Sharing Personal Experiences

I am always hesitant when it comes to being public about my own experiences with an eating disorder. There's so much shame and a great deal of isolation that can come with an eating disorder (and with a lot of struggles in life) and that gives me a reason to speak more openly while also giving me a reason not to.

I think we have come a long way as a society, but there is still a great deal of stigma and misunderstanding out there. Even when people know to challenge stereotypes it doesn't mean those stereotypes and the judgments associated with them don't come to mind initially, as it's human nature to judge quickly. It's how we think and act in lieu of any initial judgment that is truly important.

I've gotten more comfortable with being open over time mostly because I've come to think of myself in broader terms than just my eating disorder so there isn't as much fear of simply being reduced to one because I know I am, and can continue to be more. For a long time though, that was such a large part of my identity and it was a struggle to find any other kind of identity outside of my eating disorder. It still is a big part of my identity as it has been such a large part of my life, but I have identity and worth beyond it now which was important for me to establish and continues to be important for me to build upon. For a long time I was afraid that if other people knew what I was struggling with, they would reduce me to that label because I had done that to myself so often. In fact, most of the people I love in my life were actually the ones who tried to help me see myself in broader ways.

There's such power in sharing our stories. For me it certainly isn't the way I want to introduce myself to people because that's awkward... but it has become a way for me to encourage openness and vulnerability. These are things I value even if they're hard to achieve. I want to live in a world where vulnerability is seen as strength and it is not so terrifying for us to reach out to each other because life is hard and we're all struggling through it at times (though our struggles may look different.) So sharing is one way for me to "be the change [I] wish to see in the world." It gives people context, a person and a life in which they can situate an experience they may know very little about beyond stereotypes they've heard. It gives a name and a face to a diagnosis which is always important, but especially so for mental health diagnoses which are often highly stigmatized.

My biggest fear in sharing nowadays are related to the career I am embarking on. I'm still trying to navigate appropriate openness and how that could potentially impact my career. I want the things I have learned from my experiences to be things I can bring to my work while also being quite aware that this type of work requires me to be professional in how I go about caring for people. I worry about judgments around competence because that is critical to working in health care and working with vulnerable people. You need to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. This is something I have had to take quite seriously and will continue to take quite seriously. Despite fear, I still think openness is most important (in appropriate ways of course) because it allows for a culture of safety. That culture can be seen in certain places in health care, for example, looking at medication errors, there is a culture of encouraging people to report and talk about mistakes because they do happen and if people are too afraid to speak for fear of punishment, the mistakes keep happening and there's no insight into potential ways to reduce them.

None of this is to say that sharing is necessary for everyone. It's a personal choice and there's no right or wrong in making the choice to share or not. We don't ever owe anyone our stories, but I hope we can also continue to create a world where it is safe to share; to be vulnerable and open and honest.

- S. Ritchey

Shaely RitcheyComment