How (and why) I learned to talk to my partner about my eating disorder

This post contains descriptive information regarding eating disorders and may be triggering for some individuals. 

It began at summer camp when a few girlfriends and I decided to stop eating in front of the boys. We’d sleep through breakfast and sip Diet Cokes at dinner, then binge on Flaming Hot Cheetos and Reese’s in the privacy of our bunkbeds after everyone else had gone to bed. I remember laughing, feeling giddy with hunger before the rush of a sugar high. I remember having fun.

But unlike my favorite Rilo Kiley T-shirt, this practice wasn’t forgotten at camp. What started out as a twisted hobby morphed into obsessive calorie counting, restricting, purging, and overexercising. I was no longer sharing deodorant and Tootsie Rolls with my friends—I was alone on a scale at 11 p.m. and contemplating the calories in toothpaste. The steady collapse of numbers on the scale excited me. In the midst of college applications and unrequited teenage love, my eating disorder was reliable. She was a friend, and a clingy one at that.

At first I loved her company. Technically she was called EDNOS, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. While the name might make it sound less serious than other eating disorders, in retrospect, it was not. EDNOS often combines different behaviors from bulimia, anorexia, binge-eating, and other eating disorders. I gave myself daily limits (200 calories some days, 400 another) and threw up if I went over the allotted amount. I would do whatever it took to get under 100 pounds, and when I did, I thought about how amazing it would be if I got under 95.

The fun wore off when parts of me began to disappear. I lost my period, my hair fell out in the shower, my cheeks were puffy from throwing up, I was constantly exhausted, and my skin lacked color. At this point, I was in college, a place that notoriously requires superhuman levels of energy. (You try going to Philosophy 101 and auditioning for the improv team on 400 calories a day.) I wondered, “What if this wasn’t my life?” So I decided to make a change. I started seeing the campus therapist. I ate three meals a day and tried to strip away my food removal tendencies. This happened ten years ago. You’d think I’d be fine by now. 

Not so much.

“Recovery does not mean fully escaping an eating disorder.”

Recovery does not mean fully escaping an eating disorder. As I said, my eating disorder is a toxic friend. Like anxiety, depression, or any mental illness, she has a voice that seems ready to pierce through any compliment or for any reason.  Just because you declare yourself “in recovery,” that doesn’t mean the friend goes away. If anything, she gets jealous.

For this reason and others, bringing an eating disorder into a relationship isn’t easy for either party. (No one signs on to date your annoying best friend who tells you that you need a thigh gap in order to matter.) One boyfriend tried to help but grew angry and confused when I relapsed: “I thought you were done with all of this!” Another told me eating disorders were a “vanity disease.” Some dudes tried to “fix it” and felt as though they had failed me if I didn’t eat the chicken dinner they had so thoughtfully prepared.

I’ve been called a psycho for how I cut a waffle. I’ve been protected at family functions, leaving me feeling guilty and embarrassed when I have to lie about my disorder in front of my loved one’s parents. I’ve gotten the side-eye in grocery stores while overanalyzing the nutritional content on three different types of low-fat ice cream.

I get it: eating disorders suck. For everyone. Which led me to the question: How can I have this conversation with someone who will (hopefully) be a present force in my life? How do I even begin to tell them I’ve voluntarily hurt myself for over half of my life?  I spoke to Lindsey Hall, eating disorder advocate and author of the award-winning blog “I Haven’t Shaved in Six Weeks,” who was able to relate.

“I think part of an eating disorder is the manifestation of shame that we hold,” Lindsey says. “And in turn, we’re scared to tell our partners because we project that they will respect us less or won’t want to be with someone who has ‘problems’—even though we all have our issues.”

In my humble opinion, Lindsey hits the nail on the head here. I recently started dating someone, and there was a long list of reasons why I didn’t want to talk about my ED. Namely, I didn’t want him to think I was weak, gross, self-absorbed, damaged, or any of the other adjectives folks tend to associate with their eating disorders. At this point, I had been in recovery for over eight years, with relapses now very few and far between. I didn’t want my eating disorder to be a thing. It embarrassed me. It still does.

But it also sucked to deal with my bad days alone. The anxiety that comes with recovery, what Lindsey calls the ED tick, is confusing for those who don’t understand. (Imagine your partner crying in a pizza restaurant without knowing the reason why.) And eating disorders positively thrive in isolation. I wondered if it might be beneficial to me, to the relationship even, if I shared my experience.

“I get it: eating disorders suck. For everyone. Which led me to the question: How can I have this conversation with someone who will (hopefully) be a present force in my life?”

“It’s very common for feelings of guilt and shame to prevent people from sharing their story, and it’s really important to be mindful of you who are telling,” says Natalie Cohen, the Engagement Manager at Walden Behavioral Care, a treatment center in Waltham, Massachusetts. “But I’m such an advocate of letting loved ones know about it. The best recovery outcomes are people who have a supportive network of individuals they trust.”

As a champion of vulnerability, I decided to open up. It seemed counterintuitive to hide such an important part of my past from my partner. And anyone who shamed me for experiencing mental illness was definitely not the guy for me.

I’d also like to say that for anyone to discuss their eating disorder is an incredible act of vulnerability and I’d never want to encourage anyone to do it before they were ready. But I was, and here’s what helped: 

I set my own pace.

