National Eating Disorders Association

Stories of Hope

No More Keeping Secrets
By Alyson Hoy

I think there is a kind of knowledge that though it might not necessarily live in one’s mind and get processed as conscious thought, is known as embodied perception in the way perhaps that something over time seeps slowly into the skin. As a child, this was how I knew a lot of things. Too young to understand from my parents’ point of view, I was perpetually excluded from important conversations, made to sit on the periphery and wait and keep quiet and listen as the adults around me spoke in whispers like a kind of secret code. There was a feeling that used to spring up in me whenever I would hear my parents talking in this way. It started on my skin, a sensation of tiny, persistent pin pricks, and then spread inward to my stomach where it twisted into a giant, painful knot. If I think back to those days, to the time when I was around eight and nine years old, I can recall certain repeated topics of conversation – my grandmother, me, my older brother – and yet, more than their particular content, what haunts me today is their common theme. I don’t remember the exact word that my parents used with such derision, but excess would seem to describe it, and even with my limited childlike knowledge then I was aware that it was not a desirable trait. My grandma, in their eyes, for instance, talked too much and loudly and cried too often. Meanwhile, I was too tall and heavy for a child my age, and my brother, still years away from being diagnosed with schizophrenia, was troubled beyond help, his behavior over the top and raving, mad, out of control. In listening to these conversations, I learned something about myself that I had not known previously: I was thought to be fat. Thus, the dance and gymnastics and swim lessons they enrolled me in, while intended on the one hand, to provide me with the opportunity to make new friends, were, on the other hand, enthusiastically pursued by my parents for what they hoped would be an added benefit for me – weight loss. This new bit of knowledge stopped me dead in my tracks and made me wary and anxious as never before. I started to see myself differently and for the first time I began comparing myself to others. At the same time, I also embarked on a new way of knowing things, piecing together not just the things that were said, but also sensing the atmosphere and environment around me, feeling for the gaps and silences. I knew from what my parents had said that I had a weight issue, and yet I also knew from the way they whispered about it that it was not okay to broach the subject with them or vocalize my distress. Acutely aware of the disdain they felt for my grandma’s emotional expressiveness and her habit of “overreacting,” I began to mute my feelings and turn my unhappiness inward. In this way, I learned the importance of keeping quiet. I was twelve, about to turn thirteen, when I first began to outwardly demonstrate the physical signs of an eating disorder but in actual fact I had been honing the behaviors secretly for some time – weighing, measuring, calculating, monitoring. I can’t say for sure when my descent into anorexia and bulimia started, yet it occurs to me now that there were certain key, triggering moments and events. As I would later discover with the medical diagnosis delivered to me at nine years old, the reason for my early and spontaneous growth and weight gain was a precocious puberty. Yet for three years prior to that, my life would be filled to the brim with mysterious medical appointments and random days spent in hospital where I was the subject of invasive tests. Since neither my doctor nor my parents could explain to me in terms that I understood that there was nothing wrong with me and this was just my body’s natural course of growing and maturing, I began to believe that I was not only different but also somehow freakish. When people would comment on my height, exclaiming how wonderful it was for a girl to be so tall (!), I would often catch in their expression the subtle hint of a judgment and in that moment feel such deep, burning shame. The fact was that I wasn’t just merely tall for my age but that I had begun to develop breasts and hips. I knew that they could see this and I felt humiliated. I wished desperately to disappear. Anorexia, I see now, in so many ways, was the manifestation of this wish. The summer that I turned seventeen a major event happened in my family: my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Surprisingly, for my parents, this new diagnosis brought with it a kind of strange and twisted optimism. Suddenly, there was a legitimate medical explanation for his absurd, reckless, and increasingly, criminal behavior. The guilt and despair they felt at the damage he caused was now assuaged somewhat. After all, it was not that they had allowed his behaviors to get so out of control; rather, he was sick and his sickness had taken over. As with my eating disorder, which had been raging on for years, they kept the information about my brother’s illness secret. Apart from a few trusted family members and friends they told no one. I recall being stunned at the fact that we never discussed the news about my brother as a family. They told me that summer over the phone while I was away working at camp and by the time I returned home the matter was all but closed. Although I was aware of and in many ways shared their shame, I found myself unable to reconcile my own horrible feelings of duplicity when we would bump into neighbors and acquaintances and, in response to questions about my brother, my parents would tell them that he was just great. I was astounded then at the deep rootedness of their denial. I told them that I was sick and that he was abusing me. It didn’t seem to matter that these were facts they already knew. Family was everything, they said. And so, the silence and secrets continued. It is a difficult thing to admit that I have deeply conflicted feelings – still – about my parents, and to finally break the silence that was imposed on me and my suffering for so many years. Anyone who is knowledgeable about mental health issues knows that family dynamics very often play a central and defining role in the development of eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and are key contributing factors to practices like cutting that manifest intense psychological distress. For years I have struggled with each of these things and been in and out of treatment and while it would be easy to lay the blame squarely on my parents’ shoulders, I actually think that the issue is bigger and more complicated than that. Anyway, the point of this story is not to point the finger at anyone but to try to gain a better understanding and a sense of freedom, hopefully, through writing and speaking my truth. February is eating disorders awareness month and so in many ways there could not be a better, more opportune time to write this. And yet, as I am finding out, to break the silence and, indeed, a whole history of keeping secrets is not as simple as just getting the words down. It requires one to be brave and vulnerable, and to risk opening new wounds. It means feeling at times that I have betrayed the people who love me and who did what they thought was best and kept secrets out of love. I’m still learning to be brave and, admittedly, these are only my first baby steps, but right now it feels good to say it and know deep down that I mean it: I’m done with keeping secrets.
This past December marked the end of one year in recovery, one whole year during which I have struggled every single day to resist the voice that tells me that I’m not worth anything and to release the strangle hold that anorexia and bulimia have had on my life.  Every day is different, and so, just I have been brave some days, I have also, on other days, felt weak and given in.  Even now, after a year, I find it a wondrous and extraordinary thing when feelings of anxiety do not lead to behaviors.  In recovery I made the decision to live.

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