Surfacing from an Eating Disorder’s Depths

surface of water

This is one person’s story; everyone will have unique experiences on their own path to recovery and beyond. Some stories may mention eating disorder thoughts, behaviors or symptom use. Please use your own discretion. And speak with your therapist when needed.

Lisa Whalen, a former Emily Program client, teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Her writing has appeared in a variety of literary journals and edited collections, including An Introvert in an Extrovert World, The Simpsons in the Classroom, Adanna, and Writing on the Edge. She is currently submitting her book, Taking the Reins: A Memoir of Hunger, Horses, and Hope, for publication. Learn more on her website, or follow her @LisaIrishWhalen on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

My computer’s cursor hovered over an icon labeled “publish.” One tap of my finger on the mouse would broadcast a secret I’d kept for years. Would I follow through this time?

My finger had frozen a few times prior to that afternoon in July 2018, when fear prevented me from initiating the click that would make my website go live. During the preceding weeks I had enjoyed the challenge of learning new software and the creativity of designing a website to help launch my writing career. Maybe I had enjoyed it too much. Once the site’s content was set, I kept playing with layout and links, feeling free to experiment as long as the site remained offline.

But reluctance to stop experimenting was only part of what prevented me from clicking “publish.” The other part was the knowledge that if my website stayed hidden, so did the secret I’d blogged about: an eating disorder I’d battled for more than a decade. I was sure that sharing my secret would shake my life like an earthquake, fracture the ground that connected me with people I cared about, and trigger a tsunami of dramatic reactions. Once unleashed, there’d be no stopping the wall of water.

But below that massive wave lay a book I’d written about my recovery. Keeping my book anchored in Internet obscurity defeated the purpose of writing it; I hoped it would help people who were struggling with eating disorders by allowing them to learn from my mistakes without having to make them. If I wanted people to benefit from what I’d learned, I had to get my book published. To get my book published, I had to convince a publisher that I was a professional writer with expertise on my book’s topic. To convince a publisher that I was a professional writer with expertise on my book’s topic, I needed a website and blog.

As I debated clicking my site’s “publish” icon, I wrestled with reasons to avoid revealing my secret: I might not find a publisher who believes in my book. I’m not drastically under- or overweight, so people might not believe my disorder is real. I never fit textbook definitions of anorexia or bulimia, so I might be asked invasive questions about my diagnosis. Friends and family might start tracking everything I eat, looking for signs of relapse. Acquaintances might treat me like I’m fragile or broken. Students I teach might doubt my judgment. Colleagues might question my professional credibility.

Eventually, desire to see my book in print drowned my fear of revealing my secret. I wasn’t ready to dive into the deep right away, so I tested the water by telling my sister, who has always been my best friend. Then I told my parents. Finally, I waded into sharing early drafts of my book with trusted readers.

None of my fears came true. Each person I told reacted with kindness, understanding, and support. Some shared similar experiences. My willingness to be vulnerable with others—something perfectionism had once made impossible—deepened my relationships with them, turning some acquaintances into friends.

People’s reactions to my secret showed me that I wasn’t alone: Everyone struggles with something because struggle is an inherent part of being human. My struggle just happened to take the form of an eating disorder, but it didn’t define me any more than others’ struggles defined them. My eating disorder was just one drop in the pool of biology and experience that makes me who I am.

As I grew braver about telling my secret, I realized that putting my website online wouldn’t bring the waves of destruction I’d envisioned. It might generate ripples, but they would disperse quickly into the gallons of shared history and ongoing experiences that comprised my relationships.

So, on that July 2018 afternoon, I clicked the “publish” button.

I’m glad I did. Whether or not my book gets published, writing and talking about my eating disorder bridged the crevasse that once divided me into two selves: one private and shameful, one public and shallow. Becoming whole has made me more comfortable in my skin when I’m alone and more authentic when I’m with others. Most importantly, being open has allowed me to come to life’s surface and, for the first time, breathe freely.

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