A couple of weeks ago, my friends and I were sitting around chatting after having just finished dinner. One of them began going on about how full he felt and what a “fattie” he was after having eaten so much. Another friend responded by telling him that he was on his way to getting an eating disorder. Being the non-confrontational person that I am, I didn’t bother calling him out for saying that. I should have. But I didn’t.
I’m telling my story in the hopes that people can begin to realize that eating disorders and mental disorders can affect everyone. What I am doing is something that has scared me for a long time, but I feel like it is something I need to do. You don’t have be that type-A girl just to have an eating disorder. People can have a mental disorder without being stereotypically "insane" or "crazy." Sunday, Feb. 24 marked the start of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is "Everyone Knows Someone." This doesn’t just have to apply to eating disorders, but can also apply to all mental disorders. Consider that for a moment.
For me, my disordered eating habits and purging behaviors began when I was in high school. But you could also make a case that I’ve always been a disordered eater. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been the pickiest eater I know. In high school, I began to struggle with anxiety, depression, confidence and my sense of security about my appearance. Be it for one reason or another, these factors all culminated into a lifestyle of self-induced purging and refusal to eat. I could go days on end without a meal. Or if ever was there a day -- more often than not, there was -- where I felt uncomfortable about what I had just eaten, I would shy myself away into a restroom, commit to an idea and get it over with.
As one could imagine, these habits didn’t translate too well into my new life as a freshman at college. What was meant to be a year of self-discovery and new adventures turned into one of accepting a fear and coming to terms. Accepting that fact that there was actually something wrong with me and having to call it by a name. Eating disorder.
My family had never known that their youngest son and brother had an eating disorder. Today, they still do not know. Only a few of my friends know. Much of my freshman year was spent hiding away something I felt shameful and embarrassed of. Spending 11 to 14 hours every week in some sort of therapy-related situation took a toll on my life and schoolwork. Grades stumbled, lies were told and more and more of my time was spent trying to accept what I was dealing with. I will never forget lying to my adviser about why I was failing and coming out of that meeting on the verge of tears. And when you’re more than 1,000 miles away from home, where do you turn to?
I will never forget trusting my friends and what they did for me. I am absolutely blessed to have had the opportunity to meet and befriend them. The support that they gave me and the unrelenting trust I gave to them is something that I will never forget. Coming to therapy sessions with me. Lending me their ears. Being brave enough to ask me, "Hey, is everything alright?" and not being afraid of the often-shocking truth that followed is something that I will cherish for a lifetime.
My struggle continued and as winter turned to spring and as I returned to school from spring break, I got a call from my therapist. One of the members of my therapy group had committed suicide the weekend before I got back to campus. And that’s when it hit me.
Sometimes, in the midst of hanging around campus, going to class and being with your friends, people lose track of the sense of reality. College becomes its own little microcosm away from the real world. Everyone “knows” their friends, but are we truly willing to learn, listen to and accept what some people are suffering from? The culture that is being created is one where we find it acceptable to talk about politics, sexuality and race, and can respect one another in the process. It’s okay for someone to be Republican or Democrat. It’s okay for someone to be gay or straight. It’s okay for someone to be ethnically different. And it’s okay for us to talk about those differences, debate them, come to terms with them and find equality for one another within them. But when we talk about mental disorders, we start to categorize them away as something else and ignore them.
Out of a population of approximately 300 million, 10 million men and 20 million women in the United States will suffer from an eating disorder during their lives. And those are just the people that have come forward. Imagine the amount of people that haven’t. Eating disorders, and mental illnesses in general, often go untreated or unrecognized out of fear of being shamed or embarrassed. But that shouldn’t be the case.
The amount of shame I felt. The amount of time I spent hiding my life away from people. The excuses and the lies I had to tell. That all became a burden for me to bear. But the pain of seeing someone you know lose his or her life because of that. That is when you realize there is something wrong in the world.
I understand that disorders are a weight you carry with you for a long time, and I certainly don’t consider myself cured. And I certainly don’t want to be seen as weak. I am what I am. What I am doing now may not be for everyone. People are free to choose their privacy. And by doing this, I know that I will have to tell my family. For me, this is about accepting my situation and myself. That is now a conversation I am ready to have.
My name is Alberto De Leon. I am a first generation Mexican-American. I am 6’2”, straight and I have an eating disorder. So what of it?
By Alberto De Leon
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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders helpline at 1-800-931-2237.