How to Respond When Someone Shares Their Personal Story

07/17/2017 03:59 pm ET
<em>Published in 2009, &quot;Beating Ana&quot; shares my personal recovery story from anorexia and bulimia as well as many in
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Published in 2009, "Beating Ana" shares my personal recovery story from anorexia and bulimia as well as many insights about how mentoring can be a great support to someone who is struggling to heal

When I was 11, I developed the beginnings of what would quickly become anorexia.

At around age 18, after starving myself for 7 straight years without any real opposition, I learned about bulimia when I attended a local eating disorders anonymous support group.

By age 19, exhausted and disgusted by the sheer number of wrong turns I'd taken while following the mean-spirited guidance of an inner voice that was clearly not on my side, I finally began to dig in my heels and fight for my life.

Looking back now, I think I did this for two reasons: one, because I literally had nothing left that felt worth living for except life itself, and two, because for the first time in my life, I wasn't alone anymore.

I had found a mentor. She didn't know anything about eating disorders, but then again, neither of us really did. I only knew I was in a fight to the death with myself. And she only knew that these types of fights tend to be winnable with the right kind of self-effort and support.

This combination proved to be just enough to give me the edge against the disease. From there, we met weekly, and I took every little bit of power I could get from her support and my own efforts and did my best to make it grow.

Day after day, year after year, I fought like a dog for my right to live, mostly still in silence and secrecy. But slowly, with my mentor's help, I learned how to use tools like meditation and yoga and journaling to help make the recovery journey more bearable and meaningful.

In 2000, I turned 30. I also finally turned the corner towards a more stable and solid recovery. Through a series of twists and turns, I began to record an album of original songs, a real “bucket list” goal I couldn’t pursue while in the grips of the eating disorder. Then I started performing songs from this album locally, which led to an invitation to speak at an eating disorders treatment center (this despite the fact that I had never once mentioned during my concerts having had personal experience with an eating disorder!).

By 2006, I was more involved in speaking about my recovery story, mentoring and writing my first book. That book, "Beating Ana: How to Outsmart Your Eating Disorder and Take Your Life Back," would later become the inspiration for a nonprofit called MentorCONNECT that I founded in 2009.

These were incredibly tumultuous, intense and difficult years. From 2000 to 2017, I wrote two books, spoke throughout North America at colleges, conferences, and treatment facilities, continued my volunteer mentoring work, founded and ran international eating disorders mentoring nonprofit, and cobbled together a series of very odd jobs to put some sort of financial foundation underneath it all.

In 2017, I finally put a period of sorts on the eating disorder activism phase of my life. It had completely consumed my life from 1981 to 2016 - a total of 35 years - and something in me finally gave its permission to transition towards a new focus, a fresh start. Whew.

So why am I sharing all of this with you, and why now?

Well, last night I finally was able to watch the controversial film "To the Bone" starring Lily Collins.

Over the last few weeks since the film’s release, I've been following along as various reviewers and viewers have shared their thoughts. Many of my former colleagues in the eating disorders field have offered valuable commentary from the perspective of supporting eating disordered patients through professional treatment and nonprofit activism.

But I have yet to find a review that seems completely willing to just take the film as it is and for what it is - as the honest and unvarnished sharing of one woman's personal recovery story. And to be honest, this bothers me.

Much of the criticism I've read about the film has revisited the usual topics - the film isn't culturally or gender-diverse enough. The film has too many white people and too many women in it. The film doesn't showcase the full spectrum of eating disorders. The film doesn't end with a list of resources for where and how to find help. The film doesn't dig deeply enough into the underlying reasons why the main character developed anorexia or give any kind of "behind the scenes" look at the mechanics of treatment and therapy. The film has awkward moments, indelicate attempts at patient-to-patient romance, and oh-so-many under-developed characters.

But I didn't see any of this when I watched "To the Bone." Instead, I saw one woman's authentic story, shared because she felt compelled to share it, with no additional explanation needed.

