This week marks a year since I finally had THAT conversation with my mother. The one where I finally told her the secret I had kept for forty years…
I told my parents about my diagnosis of BED a few years ago, when I started treatment. We had a few conversations about what it involved, and they did their best to understand. The conversations mostly focused around practicalities – my need to eat regular meals and snacks, for example, so they understood why my eating habits had changed.
I remember my dad struggling, and confusing my treatment with a conventional weight loss diet. I remember my mum thinking that time I ate 2 mince pies late one evening was a binge, and trying to explain to her that a binge was way, way more than that. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure they will ever truly understand. It’s taken me decades to, and I was the one with the illness. But at least they finally knew I had BED, and was trying to get better.
What we never discussed was when it all started, and that I had kept my shameful secret from them since I was eight years old. Why not? Well, for one, they never asked. But mostly, I didn’t want to upset them. I didn’t want them to blame themselves. I had no idea whether they had even noticed. But that’s traditionally the way my family functioned. A lot went unsaid back when I was a child.
By this time last year, I was finally ready to open up. I had been campaigning against mental health stigma for a while. I wanted to be more open about BED, my most shameful and secret diagnosis. It was the one which carried the most stigma, the least spoken about, the most misunderstood, the one I could find very little about online, and therefore the one it was most important to speak out about.
And this was about to happen. BEAT had decided to make BED the focus of eating disorder awareness week 2021. I was contributing my lived experience towards the campaign and in the process of deciding whether to share my story publicly as part of it. But the idea of my parents finding out accidentally if I did? It was too much to bear.
So on this week a year ago, I finally told my mother that when I was around eight years old, I started stealing food from the pantry. Food I hoped wouldn’t be noticed. And that these behaviours and more continued for the rest of my childhood, all through my adulthood, until I finally had treatment and started working towards recovery in my forties.
It turns out, I had done an excellent job of hiding it. She had no idea. We had a frank and open conversation about it, and some events from my childhood. I was able to tell her that she wasn’t to blame. That I was just trying to cope in the only way I knew how. Because she did ask the question I’m sure most parents ask: is it my fault?
It wasn’t an easy conversation. It took an immense amount of strength to finally say these things out loud. And it took an emotional toll to process it. But the only thing I regret about that conversation is that it didn’t happen years earlier. Because that conversation was one of the most pivotal moments of my life to date.
From that point, I could be honest, open, and loud about my struggles with BED. I could try to help break down the secrecy, help others realise they’re not alone. Because I felt so, so alone for so long. I could help people realise that what they were doing isn’t wrong or shameful, it’s an illness which can be treated. I could show people that recovery is possible. I could spread hope. And soon after, the BED Post blog was born.
And if someone you know has told you they have BED and you can’t work out why you didn’t notice the signs? This is why: my mother never knew because I didn’t want her to. The same with my father, my sister, my friends, and the men I have had relationships with, including my ex-husband. I became very good at keeping people at arms length. At hiding binges, and the evidence of binges.
There’s still a misconception that eating disorders are just attention seeking. I’m telling this story to show that the opposite is true. You don’t keep something secret for decades if you’re looking for attention.
BED is an incredibly lonely illness. But it doesn’t need to be. With more awareness and understanding, with less shame and stigma, with more training, research and evidence-based treatment, people’s lives could be changed for the better. People wouldn’t wait 40 years to have THAT conversation. Or never have it at all.