ByÂ Michele Herenstein
Many victims of eating disorders describe themselves as unknowable and misunderstood. I understand these feelings, and it’s hard to understand the complexities of anorexia or bulimia without firsthand knowledge or experience. “Why don’t you just eat?” says the mom. “You used to love food,” says the dad. “You’re too thin; just eat!” says almost everyone.
These statements are not helpful, as I’m sure you’ve deduced by now. People with eating disorders do not acquire them on purpose. They don’t want to be a victim of a deadly illness. They don’t want to suffer. But recovery takes more strength than some people feel they have.
I’ve been researching eating disorders, and as a recovering anorexic, I read a blog that blew me away. I’ve decided to share, with permission, some of what Delaina Zerafa wrote on a post in March 2016 titled “An open letter to the person who sees me suffering from mental illness.”
“Dear mom, dad, sister, brother, grandma, grandpa, aunt, uncle, cousin, husband, wife, son, daughter, best friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, and acquaintances:
“I know you see me suffering, it’s obvious. I know you notice when I stop eating, when I have marks on my body, when I don’t leave my room, when I can’t stomach food because my anxiety is so high, when I use self-destructive behaviors. I know you notice all these things because who wouldn’t? I know you walk on eggshells around me because you don’t know what will push me over the edge, to the point of no return. It bothers me just as much as it bothers you that I am so unpredictable. I know you wonder how you can help me, I know you wonder when I’ll get ‘better,’ I know you wonder how long my moods will last, I know you wonder about what I am doing, who I am with, and if I will be safe 24/7, I know you wonder if you will have to bury me before my time is right–I wonder the same things. I wonder what life would be like if you and I both did not have to wonder all these things.
“I need you. I need your support, love, and affection. I need someone to pick up the pieces when I fall apart, because, let’s be honest, that happens quite frequently. I need you to never give up on me because sometimes I give up on myself. I need you to love me on those tough days I can’t love myself–warning: there will be many of those days. I know it is frustrating to watch me wallow in my sadness and I know you may feel like I am doing nothing to help myself, but my mental illness can be emotionally and physically debilitating, and I hope you can understand that. Sometimes I try to help myself and it fails. I need support and I need help. I cannot do this alone. And that is where you come in. Please try not to put me down; have patience with me when I can’t comprehend the advice you are trying to give me. Please give me the space I need, and other times smother me with love. Please get me the professional help I may need whether I want it or not. Please listen to me with open ears even if you have heard it a million times, take what I am saying seriously, and never doubt the power of mental illness.
“Thank you. Thank you for noticing I am suffering and thank you for caring. I know it is not easy to watch me suffer, destroy myself and sometimes even my life, but if you have stuck by my side, I appreciate it more than you know. If I don’t say it enough, I love you and could not battle the demon that is mental illness without you. You are truly a special person to be able to stick by my side and handle my worst days. Thank you for sitting with me while I finish a meal. Thank you for bandaging up my self-harm wounds. Thank you for calming me down when the voices in my head were never-ending. But most importantly, thank you for being a shoulder to cry on and for having open ears.
“If you haven’t stuck by me, I am sorry you could not handle the deck of cards I was given. I truly am sorry for all the pain I may have caused you. I never wanted to hurt anybody, so if I hurt you, I apologize. I am sorry you will not be by my side to experience the greater things life has in store for me. I hope you know it hurt me deeply when you left. I will forever wonder what I did to deserve the pain of abandonment and I will never understand why or how someone could give up on me like you did. I hope life treats you well and you never have to experience the pain I went through when you left.
“Shout-out to all the moms, dads, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, cousins, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, best friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and acquaintances who are dealing with someone suffering from a mental illness. You guys truly are the stars that light up our dark skies.
“If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental illness, there is hope.”
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I hope you are tearing up. I hope you are feeling empathy, compassion, and love for this victim of an insidious illness. I believe in the goodness of people, so I believe you feel heart-rending sadness at what this woman is going through. And she is begging for help. She is admitting she may try to push away offers of help, but that she really does want it, and wants and needs people to stand by her, as difficult and painful as that may be.
But you can help. You can listen. You can be supportive. You can love. You can hug. You can touch. These are all things that sometimes people with eating disorders try to push away, but deep down, they usually desire them deeply. I know from experience that a hug can go a long way. Victims isolate, often going long periods without companionship. Be the person to break the barrier.
Beating Eating Disorders, a blog I read on Facebook, compared statements people make to ED (eating disorder) sufferers, and showed what it would sound like to ask the same questions of cancer sufferers:
ÂŸÂ Can’t you just try to get over your cancer?
ÂŸÂ You just have cancer for attention.
ÂŸÂ Cancer is such a disease for over-privileged girls.
ÂŸÂ When did you decide to start having cancer?
These questions probably sound harsh, mean, rude, and thoughtless to victims of cancer. Imagine then how thoughtless, mean, and offensive it is when women and men with eating disorders get asked these same questions, as if an eating disorder is a choice, and not a deadly illness.
Be the compassionate person I know you can be. Think before you talk. Try to learn more about eating disorders so you can help sufferers feel understood. Treat eating disorders as the illnesses that they are. Feel lucky you don’t have them, but also lucky that you can be there for others who do.
I must re-emphasize that I strongly believe in the goodness of people. Please, prove me right.
I’m sharing the link to the blog containing the full letter by Delaina Zerafa. By reading her words, you acknowledge her pain, her strength to be open, and her quest for help
Delaina is a normal woman who has a disease. But she is fighting; more power to her. Help her fight. Help all sufferers fight this illness. I believe in you. Do you believe in yourself?Â v
Note: I’m writing these articles because I hope my story will provide encouragement, hope, and information that will be helpful to others. Please understand, however, that I cannot offer medical advice or referrals to treatment.
Michele Herenstein is a freelance journalist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.