It’s one of the most toxic emotions and if you give it an inch, it will control your life. Shame is far more clever and wittier than our brains give it credit for and it latches onto the people it knows it can wreak the most havoc on.
I’ve carried the weight of shame on my shoulders for years.
As a teenager, I developed an eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. The illness robbed me of my formative years and to be honest, of many years and life experiences since. It took me a long time to digest my illness and to come to terms with the guilt of knowing that it negatively impacted so many people around me. Since making my way into and through recovery, I’ve tried everything within my power to stuff my past down. To turn my back on it. To never speak a word of it to people who were there at the time hoping they’d magically forget. To laugh along awkwardly in uncomfortable situations when colleagues or acquaintances tossed a nasty jibe at someone they thought was struggling with an eating disorder. “Why can’t they just eat?”
For so long, I felt empty inside and I could never quite figure out why. Not until I stopped scheduling every second of my day and started embracing space and looking within. Soon enough, I realised that while physically, I may have recovered in terms of weight restoration, ‘it’ was still there. Whatever ‘it’ is, was eating me from the inside out.
It’s our secrets that keep us sick.
On 21 January 2019, I wrote about my eating disorder publicly for the first time. I did so selectively – on a relatively safe forum and with the guidance of a wonderful mental health advocate, writer and mentor, June Alexander. I knew that anyone who would land on my article would either be experiencing an eating disorder or feel sick to their stomach about a loved one who they felt was slipping away.
It’s time to be brave and to own my story in its ugly, messy entirety.
The indisputable truth is that when I am fully honest with myself, even after sharing my story, even after being met by so many people around the world with compassion and understanding and even with the latest research that points towards a genetic explanation for anorexia, innately, shame about my past still flickers within me.
That shaming voice stirs in the quiet and most joyous of moments, looming over me like a dark, all-encompassing shadow.
Its voice was there when I published my first picture book.
“Be careful, if the book is too successful, people will start digging and wanting to know more about who you are and where you came from.”
It’s been present when I’m enjoying times with the people I love most.
“They don’t know about your past. What if they found out who you really are?”
Sometimes, that voice is even there in the dead of the night when I’m content and trying to fall asleep.
“Hold up – you know this can all change in the blink of an eye. Don’t allow yourself to be too happy.”
Shame cannot survive empathy.
Over the years, I’ve become hooked on the work of shame and vulnerability researcher, Dr. Brené Brown – she has spoken openly about how shame, when left to its own devices, can destroy lives.
Brown says: “Shame cannot survive being spoken… it cannot survive empathy.”
What I have come to realise after much soul searching is that the greatest empathy is that which comes from within. Yes, I have walked the path of experiencing, overcoming and managing a mental illness but looking back, it feels like a lifetime ago now. There are moments I don’t even remember. Huge periods of my past play out like a blank tape in my mind. Unfortunately, there are other moments that often play out repeatedly in my head as though they happened just a few seconds ago.
“It’s not like you’ve got a good figure or anything, you look like a man.”
Just as my eating disorder clasped its clammy fingers tightly around my neck, someone close to me threw those words at me. This may have been an act of trying to ‘snap me out of’ my mental illness or perhaps they were just speaking their truth. As a person struggling with an eating disorder, it was the equivalent of lighting six darts on fire and setting me alight. It stung. And I will never forget it. It’s tattooed in my memory. Brutality and shaming someone who’s sick is never the answer.
Everyone’s eating disorder experience and road to recovery is different.
“What caused it?”
It’s a question I have been asked many times and from what I’ve seen in a lot of media coverage, people are seeking black and white answers regarding what causes someone to spiral into an eating disorder. I understand eating disorders are frustrating illnesses because the solution seems so simple on the surface: to eat. When I reflect back on my journey with anorexia, I often think of a scene from Buffy: The Vampire Slayer when Buffy is facing the Judge and Angelus and she uses a bazooka against the big bad. That’s what eating disorders do: they blow up your life. They torch everything you love… everyone you love. All bets are off.
In my view, recovery is not a line you step over. It’s a path you choose to take and it can be a slippery slope. For me, I know intuitive eating won’t work. I am very strict with the amount of time I allow myself at the gym and how long I allow myself to walk for. This is just a snapshot of what my personal triggers look like. Giving myself an inch would be the equivalent of throwing a piece of meat at a shark and expecting the shark not to gobble it up.
You can’t glorify mental illness. It is an experience you would never wish on your worst enemy but life dictates that we find ways to accept what has happened, to learn the lessons we need to and to move on as best we can. Staring death down and choosing to claw yourself back changes you in every possible way forever. The shame I referred to earlier may still be present but it is surviving on borrowed time.
For so long, I yearned to be just like everyone else. These days, I know the real magic lies in the fact that I am different.