By Tiffany Hammer, Outreach Specialist at The Emily Program
Today I read an article on Slate by a man who described the overwhelming support he and his family received while his wife battled cancer. Casseroles, volunteer rides to appointments, people asking about her progress and how the family was coping, served as much needed emotional support. When his daughter started battling a crippling addiction, the same friends who provided such loving support for his wife were noticeably absent. He reflected on the stigma of mental illness and the apparent isolation from community.
This article struck a chord with me because battling mental illness takes an exorbitant amount of courage to face, and without the support of family and community, mental illness can be deadly. One in ten people will seek treatment for an eating disorder, and it remains the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses.
As a society, eating disorders are still perceived as a choice. I don't know how many "Oh I wish I had an eating disorder", as they pat their stomach, or "Why can't they just stop?" (referring to bingeing and/or purging), I have heard while exhibiting or in a social situation, telling people what I do for a living. I openly talk about eating disorders, the prevalence and danger, and The Emily Program, despite how uncomfortable of a topic it can be. I do this to try and change the dialogue in an effort to destigmatize and reframe understanding of eating disorders.
At 29, I have watched my best friend go in and out of residential treatment over the past fifteen years and personally have battled my own tormented relationship with food. What is the same fundamentally is when one realizes that their relationship to food and their body is inhibiting them from participating in the life they want to live. No eating disorder is exactly the same, but the deeply rooted common thread is the isolation and loneliness. Eating disorders are like being stranded on an island, alone, with only a negative voice telling you that you don't deserve to be saved, and an ocean separating you from those you care about. To stay focused on the positive reality that recovery is possible is because of the emotional community support. And, unfortunately, it can be uncomfortable to talk about eating disorders and mental illness because it is too close to our own personal health and relationships. Yet, it’s that empathy and personal vulnerability that allows us to stay inspired and motivated to try.
What continues to impress me at The Emily Program is how much every person in the organization truly believes in recovery and is committed to providing outpatient care because that's where recovery happens. What's outpatient care? Outpatient care is community. Through admitting that the relationship with food and body image has gotten out of control, one finds their voice and reclaims their sense of self. Humans are social creatures, and through sharing our personal experiences we create community. Even if we are not the person who is struggling with mental illness, we can still be supportive and empathetic, as we would if a love one was recovering from surgery or experiencing tough times. Often just the act of asking how one is really doing can shed light in the darkness of mental illness. "I have noticed you have been a bit distant lately, how are you doing?" can go a long way. If someone you know is receiving treatment for their eating disorder asking, "How is it going?" or "How are you feeling about it?" drains the ocean of isolation, and if they aren't ready to talk about it, you are demonstrating that you are ready to help build that life raft. This support is tangible optimism and changes, entirely, the discourse surrounding mental illness. It's your emotional casserole of support.
At The Emily Program, we offer our own “casseroles” in the form of free support groups for anyone: friends and family, specific eating disorder support, understanding eating disorders, and educational support. I have spoken to students, teachers, therapists, family members, and others from all walks of life, and having an outlet to connect about shared experiences like food and body image, shrinks the shame and isolation. For me, the most incredible and inspiring aspect of our programs is that we host free Recovery Nights (quarterly at each site in Washington and monthly in St. Paul, MN), where we have someone share their journey through the darkness of their disorder and into the light that is recovery. Recently, I attended Recovery Night in Spokane and met such a remarkable 19 year old who shared her experience of finding hope, support, and her "second family" at The Emily Program. She spoke of the impact that each person, who worked for, or participated in, The Emily Program was instrumental in her path to recovery. Lending a hand, sharing our own vulnerability or relatability, or even just by being there to be a momentary distraction, is what we would do for a friend who is struggling with any other illness. So, with someone who is going through a hidden or unseen illness, share your emotional casserole. It serves more than one.