Eating disorders can be very secretive illnesses. In the past twenty years, I have been privileged to have patients share their secrets and their shame with me. I will never forget moments such as when one young woman told me that I was the first person to learn of her bingeing and purging. One of the reasons that she told me was because I asked. That moment was one of her first steps toward recovery. Psychotherapy can be a powerful tool for recovery, but it is not the only step needed for recovery. People also need to find support and connection within their family and/or friends. While I have many mottos that I share with my patients, one of my favorites is, “The fewer secrets you hold, the further along in recovery you are.”
Secrets help to maintain eating disordered behaviors such as lying about the discarded school lunch or the secret night time binge. Shame permeates these untruths. No support can be given to the person who presents him/herself as not needing any support or having any difficulties. The eating disorder stays strong. However, if a step can be taken and just one secret shared, support can be offered. Over and over I have witnessed friends, parents, and trusted adults offering time to talk, meal support, accountability, and empathy when they learn a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder.
During her recovery work, I had the privilege of working with a high achieving track star with an eating disorder. When the treatment team recommended that she stop exercising, her sense of self, need for achievement, love for moving her body, and connection to teammates went into crisis. Over time, she was able to takes steps to share her secret and create a new, healthier self. She met with her coach and shared the truths about her health. She was met with support and sharing by the coach that was inspirational. She was invited to stay on the team as a manager which helped her maintain her friendship connections with her teammates. In time, she was able to express her eating challenges to her friends and lunchtime buddies. Just knowing that they knew her struggles and didn’t judge her, helped her be accountable to herself by eating what her body needed during school lunchtime. The connection with her friends grew as she both shared more and grew healthier. In the long term, she was able to fully recover, return to recreational sports, and maintain great friendship connections.
In eating disorder recovery, the support offered, by trusted friends and family members after they learn about a secret, helps reduce the need for secrets. A shared secret can take a little power away from the eating disorder thinking and provide someone who is struggling to find the strength to eat more regularly, engage in social outings, and feel valued. I have witnessed people who are ready to tackle advanced steps of secret sharing, take a risk and share with a friend the nature of the eating disordered thoughts with which they struggle. This level of sharing helps increase relationship connections while reducing the power of the eating disorder. One more step toward full recovery!