I first disclosed my eating disorder over breakfast—quickly and casually. After I mentioned it, my new boyfriend paused, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” There was a lot of sincerity there. He asked if I wanted to talk about it and I said, not yet, and thank you, and we moved on. It wasn’t everything, but it was a step.

“I’m still learning how to communicate directly about the hard days,” says Lindsey. “But I’ve noticed that in talking about it directly and asking my partner to not immediately jump to concern or frustration, but to just ‘hear’ me, I’ve started to find a better way of communicating for both parties.”

I knew that wouldn’t be the last time my boyfriend and I discussed it, but that moment showed me that talking about my eating disorder didn’t have to be a big scary thing. It could be something I disclosed on my terms. He didn’t need to fix anything—I just wanted to be heard.

I shared milestones.

I used to be terrified of egg yolks. My therapist called this a “fear food,” or a food that one finds scary to eat due to its nutritional content. These foods can trigger old patterns of one’s ED and possibly encourage a relapse. My other fear foods included pasta, pizza, ice cream, most meats, and avocados—lots of really yummy stuff.

Again, my boyfriend and I were having breakfast (what is it with me and serious conversations in the morning?), and I ordered an omelet with bacon and avocado. Though I was excruciatingly tempted to ask for egg whites, I didn’t. I wanted to stop caring. 

Out came the Fear Food omelet. And with only the slightest bit of hesitation, I ate it. Lots of it. During this whole ordeal, I told my boyfriend that though it may have sounded weird, the omelet was kind of a big deal for me. And he congratulated me! I know to some this may sound ridiculous, but eating disorders thrive upon obsessive thinking about food: how to control it, how to get rid of it, how to hide it, how to find it. So the moments when we eat something simply because we want to eat it can feel like a pretty substantial milestone.

Recovery does not necessarily mean complete freedom from one’s eating disorder: it means celebrating these steps forward. And it felt good to share that joyful recognition.

I invited him into my mindset.

An important part of understanding eating disorders is wrapping our heads around diet culture. While diet culture affects everyone, it’s particularly harmful toward women. According to Lindsey, diet culture is a “big ole’ money making machine that thrives off the insecurities of the human chain.” It’s the word “SKINNY” on the front of a million food products. It’s the “nutrition” aisle flooded with weight-loss pills.

“It’s marketing-based and money-oriented, with creative means of manipulating public persona of health and wellness, two words so overused and overblown in text that they really mean nothing now,” Lindsey says. Diet culture creates subliminal messaging that tells us we need to be a certain size in order to feel beautiful, or happy, or like you matter at all. While I don’t necessarily believe diet culture maintains an eating disorder (more on that below), it can certainly lay the groundwork for one. And if a partner hasn’t felt or analyzed the influence of this system, it can be hard for them to understand its toxicity to our subconscious.

Even so, eating disorders are rarely (if ever) just about food. Other common myths regarding EDs include that only skinny people get them, that only women get them, or that they’re vanity diseases. But eating disorders can affect anyone.

“Eating disorders have a function,” says Natalie from Walden. “Several times they concur with another psychological disorder, like anxiety, depression, trauma, or borderline personality disorder. They serve the function as a coping skill.”

In my case, what started as a means to control food became a tactic to control my emotions. It wasn’t a vanity disease—it was a dysfunctional tool I used to manage excessive worry, obsessive thinking, and low self-esteem. It was a button I could press when I felt as though control was slipping through my fingertips. Maybe I’m lucky, but my boyfriend understood this pretty quickly. We bonded over it—he could relate to the fear of losing control and the desire to quell anxious thoughts. (Can’t we all to some degree?) By explaining the root of my eating disorder, I was able to create a space for empathy.

I owned it.

This was Lindsey’s number one piece of advice. While it took me a while to get to this point, I can say it was one of the most beneficial attitudes I could have implemented. My eating disorder flourished in an objectively low point of my life. I used the high I got from feeling empty to protect myself from connecting with my inner demons. That’s human and real, and it shouldn’t scare people away. 

It’s also important to understand your own needs.  Not everyone is going to “get it” right away, and that doesn’t make them a bad person. However, Lindsey and I both agree that no one should get mad or dismiss you as dramatic should you chose to disclose your ED story. If that does happen, maybe consider whether or not that partner is right for you.

“Before approaching them, I advise that people think about what they want from the conversation. Why are they telling their partner? And how would like they their partner to support? Otherwise, that partner is not going to know how to navigate this,” Lindsey clarifies. “I think most partners want to be sources of support, but without more information—without understanding what and how an eating disorder manifests—they will be at a loss as to how to navigate it. Direct them to different books or research. Ask for a counseling appointment. Ask them to attend one with you. Research together. Work together.”

“No one should get mad or dismiss you as dramatic should you chose to disclose your ED story.”

I’ll admit that some days are still really, really hard. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t order things because they were lower in calories or feel the temptation to purge. Diet culture still permeates, and the need for control arises often. But talking about my eating disorder, whether with friends or a boyfriend or the internet, reminds me exactly what it is: a disorder that feasts on shame. And that’s not something I choose to feed. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please visit the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) for more information and support or text “NEDA” to 741-741.

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