going about them. Eating disorders thrive and survive in shame and silence. There is no room for them when we talk about them--which is why it's so important to continue to use our voices.
Project HEAL has started yet another brilliant hashtag for this week, #myhealthybodycan. I'm really inspired by this, because of all the ways that people in this community spread awareness throughout this week, I'm feeling called to reflect on the positive side of my journey in recovery. My body has certainly changed a lot in the last 5 years, and especially more so throughout my eating disorder and recovery, but it has gotten me here and I want to celebrate that.
My healthy body...
Has given me energy to be and live and do.
Has space for all emotions--not just positive ones, and can feel everything fully.
Has given me space to rediscover who Charlotte is, without hiding behind the eating disorder.
Has increased my passion and drive to help others.
Has allowed me to live in my favorite city in the world, and to explore it.
Has allowed me to break free from the longest writer's block I've ever had.
Has inspired SO much creativity and helped me find my voice again.
Has strengthened my relationships with my friends, family, and boyfriend.
Has been integral to me being in school, pursuing my dreams.
Has helped me break the silence about eating disorders and the stigma around mental illness.
Has supported me through my times of sickness and relapse, and hasn't given up on me.
Has fought for me to recover, even when it's uncomfortable, even when it's painful.
Has showed me what is truly important.
Is helping me heal.
Is the true me.
I am so inspired by the amazing eating disorder community, and think it is so important and necessary that everyone brings their voices together during this week. It is my sincere hope that through my blog and by speaking up, I am helping raise awareness by bringing my voice and personal experiences to the conversation.
For those of you who are struggling in silence, know that you are not alone. You are seen and your struggles are valid. It is SO terrifying to speak up and talk about eating disorders. I hope that this week brings more awareness and support to all the aspects of eating disorder recovery. I hope that it helps those who are unable to speak up, from fear of stigma, or rejection. I hope that there comes a day where we live in a world without eating disorders. The conversation starts here.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and need help, know that there are SO many resources there for you. Check out Project HEAL here, and NEDA here. They are both fantastic organizations that can point you in the right direction for treatment, support, and hope for recovery. If you ever need anyone to talk to, know that I am here. You are not alone. There is hope, and recovery is possible.
For those of you who don't know, I interned with Project HEAL last semester, and I am currently a chapter volunteer with the NYC chapter. Project HEAL is a major voice in the eating disorder world, where they provide treatment assistance, information and recovery support to those in this community. They have recently started the #donewithdieting campaign which is to bring awareness to the dangers of dieting, especially as they are related to eating disorders. I feel very strongly about supporting Project HEAL as well as all of the noise that is starting from within the community about why dieting doesn't work and the inherent risks associated with them. I thought it was time to share my story, at least how the onset of my eating disorder was strongly linked to dieting. I've seen it said before that although every diet doesn't lead to an eating disorder, dieting leads to a preoccupation with food and weight, a dangerous cultural thin ideal, and disordered eating. For me, dieting absolutely lead to the progression into a full-blown eating disorder.
A little bit of background: I was bullied from a young age throughout puberty for the way my body and weight were. This lead to me wanting so badly to change my body that I used to write "LWN!" on my hand in pen every day. This meant=lose weight now! I didn't know exactly how to do that so from time to time when my self-esteem and confidence got really low, I would try to test myself and see how long I could go without eating. I would eventually give in, eat my packed lunch from my parents, and then feel disgust and shame in myself for not being "good enough".
My struggle with weight and dieting continued into my time in college. Towards the end of my freshman year, I had some pretty fucked up stuff happen. Around the same time, I decided to finally "commit" to the dieting thing for good. It was the perfect storm for the onset of my eating disorder after years of body-shame, body-hate and living in the diet culture.
I went into the bookstore "innocently enough" to go pick up a dieting book. The one I picked had some ridiculous title like "lose huge amounts of weight fast!" or something like this. This book was designed for people who "had" a substantial amount of weight to lose (50+ lbs) and wanted to do it within a couple month span. RED FLAG! The diet was low calorie and the exercise routine was intense. And I got hooked right away, and lost over 30% of my body weight in less than a year. The compliments came, and NO ONE recognized that I was engaging in disordered eating and compulsive exercise behaviors. I had doctors who congratulated me, not really willing to dig in deeper and see what was truly going on below the surface. To everyone around me, I had been a successful dieter, and that was something to celebrate! I was now living in a smaller body, so what could potentially be wrong with that? I was healthy, right?
Until I presented with crippling anxiety and panic attacks over food. What had started as a "simple" harmless enough diet, had quickly turned into an obsession and was turning into dangerous behaviors quickly. I felt like I was completely out of control unless I was engaging in behaviors that controlled my food, body, and shape. The title of "successful dieter" was something that stuck so deeply to me. My mental health became so quickly wrapped up in my diet, my exercise, things that were becoming increasingly harder to control. And so, the behaviors turned more extreme. It took me over a year from the time I started dieting until the time I FINALLY received an eating disorder diagnosis. Because diet culture is so common and so celebrated, no one really noticed when I was struggling and miserable mentally, because on the outside I pretended that dieting was great and amazing and so #healthy.
As I've spoken about recently, I am now in my 3rd treatment center for a higher level of care. This is the first time that I've fully committed to recovery from my eating disorder. And even now, I'm finding it so hard to recover in a society that is still so pro-diet or "lifestyle", which is just another word for dieting anyway. Dieting and diet culture has been a part of my life since I can remember being 10 years old, filling out different diet workbooks and tracking my food. It's honestly not surprising to me that this environment and my multiple attempts at dieting eventually resulted in an eating disorder. There's a saying that genetics load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger on people who develop disordered eating as well as the 10% of the country that suffers from eating disorders.
I cannot express strongly enough how much we NEED to change the discussion around food, bodies and exercise. Even now all of the "lifestyle" trends that people fall into are just thinly-veiled diets. There is increasing evidence that dieting doesn't work, and that it actually causes more health issues as opposed to the health benefits it "promises". If you don't believe me, check out Dr. Linda Bacon's ground-breaking research, Health At Every Size. (Click here!) The conversation has to change, and it has to change now. My story is sadly not that unique in the eating disorder world, because nearly everyone has dieted at some point leading up to the onset of their eating disorders.
I truly wish that organizations like Project HEAL had been on the ground dismantling the myths about dieting and weight loss when I was younger. It might have saved me from years of struggling with dieting and an eventual eating disorder. While we can't go back in time, we can start to create change RIGHT NOW. This is why I am sharing my voice and my story, because I know how important it is to open up about this topic.
Hi, I'm Charlotte! I'm a 24 year old navigating life in NYC and mental health recovery. I am passionate about public health and eliminating stigma.