When You Feel Pressured to Be 'Recovered' as a Mental Health Advocate
In my experience with the mental health system, lived experience is only really listened to when you talk about your struggles in past tense. When you admit you’re not well right now, your opinion is dismissed as thoughts, suggestions and critics of an unwell person. Like unwell people can’t have sane thoughts (spoiler alert: they can, and do all the time).
This treatment makes advocates hide the parts of themselves that are not recovered. For me, it led to me becoming addicted to appearing to be recovered. Addicted to the support and attention I get from being recovered. I was afraid to admit I’m living with an eating disorder. Afraid it meant the messages I was telling people about recovery being possible wasn’t true. That living with an eating disorder, while being highlighted as recovered, meant I was a fraud.
In my world, I am seen as recovered. I am literally put on stage to inspire people to not give up and to keep trying. My job is to let audiences know that recovery is possible and, more importantly, worth it. When I first started speaking about mental health in 2010, I felt I had conquered depression, anxiety and suicide. At that time, I was surrounded by friends, succeeding in university (despite nearly failing in first year), and was finding my voice in advocacy and on stage. I was getting the positive attention I never thought was possible for someone like me. And by someone like me, I mean someone who never had a lot of friends, hadn’t accomplish very much of anything and seemed to always walk a different way then everyone else. I began to fall in love with how the people saw me (well, the parts of the world who wanted to listen to me anyway).
I was being asked to speak at conferences, universities, high schools and more. I was being called “brave,” “strong” and “inspirational.” This lead to occasional “fame” as people sometimes recognized me and people I never met were telling me, through Facebook, email, Twitter and more how my messages impacted their lives.
Ironically, the same year I gave my TEDx Talk was when my depression, anxiety and strong suicidal feelings came back.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.
This experience with mental illness was different though. This time, I had graduated school jobless, and had just left my first adult relationship. My friends were all around the world, doing amazing and awesome shit. On the surface I appeared successful; I was on TV, in the papers and getting meetings with politicians. But on the inside, I felt like I was dying.
And despite knowing the people running the best clinics and the best programs, I didn’t get help.
So, that’s when I turned to food. In a way, I had always turned to food in times of stress. But in those times, there were also people around me. People to watch Netflix and talk me through my feelings. This time, because I was too ashamed of my own real feelings, I didn’t let anyone truly in. I started binge eating in 2013 as a way to hide the way I was feeling. I would binge eat after a stressful meeting, a bad date or as a release when depression and anxiety got really bad. It’s 2016 now. I have gained nearly 100 pounds and I feel like I can’t stop. When I’m stressed, my solution is to stay in my house and eat all day. Sometimes, I don’t even notice how much I am eating or that I am eating at all.
People around me have noticed my weight gain, my avoidance of cameras in social gathers, or my avoidance of social gatherings all together. But no one has asked because I have held on to the persona of a recovered person. My support system assumed I would ask for help when I needed it. When I’ve dropped hints, my friends think its normal body image issues and tell me I should become vegan, do CrossFit or join some other trend they’re into. When I dropped hints to health care professionals, they increased my thyroid medicine and half-heartedly joked that if I threw up after I ate, I would be able to find help.
But the truth is, I was ashamed to ask for help. In part because of the stigma around being fat, and in part because I felt like I failed those I had inspired. Ashamed, even though I realize that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Ashamed to ask for help, even though help saved my life the first time. And ashamed, after years of being Iron Man (a superhero without a mask), I had gone back into hiding.
Today marks an end to all that.
I’m finally seeking the help I need — and needed since 2013. I am not a fraud. I’m like every other person with mental health issues — I struggle sometimes. These struggles lie to me, made me feel like I am not in control of what happens around me. The truth is, I have beaten worse and I can do so again. I need to stay honest and tell everyone who I am — a mental health superhero, whose latest battle will be to defeat binge eating.
I am telling you this story today, to return to what I have always wanted to do. Change minds by sharing stories honestly and openly.