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Why It's Wrong When People Call Me 'Fragile' for My Eating Disorder

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm or an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

I have been “recovered” for over a year now, and although in the great scheme of things this isn’t very long, these last 12 months have taught me a lot about how people will react to my mental illness for the rest of my life. When I begin to tell my story, years of an eating disorder, severe depression and anxiety to boot, people tend to have a similar response. Generally, it goes along the lines of, “I would never have guessed,” or “you seem so strong.” Each time I try to take it as a compliment, but usually, I leave the conversations wondering why my mental illnesses, my diagnoses, don’t “fit” because I am strong?

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that people around me see me as a strong, capable woman because I am, but why can’t I be both? Why can’t I be strong and depressed, capable and working to overcome my eating disorder, wise and anxious?

What bothers me is when people hear I have struggled with an eating disorder for years, or that I have been depressed since middle school, they immediately think I am fragile. Fragile is one word I have come to hate; it is something I am definitely not. I have heard it from family, friends, strangers and even from those supposedly helping in my recovery. They tell me I can’t accomplish what I have set my mind to because of the lingering complications which come from my recovery. I’ve even had teachers tell me I cannot be a clinician due to my experiences in treatment and due to the medications I am taking. Yet, it seems to me that this fragility is more for their peace of mind than my reality. As far as many people believe that the mental health field has moved so far forward, believe me when I say that I have heard more clinicians tell me what I can’t be than those who are encouraging me forward.

Many people are intimidated by the idea that, even with some part of my mind fixated on my illnesses, I can still graduate, work and provide help to others. I know not everyone with my disorders are the same as me, and I do qualify as “high functioning.” But, I have found that the time I have spent overcoming the brain chemistry and finding healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms has really allowed me to be a stronger, more helpful part of society.

I could go and blame the stigma of mental health, or the way media portrays those who struggle, but I don’t see how that will really make anyone see me differently. Yes, the way these disorders are portrayed in the media is flawed, and yes, there is a stigma that follows each word spoken about mental illness. But, using my experiences and the knowledge I have gained allows me to portray mental illness in a way that can make positive changes in the future. I think my ability to relate and to say I am proof that things can get better makes me more uniquely capable than many other people around me. If showing my strength and being open about what I have been through could even change one mind about mental illness, then it is worth it.

Even in the early stages of my illnesses, I felt that what I was struggling with was something to be hidden and kept from everyone around me. As much as things are changing, I still feel I have to hide my illnesses. I perpetually felt as though I would never be accepted for being “weird.” Since I began struggling at such an early age, by the time I reached high school I was used to the “you’re too much” excuse.

I was never really offended when people said whatever excuse; they didn’t want to spend time with someone like me. But, even when I understood it, the choice to drop me due to my illnesses really fueled my self-destructive cycle, leading it to another person leaving me again. Each emotional scar that left me alone was taken out on my body. Each person, each joke, each embarrassing moment was taken out with food, with exercise, or physical self-harm.

Thankfully, I am continually surprised by the love showered upon me by those who I did let into my world, and even more surprised by those who chose who decide to see me as more than what I desperately try to hide from the rest of the world. There is a small group who has stood by my side and who have been there every step of the way. Unfortunately, they are the minority and the pain I have struggled through continued to my adult life.

Every scar, every punishment I took out on myself was kept hidden from everyone by a smile, or a laugh. I wanted to be invisible. I wanted to be hidden from the criticism at home, the discomfort at school and the fear of my body. If I could make myself small enough then maybe I could be hidden from the things I feared. I embraced the fragility I wanted to feel. Maybe if I was able to be small, to be skinny enough to take away the eyes I always felt on me, then I would be able to take over the world. I wasn’t able to be strong without my disorder. I needed it. My disorder allowed me to take all the other stresses in my life out on myself so that I could continue. In some weird way, my disorder is what allowed me to be stronger than everyone else thought I could be.

So many people in my life think my disorder makes me weak. Somehow, being able to punish my body to the point of consistent fainting spells, and a need for stitches all while climbing ranks on my tennis team and passing honors, AP and college classes, makes me weak. What I still have not been able to understand is that keeping food out of my system for extended periods of times that frequently went over 24 hours is looked at as a weakness, while going just a couple hours and becoming “hangry” is strong and accepted.

Although so many people have told me my fragility came from my disorder, I think it has brought me the strength to make it through a world which seems to be full of anguish. The years I spent hiding and punishing myself, I was viewed as strong and capable. Yet, now that people know, and I have been officially diagnosed, I am viewed as delicate.

Due to the perceptions of those around me, I constantly feel as though I have to work harder and make myself go way beyond expectations just to be seen as equal. This is all to say that due to the ideas from those around me about my worth and my ability, I have become stronger than I every thought I could be. So, as much as my mental illness has caused me pain and difficulty, I would not be the strong human I have become without it and as long as I see that, the rest will come.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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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Thinkstock photo via tixti

Originally published: April 21, 2017
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