I saw all of the awkward, abrupt, indelicate moments I also experienced on my personal road towards recovery. I definitely saw under-developed characters, because that is what you see when you are watching individuals who are in the midst of fighting for their lives while simultaneously trying to get a handle on who they are and why they want to live anyway. I saw difficult and painful unresolved dialogues, which is totally normal when still-ill people are trying to learn for the first time how to relate to something or someone other than themselves and their eating disorder.

I saw barriers to open and honest conversation, ungainly growth spurts and subsequent inevitable regressions, difficult and often deeply misguided family conversations and decisions, fears and shame and anger and confusion - I saw the terror of dying openly confronting the terror of living, often with mixed results.

In other words, I saw all of the elements that comprise a journey towards real, authentic recovery.

I also saw a dialogue that never needed to go into great detail on any front, because, as a fellow sufferer and survivor, I was watching the story from the inside looking out and not from the outside looking in. In other words, I didn't need a manual or a translator to help me decode the story or its meaning, fill in any overt gaps or offer a cliff notes version of the backstory.

I didn't need a resolution, either, because as a fellow sufferer and survivor, I know there isn't one. There is only the daily, ongoing choice to make a daily, ongoing effort to do one's daily personal best to stay alive for 24 more hours, however inadequate that personal best might turn out to be on any given day.

Finally (and most importantly), I saw a tremendously powerful and brave choice to share. In fact, during the years I was active in the eating disorders community as a nonprofit director, speaker, author, and mentor, nothing I ever encountered was as powerfully transformative as that key moment when a sufferer or survivor opens up to tell their personal story.

During my work with MentorCONNECT in particular, I often saw on a daily basis that, when this key moment occurs, it must be handled with great respect and care. It must be honored for what it is and for all that it is, with a great effort to resist receiving it with anything other than a "thank you for being willing to become vulnerable and open up to share your personal story with us."

In other words, there must be no criticism, no back-seat driving, no hindsight is 20/20, no laundry list of the storyteller's (or the story's) so-called omissions or inadequacies or faults.

"To the Bone," like my own story, is simply one woman's story. It is told via film rather than in print like my own, but that doesn't hold it to any kind of different or higher standard. In fact, it doesn't matter one bit where or how a sufferer or a survivor tells their story - in person at a local support group meeting, online in a blog post, through a video, in a book, over the telephone to a friend or mentor, in a private therapy session, at the breakfast table with a parent or partner....it doesn't matter in the least where or how it is told.

The only thing that matters is that it is told. 

Yes, watching the film might be triggering for some, just like reading a book or attending a support group meeting or, heck, turning on the television and viewing a cooking commercial might be triggering. When you are in the depths of a serious disease like an eating disorder, all of life itself is potentially triggering. And truly, avoiding triggers is putting off the inevitable. They will be there, waiting patiently, until we are ready to address them. And they will never go away until we do address them.

But the film itself is deeply meaningful just as it is. It doesn't appear to hold itself out to be a comprehensive effort at education, awareness, or advocacy. It doesn't seem to be made specifically for family members, professionals or even sufferers. It is a story of a certain time period in one woman's life, told for the sake of being told, period, the end.

So I guess i just wanted to share my full and unconditional support for the courage of the two women, Lily Collins and Marti Noxon, who collaborated so closely to first share their personal recovery stories with one another, and then to share them with their cast and crew, and then to share them with all of us through making this film.

Your stories are honored and respected, just as they are and for all that they are. I, for one, am oh so glad you are here. I am glad you chose life and that you continue to choose life. And I am grateful for your generosity in offering your stories of recovery. We all always need one more story of recovery to inspire us.

Thank you.

Your thoughts! Have you watched "To the Bone?" Or is there another film that really speaks to you on a personal level because of something really difficult in life that you have gone through? What is your reaction when you hear or witness someone else sharing their personal story? Have you ever had the experience of sharing your own story with one or many people?

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