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When My Neighbor's Ignorance About My Mental Illness Left Me in Disbelief

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The conversation began simply, as it often does before something happens that changes the course of things. My neighbor knocked on my door to say hi. After she mentioned few things, I asked where she was coming from. She replied, “Oh, I went to Whole Foods and Star Market.”

To anyone else this would be an innocuous statement, and if I hadn’t been in my kitchen struggling with my eating disorder it would have ended there. Instead, I replied.

I told her I couldn’t believe she went out of her way to go to two grocery stores when I can barely make it out the door to grocery shop at all. “I hate it!” I said more passionately than I probably should have. She of course asked why, and without thinking, I told the truth. “Because I have an eating disorder.”

Her responses were both priceless and infuriating.

You mean you have like a gluten allergy or something?” I tried to educate her. A gluten allergy is not the same as an eating disorder. I’m talking about the mental health issue.

So you buy too much at the store. I understand.” Then her voice dropped to a loud whisper, “I’ve eaten a whole frozen pizza a few times instead of just one serving.” I tried again to educate her. That isn’t binging. Binging is much more complicated.

I would feed you!” she told me. I tried yet again to educate her, but my patience was waning. I was losing it. Her feeding me wouldn’t have changed anything.

So I tried to explain. “I just find the grocery store incredibly overwhelming. There have been times I haven’t gone shopping for months,” I said, hoping that would be enough to end this. Her face scrunched up in the way someone’s might if I asked them to multiply pi by 857, and then multiply that by 1/4. I needed this conversation to end, and fast.

“I used to not eat and over-exercise. My relationship with food is whacked,” I spluttered out.

Did your mother overfeed you as a child?” She asked in a judgmental tone I recognized.

I snapped. “No!” And then I slowly breathed out, “You just don’t understand, never mind.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. Did that conversation even just happen? Are we back in the dark ages where homosexuality is caused by parenting and Freudian theories of psychology are all truth? Have we made no progress as a society in ridding ourselves of these and other false truths?

I usually keep my diagnoses a secret. I tell a precious few because on so many occasions, telling people has ended badly. Relationships have ended, comments have been made and the way people view me has been irreparably altered.

This conversation reminded me that ignorance still runs rampant. It made me question any confidence I have gained in discussing my eating disorder. After I closed my door, I was convinced I should never talk about my eating disorder again. Never mention it to another living person. Tell no one. Hide this part of myself at all costs.

But I’ve worked too hard to let the ignorance of others impede my health. I can’t let my neighbor’s actions stop me from talking about my eating disorder. Because it’s likely this will happen again. And conversations like this perpetuate stigma. Stigma begets shame. Shame begets silence. And in silence the truth cannot be heard.

And so, before writing this, I knocked on my neighbors door to stop the cycle, to help her understand.

I will not stay silent.

Originally published: January 26, 2016
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