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How a Coffee Shop Encounter Made Me Think About Eating Disorder Stigma

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

Enjoying the ambiance of a coffee shop on a Friday afternoon, I can’t help but engage in my beloved activity of people-watching. The older man with a Venti coffee is completing his crossword puzzle in the New York Times, and the college student staring out the window at the table in front of me looks as if he is falling asleep to his math homework. Clearly, the coffee is not working its magic on him. I chuckle to myself, feeling relaxed and at ease.

But, as I continue to read the textbook in front of me, the activities I witness out of the corner of my eye and the conversations I hear in the background suddenly become more interesting. The 30-year-old woman at the coffee counter is slowly eliminating her menu options as she picks off drinks one by one because, “A Green Tea Frappuccino would be tasteless as a sugar-free drink,” and, “Even with non-fat milk, a Caramel Macchiato still contains too many calories.” As I glance up from my reading, another woman is engrossed in her phone with an almost undetectable sadness hidden deep behind her eyes. Her cheeks are sunken in, her oversized sweater hides her tiny frame, and her pale skin makes her look tired and washed out. To anyone else, the woman at the counter is just a little more health conscious than the average person; the woman with her phone just appears a little more petite than the average person, and probably had a long week. But, I know better. These women both remind me of where I’ve been before.

Sadness and shame wash over me as I remember how I once starved my body, leaving my family feeling hopeless and in shock. The sadness and shame remain as I think of how the remains of my eating disorder continue to affect me to this day. Then the guilt begins to take over as I realize how many people are struggling, yet unable to reach out for help. Goosebumps cover my arms as I remember how the voices of Ana and Mia imprisoned my mind, convincing me I am fat, disgusting, worthless and not needing help because I either don’t deserve it or should be able to deal with my problems on my own. “Just get over it,” right? “How hard can it be to pick up a fork and eat?”

As I remain at my table sipping my own coffee, my focus is anywhere but on the readings in front of me. All around me, there are people struggling with their own silent illnesses and unable to reach out for help. Particularly, people around me could be imprisoned by one of the most deadly and ignored mental illnesses. They might be being silenced by their eating disorders.

Despite the stigma and silence, it is important for people to realize eating disorders are all around us, whether they are detectable or not. They have all different shapes and sizes, and it is impossible to exclude the possibility someone may have a disorder simply by looking at them.

As I continue to remain fixated on people around me, it occurs to me the complex stories each person in this shop carries around as aspects of themselves. The man reading the New York Times could be waiting for a family member to undergo treatment for a disorder, or the student falling asleep to his math homework could be struggling with insomnia, depression or the malnutrition and exhaustion that comes from the binge and purge cycle. After all, I am still recovering from the thoughts and behaviors of my own eating disorder struggles, despite the fact I’d rather keep those wounds to myself than expose the shame and guilt of my supposed weaknesses.

But witnessing those around me stirs up a fire and awareness inside my soul. We all have our struggles, we all have our vulnerabilities and we all have our secrets. But mental illness should no longer be one of our secrets. It should instead be a collective struggle where we are no longer ashamed to reach out for help and destroy the demons eating away at our souls. Especially with the silence that comes from the shame of an eating disorder, it is important we begin to acknowledge these disorders as real illnesses that are not due to vanity, but instead, stem from the shame we have no need to feel in ourselves or the desire for perfection that is simply not possible to obtain. It is important to realize anyone could be struggling from any type of disorder for a multitude of reasons, but it might only take one hero to recognize this struggle, understand the pain and offer compassion and support.

Closing my textbook and taking one final glance at the scene around me, I let out a deep breath and notice the shame is unnecessary. Instead, it is replaced with a sense of determination and community. Ana, Mia and their evil friends silence too many people and destroy too many lives, leading to an endless cycle of guilt and agony. It’s time to break this silence, overcome the stereotypes, and free the victims from their grasp.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Unsplash photo via Luke Chesser.

Originally published: April 5, 2017
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