Because people do, don’t they. Even those who know us well and would call themselves friends or colleagues. Or maybe it’s just me.
Part of the challenge is that I have been MUCH more open about my eating disorder recently. For years, no one in my wider life, including work, had any idea. If I weren’t trying to change things, I could have continued this indefinitely. But keeping things private at work wasn’t an option if I wanted time off for therapy. So far, my manager has been supportive. The work friends I’ve been open with continue to express confidence in my ability. I suspect I’m fortunate. It’s no secret that mental health services haven’t always been great at looking after their own.
I’ve pretty much given up thinking of ‘excuses’ when I bump into colleagues on my way to therapy. I don’t want to lie. Yes, I have issues with eating. Yes, I’m trying to address them. But the truth is that there are people who if they knew, would view me differently, gossip, or see me as ‘less than’. I don’t want people to judge, I also don’t want to be patronised. Sometimes people ask why this matters. Well, would you want to advertise at work that you’re receiving help for a problem often misunderstood as ‘narcissistic’, self inflicted or ‘selfish’? I doubt it. We like our neat divides, they make us feel safe, and we’re often not willing to look beyond them unless something, often something personal, forces us to.
I have had colleagues with their own difficulties who I would have absolute confidence in to provide care to someone I loved. I trust their judgement, I also trust their compassion. I’ve worked with others, some of whom who locate themselves firmly in the ‘impervious professional’ role. These people I’d have less trust in. Not because they are ‘bad’ at what they do at all, but because they seem to lack a genuine sense of empathy. So I don’t think having experience of distress automatically makes a person poor at their job, weak, or somehow flawed. But not everyone sees it like that, and this makes me reluctant to share. And I do feel ashamed for having struggled with this for so long. It’s my fault that I haven’t sorted myself out by now, or that I continue to allow certain things to niggle at me. I should surely be able to shut it off.
When it comes to friends and family, there are a handful of people who have taught me that some can see the complexity of things, or at least the things I’m willing to show them. Other friends would be surprised to find that I struggle, and some seem to have distanced themselves since they have found out. And then, I feel frustrated when I’m suddenly treated differently. So maybe it’s me. Internalised stigma. And there’s the flip side, we hear that people are ‘strong’ and ‘brave’ when they recover. In my experience it does take determination, but doesn’t everyone need to drawn on their inner resources at times?
Aren’t we all just human? Or does that lack of division make us uncomfortable because we suddenly have nothing to measure ourselves against? Don’t we all relate in complex ways both to others and within ourselves? We all have the same need to feel connected, valued, to contribute to the lives of those around us. To be human is to have flawed ways of coping, albeit to different degrees. We all have the capacity to get tangled up in beliefs and behaviours which are painful and difficult. Does that make a person less able to do the things they want to do? Sometimes, for a time, it may, but often not. Does my experience increase my empathy or give me a wider perspective on humanity? Hopefully. Does it make me weaker than someone else? I think if I’m honest, I feel it does. I also don’t think I’d apply that to anyone else.
Does having ‘food issues’ and accessing help for that make me fundamentally different to another person? I’d like be able to think not.