Health Care, Love, Wellness

It took years to tell my Arab family about my eating disorder

In a society where mental illness is stigmatized, telling your family about your eating disorder can be tough.

First things first, this is not a wikiHow article. 

There’s no foolproof step-by-step guide to telling your family about your eating disorder. And, to be honest, there’s no easy way to do it either. You can prepare a lengthy slideshow presentation (with the best transitions and everything), but that effort does not guarantee that your family will give you a positive reaction, or that they will understand what you’re trying so hard to explain.

When I first shared my struggles with my parents, it was long before I received my diagnosis. My mother’s response was simple, but incredibly effective:

“Stop being so dramatic, Fatima.”

And by effective, I mean it made the anxiety that I had around eating intensify. A few months later, when my mother had realized that maybe I wasn’t being so dramatic after all, I was taken to my first therapy session. In a society where mental illness is stigmatized fiercely and scarcely discussed, this, of course, took a lot of convincing.

The way the psychologist had asked me, “Do you know what anorexia nervosa is?” rings in my eardrums to this day.

She had said it so gently, so softly, but that did little to undermine the destructive effect of her cannonball words. I still remember the expectant look my mother gave me after I shut the door to her car, her eyes urging me to tell her what had happened in the past hour. I still remember how I avoided her gaze while contemplating whether I should tell her the truth.

I still remember the way I said, “Nothing happened. Let’s go home.”

I knew that, inevitably, I would have to tell my family, but opening up and telling people that are important to you that you have a problem is tough. It’s made even more so in a society that shames and alienates you for having one.

My family made it harder for me to tell them. Every single family gathering that I would attend followed a dangerously specific pattern: my mother couldn’t stop talking about how little I ate. The eyes of the occupants of the room would shift onto me, would trail down my body, would threaten tears to pool down my cheeks. Lunch was next, and this was always large portions of rice, chicken and fish or whatever other delicacies they had managed to stir up that day. My mother would ask what I wanted to eat, her eyes narrowed as if to say,

“We’re in front of other people. Don’t you dare cause a scene.”

I’d casually say that I wasn’t hungry. Then my grandmother would join the conversation, questioning, begging and forcing me to eat. I started fearing family gatherings before loathing them until I stopped attending them all together. My family’s attempts to “help me” were only making me feel worse, so I knew I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I had to tell them for their benefit and my own.

Before doing so, I considered multiple things, and I urge you to consider them, too.

Think about how you want to talk to your family about this. Do you want to tell them all together or do you speak to each member individually? I would personally recommend the latter. Next, think about what you’re going to say. Do some research, make sure you know how to explain your specific case. Think about who you’re talking to and share in accordance with what you believe their level of understanding of mental disorders is.

For example, when I told my father, I began by asking if he knew what an eating disorder was. He told me he had no idea. Imagine, my 50-something-year-old father did not know about eating disorders (which, by the way, is the whole issue here!). So when I opened up to him, I had to explain everything from scratch.

When it comes to reactions, expect the worst.

Chances are your family isn’t very well-educated on the topic of eating disorders, which is absolutely okay. When I told my father, he made a joke out of it in the beginning and didn’t seem to fully understand. My mother was the same, but weeks later, after reading several articles on the matter, she became my biggest support system.

What opening up to family taught me was that your family also needs time, because it’s hard for them, too. I had to be understanding of their situation, just as they had to be understanding of mine. Don’t hold their possible ignorance against them: educate them instead. And don’t think you have to open up to everyone either.

Most of my relatives don’t know about my struggles to this day.

All that’s left for me to say is good luck, my friend. Opening up is going to be hard, and so is eating disorder recovery, but it’s also going to be very, very worth it.