Benefits and risks in writing and publicly sharing your eating disorder story

Choosing when to write your eating disorder story with a view to sharing it with the world, requires careful consideration. Writing about your experience, with or without a diary, requires threads and themes to be picked up and woven into an account that will appeal to and connect with readers. Many re-writes may take place regarding selection of raw material, structure, and content. If a diary is used as a resource, much of the daily repetition and drudgery will be deleted. This is because a diarist writes today with no certainty of what tomorrow will bring. When writing for a public audience, the story is crafted and created within a structure that has a beginning and an end.

I have kept a diary since age 11, coincidentally the same year I developed anorexia nervosa. For years, merely thinking about writing a memoir, to share publicly, fueled my motivation to recover from my eating disorder. When I began to draft the chapters, another several decades passed by, but this contemplation and writing process served a purpose. It was like a courtship – of the diary and me – with the memoir’s eventual release for the first time publicly acknowledging our relationship of illness and healing, and freedom to be.

There are, however, many aspects to consider when deciding to share your story. For instance: 

  • Who do you want to read your story? 
  • Is now the right time to write and share your story? 
  • What are you hoping to achieve by sharing your story now?

The right time to share your story

Sharing the story of your eating disorder online may be helpful for you and the reader but, as with every step on this healing journey, be wary of hazards. Preparation, with filtering systems as safeguards, will help to minimize risk of a negative impact. Even in recovery-oriented communities, an inadvertent comparison can spark an urge to retreat into isolation, for your version of recovery may suddenly seem not good enough.

Online, you can choose to share with an unknown public audience, or in a closed community of like-minded people, who perhaps you have never met but feel you can trust. Readers sharing a mutual interest in eating disorders may be discovered living just down the road in your neighborhood or on the other side of the world. How much you share is up to you. You may communicate intimately with other readers without divulging your private details, and without knowing their name or location.

Beware but benefits outweigh potential risks 

Even under the cloak of anonymity, sharing of personal stories, in online communication can be risk-prone. The stories may be confronting, candid and honest but anonymity can be dishonest and manipulative just as it can be aspirational and courageous. At times, a blogger may portray a new life for themselves that they imagine and desire but are not yet ready, or capable, to live.

A responsibly written story is one that carefully considers the potential impact of the message on the reader, as well as on the writer. Research and anecdotal evidence show that, even with the best intentions, personal testimonies can glamorize eating disorders and contribute to disordered eating behaviours. Furthermore, the person sharing their story may be left feeling exposed, vulnerable to judgment, and/or emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, a story written provocatively, showing the dark underbellyof an eating disorder without the balance of recovery, can be damaging to both writer and reader. In this scenario, the writer is processing their journey, which can be cathartic, but whether this story should be published or posted online is questionable.

Despite the risk of inadvertently damaging information getting into the wrong hands, the benefits associated with sharing and connecting through our experiences outweigh potential risks.
                                                                                                                            

Lynn Grefe (NEDA CEO, 2003-2015)

The reader’s role

As a writer, sharing of thoughts and emotions in any written form can involve feeling

exposed and vulnerable, but can lead to growth in self-belief, empowerment and acceptance. The reader also has responsibility in considering how to respond to a shared story.

As a reader of someone else’s work, you face other challenges: for instance, you may be expected to provide validation, convey understanding, and empathy. This is a big responsibility. Try to be wary about jumping to conclusions, make time to reflect, take note of your gut feeling and clarify any content that bothers you, prior to reacting.

As with face-to-face communication, asking questions online that help the writer reach their own conclusions can be far more effective than responding with judgments. (However) dont hesitate to address any concern about worrisome content directly.

                                                                                                                              Megan Jones (pioneering digital health researcher) 

Helping others can help self, too

Besides parent-led and non-profit organisations offering support through story-sharing, people with experience of an eating disorder often help each other in their own way.

Surprising outcomes can occur. When Jessica started a blog, her aim was to tell her story in a way that would reach and benefit others. She thought she was already okay, so “It wasn’t really about me”:

Through the process of writing and developing readers, I began to form virtual friendships with women and men around the world who had been gripped by eating disorders in some way. As this sense of community developed and their encouragement poured in, I recognized weaknesses in myself that I had never considered. I realized I wasn’t as recovered” as I thought. Writing about these issues as I discovered them helped me to move past them. My readers spurred me forward, and I did the same for them.

                                                                                                                                                                           Jessica

This article is drawn from my book, Using Writing as a Therapy for Eating Disorders – The Diary Healer.

Ready to share your story? Reach out to me for more information or to discuss if now is the right time to share your story in a way that feels right for you.

June Alexander

About June Alexander

I have written nine books about eating disorders since my recovery (my “reconnection with true self”) from anorexia nervosa and other long term mental health challenges in 2006. In 2017, I graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy (Creative Writing). My contribution to the eating disorder field was recognised at the 2016 Academy for Eating Disorders International Conference in San Francisco where I was awarded the Meehan/Hartley Award for Public Service and Advocacy. I am currently a co-chair of the NEDC Steering Committee Evidence of Experience Group, a foundation steering committee member of the annual World Eating Disorders Action Day, and an Advisory Panel member for F.E.A.S.T.

All articles by June Alexander

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