As we walked into class, my friend looked up from her phone and delicately said, “It’s up.” I knew exactly what that meant. I ran to the back of a packed law school classroom and glued myself into a chair, gripping the sides of the seat in horror. All of Humans of New York’s 18 million followers were about to learn about my eating disorder.
Talking about it had never been easy and it’s still not. Even typing this right now, I can feel my heart racing and muscles tensing. The first time I ever told anyone (and the second and third) I was crying uncontrollably. It was almost as if my body had an allergy to opening up. What I learned over time, however, was that the best way for us to defeat our demons is to bring them to the light.
I was sitting in the park studying when a man walked up with a camera. He introduced himself as the brain behind the famous HONY account. I was shocked and excited; my first reaction was to try to paint myself as an idealistic image of studious kindness and perfection. He asked me about my life and I responded with my dreams of helping people and my glamorized struggle with the law school workload. But he leaned in, listened, and asked some very real questions. I realized that I had a big spotlight and a duty to do something real with it.
We talked about my childhood and when my disordered behavior started. We talked about magazine covers, body image, societal pressures, and the stigmas of mental illness. Then after about an hour, he took my picture, thanked me, and left. A chance run in with a stranger became something of a therapy session. I walked away simultaneously soothed and horrified beyond words.
Comments and likes started rolling in on all platforms of social media. People were approaching me at school and texting me throughout the day. What was my darkest secret just a few years back was now very public knowledge and I had never felt more liberated. I could no longer try to uphold a perfectionistic façade because my very realest self was no longer hidden. After the initial shock of the post, I was overcome with relief that I would never again have to carry something so heavy by myself.
The comments themselves were more supportive than I could have imagined. Not only was my life now public, but strangers shared their own stories, classmates showered me with love, and friends praised me for my courage. The stigma surrounding mental health is so dense that we forget that we are all human and all have struggles of our own. Only when we have the bravery to open up can we remind each other that to be human is okay. The world can be so full of love if we just invite it in by sharing our own vulnerability.
With that vulnerability we can shine the light on our anxieties, our addictions, our pains and our eating disorders. Secrets that are held in the dark can become so powerfully suffocating. The best way to fight them is to allow friends, doctors, family members, and therapists to share the weight of the pain until it no longer has the power to consume our lives.
I’ll never be able to describe how scary it was to talk about something that feels so taboo, but the power that has come from being both brave and vulnerable has provided me with control over something that once controlled me.
Erin is a law student in New York City; she enjoys farmer’s markets, kittens, and Sunday mornings. One day she hopes to travel the world and advocate for the rights of those less fortunate.