Queen’s faces of mental illness: Eating disorder support

WARNING: This piece talks about eating disorders and may be triggering for some readers.

As part of Mental Illness Awareness Week, Lifestyle is featuring personal stories from Queen’s students each day from Oct. 6-10. We’lll be continuing the initiative throughout the year with monthly stories. If you’re interested in submitting a story, please email journal_lifestyle@ams.queensu.ca.

I’ll be honest: supporting my significant other through her struggles and recovery from an eating disorder has been extremely challenging. Nonetheless, being in this position of support is the most important thing I have done in my life — period.

Since I have come to Queen’s, I’ve been shocked by the pervasiveness of mental health issues on campus. Attending religious, single-gender high school blunted my awareness of these issues; they just weren’t things we spoke about.

In realizing the expansiveness of mental illness on our campus, I’ve been inspired by my peers who strive to bring these issues to the forefront and cast light on a topic that brings darkness to so many.

Perhaps I was ignorant, but I never anticipated someone so dear to me would suffer from the relentless grasp of mental illness, and specifically, disordered eating. When I first became aware of my significant other’s circumstances, I was shocked.

I would have never guessed. That, in part, is why mental illness is so debilitating: it has no face and it can be hidden. In addition to being surprised, I was confused and saddened — I didn’t understand the illness and I thought there was nothing I could do to help. I was wrong.

That was nine months ago.

Now, I understand that there is something I can do. I have come to realize that I’ve been doing it all along: I have tried to support my significant other unconditionally.

I use the word “try” because I haven’t been perfect. Being in a position of support is difficult — extremely so. Eating disorders are suffocating for their victims, and they are opportunistic; they thrive off of stress and discomfort.

In putting myself in a position of support, I have tried to remove some of that burden for her. At times, it’s overwhelming. When she has difficult days, it breaks my heart.

The pain she feels overtakes me and I feel a portion of it too. Sometimes, I take the blame for her hardships — I figure I must not be supporting her enough or in the right way. During these difficult days, I reflect on where I was nine months before and how far we have come together. That renews my energy and brings me life.

Everything I have described thus far is dark, but I retain: being in a position of support for someone who is recovering from an eating disorder is the single most important thing I have done in my twenty-one years of life. Every time she has fallen, I have been there to extend my hand and bring her up. I feel both fortunate and grateful to have had this opportunity to help someone who has put her trust on the line and allowed me to have access to this part of her life. I anticipate that one day we will look back on this time together and appreciate how much closer it has brought us.

Being in a position of support for someone who suffers from disordered eating, or any mental illness, can be painful. You want nothing more than to remove their burdens so that they can live the life they deserve.

But you’ll never be able to do this and that is something I am continuing to work to understand. Still, it’s imperative to recognize that you can make a difference. As I’ve learned, simply being there can be enough — being there during the tough times and the easy times and during all times.

In being there, you’re sending a message: when they don’t think anyone could love them with their illness, you love them. Love is powerful and I have learned that it’s healing.

Being in a position of support and showing unconditional love is not an immediate remedy, but it makes a drastic difference. If someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, or any mental illness, and you don’t know what to do, show them love.

Love can be expressed in an infinite number of ways. I have found that small acts seem to make the biggest difference: cooking for her, sharing a meal with her, reminding her of both her physical and inner beauty as well as her accomplishments, hugging her when she’s sad and being a sincere, available listener.

I encourage her to be open with me about her feelings, but never force a conversation. As long as she knows I’m there for her, I can be content with my support.

My advice to anyone dealing with a similar situation would be to be both open and honest in your approach to support. It’s okay to ask questions and to be confused; it’s a learning experience for both of you.

It’s important to remember that supporters need support too. Never be afraid to reach out to someone if you’re feeling down. You can’t adequately support someone else if you yourself are suffering.

The writer has requested not be photographed.

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