What It's Like To Tell People I'm In Recovery
By: Sarah Stewart
“Should I say it’s me?”
I stood in the stairwell, trying to shrink into the corner, hoping that some random magical act would free me from what I was about to do.
For one of my classes, we were given the assignment to write a persuasive speech. It had the typical requirements: it had to be 3-5 minutes long, have specific elements, follow correct organization, yada, yada, yada.
Easy enough. The challenge, though, was that we were supposed to write about an atypical topic that we had a personal connection to, one that we knew all about and was uncommon enough that others wouldn’t be likely to cover the same subject.
My mind immediately zoned in on one topic: eating disorders.
I knew about them, having personal experience, witnessing many others struggle, being educated on them through seminars, books and mentors.
No one else is likely to talk about them, either, I thought.
What I didn’t think about in that moment was why: why wouldn’t others talk about eating disorders? Why was I so confident that of all the students in my class, I would very likely be the only one to cover that topic?
I went on my way, not even thinking, just throwing myself into creating the speech. Time passed without my knowledge as I gathered all the information, as I wrote and wrote, adding this, tweaking that.
The speech flowed with ease, my fingers dancing across the keyboard as the words poured out of me, each one filled with a little part of myself, a little part of my every day reality. A little part of the darkness that wasn’t normally visible to the outside world.
I sat back into the chair, rubbing my stiff neck, it and my back aching from intensely crouching over my laptop. A soft smile tugged at my lips as a feeling of excitement stirred within me, my nerves tingling with anticipation.
This is going to be great, another chance to tell people, to make others aware, I thought. It was perfect, a setting in which I could practice skills for my future while also furthering the cause I was so passionate about.
I practiced and practiced, watching myself in the mirror, adjusting my movements, choosing the best parts to emphasize, falling into a natural rhythm, emotion dripping from words I spoke, a sense of intensity, of urgency shining through my eyes.
When the day came, I was ready.
I was confident—I knew my stuff, every bit of the speech engrained in my mind, on the tip of my tongue waiting for the time to come.
I took the bus that morning, easing into the seat, my heart beating just a little faster each moment. As I floated toward my class, I felt light. My nerves sparked throughout every part of my body again.
But suddenly it felt different.
As I walked through the doors to the building, my feet felt heavier, my stride slowing. My smile began to fade and my heart began to thud harder and harder against my chest as my excitement gave way to fear, the anticipation gave way to dread.
I had somehow reached the top of the stairs, my body moving without my mind’s consent.
What on earth was I thinking? I can’t go in there with this speech. What are they going to think? No, no way. I can’t. No. No.
My vision blurred as my thoughts raced around, my head spinning and spinning.
Mom. Call mom.
“Hello?” Her voice, normally having an instantaneous calming effect, couldn’t get through to me.
“Should I say it was me?” I didn’t have time for hello, didn’t have any brainpower left to focus on anything but what I was about to do.
Without any explanation, she knew. She knew what I was talking about, the thoughts that were taking over my mind.
“You can go either way. You can say it's you, or you can speak as though it is someone else's experience. I don’t want you to EVER be ashamed, but I also don’t want you to feel like you have to tell people if you don’t want to.”
“What if they judge me? What if they suddenly see me differently, if it turns them away?”
“I think it will be like it always has been and will be in the future—some people will judge; they’re just like that. No getting around it. Some will commiserate or sympathize. A lot will think “huh,” and move on.”
“I don’t know why I’m feeling like this, why it’s different this time. I’ve told my story before, used it to raise awareness. I don’t know, I just… I’m scared.” My voiced cracked on the last word, my body giving away the emotion that filled every part of me.
I think it’s always more difficult to talk about it to a group of acquaintances, some strangers, rather than those who are friends or family. Those you trust.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I whispered, still completely unsure of what to do, where to go from there.
A few moments passed in silence, the weight of the situation lingering between us.
But then she hit me with a question:
“Sarah, do you believe you are worthy of love?”
My first thought was, 'Okay, Mom, really? So not the time for this.'
“Do you? Do you believe that you, knowing that being in recovery from an eating disorder is a part of you, believe that you are likable, that you are lovable?”
I didn’t respond, knowing what she wanted to hear wouldn’t match my honest response.
“Okay, let me ask you this: what about all the others? What about them, those who are silent because they are ashamed, those who suffer alone because they feel like there is something inherently wrong with them because they have this disorder? Do you believe they are worthy of love?”
Something clicked, then, and my thoughts came back together.
“Of course,” I answered with zero hesitation, fully believing what I was saying.
“Then live what you say you believe.”
Her words hit me, full of truth—if I said I believe we are people, people who have been shaped and honed by contending with our eating disorders, our mental demons, and people who are full of life, of gifts and talents, of personality, of quirks and cute oddities that make each of us a person who is lovable, but I remained silent about my own struggles, trying to keep that part of me hidden from the world, was I not simply blowing hot air, my words contradicting my actions?
Or even worse, was I adding to the stigma, the sense of shame that was attached to this mental illness? Was I contributing to a world where people are afraid to talk about their struggles, their constant inner battles, for fear of what others will think?
What was I doing?
I walked unsteadily up to the front of the room, my ears ringing, my hands trembling as I spread the pages of my speech across the podium. I was sure that my heartbeat was audible to those around me, sure they could see how body pulsing with waves of heat, how I had no idea if words in my mind would even make it out of my mouth.
I took a deep breath, begging my body to calm down, praying that I would somehow be able to do this.
Slowly, I looked up, meeting the curious eyes of my classmates.
“Hi, my name is Sarah Stewart, and for the last six years, I have been in recovery from an eating disorder.”