Silently starving for more support

Eating disorders leave people feeling isolated as a result of the mental illness, but more support can erase stigma

If you were diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, would you tell anyone?

While most people wouldn’t willingly choose to suffer alone over the loving support of family and friends, I was suffering alone for many years. My illness is anorexia nervosa.

The symptoms began when I was in grade 10. Preoccupation with food, denial of hunger, intense fear of gaining weight — the clinical symptoms were all there.

Underneath the behaviour, however, were the emotional effects. Social withdrawal, depressed mood and irritability all took full reign.

At the time, I was competing in high school gymnastics. My coaches suspected something was wrong and approached me.

An appointment with my family doctor followed, then a referral to the McMaster Children’s Hospital Eating Disorder Program where I was officially diagnosed.

I would no longer be able to compete in gymnastics or engage in any physical activity at all.

Monitored meals and weekly appointments at the Eating Disorder Clinic replaced gymnastics practices. I was even prescribed Prozac to combat anxiety.

While all this took place, I didn’t tell a soul. The fear of judgement from others, especially people I saw on a daily basis, was paralyzing.

My family knew, as did a few friends or acquaintances, but those closest to me were shut out. It was them who I was most scared of disappointing.

Secrets work against their intent, I soon discovered. I felt completely and utterly alone. My eating disorder became a dark cloud hanging above me. And whenever that cloud darkened, I’d shut myself up even more.

I wish I could say that recovery was an easy process. It wasn’t. Even five years later, I still have difficulty finding the words to describe my ongoing struggle.

One barrier in particular that prevented me from sharing my experience earlier is the dreaded s-word associated with mental illness — stigma.

It occurred to me recently that I was helping to perpetuate this stigma. By remaining silent about the subject, I was just as accountable as anyone else.

My inspiration came after attending the Queen’s Mental Health Awareness Committee’s (MHAC) speaker series presentation on eating disorders. As I walked into the jam-packed room I did a double take. A quick headcount confirmed an attendance of over 50 students, both male and female.

This flicked a switch inside my mind: I wasn’t alone. Evidently, there were others out there dealing with similar mental health problems.

Dr. Brad MacNeil, a speaker at the event, confirmed that my fear of disclosure was perfectly normal.

“Many people struggle alone with their eating disorder in part due to the secrecy and stigma surrounding eating disorders and also due to the nature of the illness itself,” MacNeil, a clinical psychologist at Hotel Dieu Hospital’s Adult Eating Disorder Clinic, told the Journal via email.

“A support system is very important in the treatment of eating disorders,” he said. “Eating disorders do not occur in isolation and affect spouses, partners and family members of the person who is struggling with the illness.”

My main issue was that my support system — my family, particularly my parents — was hundreds of kilometres away. I was seeking professional help in Kingston, but that wasn’t the same as having a close friend or family member to confide in.

Yet I knew there had to be others like me at Queen’s. At an institution renowned for academic excellence, the characteristics of eating disorders — perfectionism, high achievement and a drive to succeed — had to be abundant.

The added stress of transitioning from high school to university also plays a significant role in triggering symptoms. If a university environment is the perfect breeding place for eating disorders, why was it so hard to find others like me?

MacNeil said the University of North Carolina has an organization called Embody Carolina dedicated to educating students about eating disorders.

“Like campus awareness groups, Embody recognizes that there is no replacement for professional treatment of disorders and in no way seeks to provide treatment,” he said. “What is offered is a student-led training that helps students identify the signs of eating disorders, learn to approach friends with sensitivity to their struggles and compassion, how to find professional help in the community and serve as allies in the recovery process.”

Haley Warren, ArtSci ’14 and co-chair of the MHAC, said she believes Queen’s could benefit from a positive body image campaign.

In addition to the resources already available, such as the Peer Support Centre (PSC), Health Counselling and Disability Services and MHAC, a campaign such as Dove’s Real Beauty would help foster a supportive environment, she said.

“One of the scariest things about struggling with an eating disorder is that you absolutely feel 110 per cent alone and there’s no one there for you and no one will understand,” Warren said. “That’s important in terms of any mental illness, knowing that there is a compassionate community waiting for you to help you through.”

For Jenn Thunem, ArtSci ’15, speaking out about her eating disorder has been an extremely liberating experience. “I went to therapy with the intentions of not telling anyone … and having this big skeleton in my closet that no one would ever know about,” Thunem said.

Once she started opening up, however, she said she realized that a lot of people were going through something similar.

“It was just this big epiphany that everyone has a story and no one likes to talk about it,” she said.

Like me, Thunem’s disordered eating spiralled out of control in first year. It began with her involvement in high performance sport in high school. Once she moved to Queen’s and quit competitive kayaking, she said the symptoms became increasingly worse.

“In first year I definitely felt like there was — I don’t want to say a lack of support in the sense that it’s Queen’s fault — but I didn’t reach out,” she said.

Thunem added that although there were resources like the PSC, it was hard to find specific support for eating disorders.

“I definitely think there’s space for something like that [Embody Carolina] at Queen’s and not only is there space for it, but there’s a need for it,” she said.

Thunem said she believes there are far more students struggling than we think.

“Taking a voice away from the eating disorder and giving it to a body of people who are fighting this would be really valuable.” Separating the illness from the person suffering is a crucial step in the recovery process. The illness isn’t a representation of the person, but rather an entity all to itself.

For me, recovery wouldn’t have been possible had my gymnastics coaches not intervened. An intervention is a daunting feat — it’s frightening for both sides. Ultimately, it’s an act done out of concern because someone cares. “It’s important to remember that if you’re received with rejection when you approach them, it’s the eating disorder rejecting you, not your friend,” Thunem said.

She added the importance of making sure the illness remains a topic of conversation. “Although it was one of the scariest things walking into the therapist’s office for the first time, it’s completely changed my life and I would never, ever take that back,” Thunem said.

Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, but most importantly, it doesn’t happen alone.

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