Mental health: Why telling our stories is powerful

Alice Reeves, founder of Belongcon, shares her experience of an eating disorder in her teens and how recovery is possible.

Alice Reeves on mental health and recovering from an eating disorder
Alice Reeves. Photograph: Lauren Mabbett

I’m writing this on World Mental Health Day, and I can’t believe how many people I’ve seen publicly sharing their mental health struggles on social media. Stories of overcoming depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts; stories which are so honest, open, raw, and encouraging to others that no matter what you’re going through, you’re not alone.

Owning my story

Thinking back to when I was a teenager, before social media, before access to stories via the internet was something we all took for granted, what I wouldn’t have given for someone to tell me that they were going through the same thing.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I started running BelongCon events, that I realised how common to so many people my experiences were. To hear someone talk about their experience of anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders, and to be able to say: “Me too. I felt like that,” was like feeling validated. And it finally allowed me to own my story. 

Up until a few years ago, the way that I had “recovered” from my eating disorder was to completely disassociate myself from the experience. I told myself that it had happened to a different person, and I think I genuinely believed that never talking about it – never saying the words “anorexia” or “orthorexia” – outside of my closest friends was somehow protection against ever going back to being that way. What I didn’t realise was that in not speaking about it, I was internalising it. And those same feelings of anxiety were manifesting themselves in different ways: from fitness addiction, to uncontrolled emotional outbursts, to chronic pain.

In fact, the single biggest step in my recovery has been to share my story, and own it.

Alice Reeves
Alice Reeves. Photograph: Lauren Mabbett

My experience

There aren’t that many people in my life now who were around when I was most unwell. It’s not surprising, seeing that my way of dealing with it was to isolate myself and shut out anyone who might get too close and want to ask too many questions. I tell myself that they didn’t know what was going on, but in all likelihood they did. 

For almost two years I was genuinely and irrationally terrified of eating anything other than a small selection of what I deemed “healthy foods”. I would have rather gone hungry for days than eat food which felt “unsafe” to me because it contained “too many” calories. I went from being an overweight 13-year-old to a dangerously underweight 15-year-old in a way that was at first so slow it wasn’t apparent anything was going on, then all of a sudden got worse alarmingly fast.

Not only was I scared of eating most foods and drinking most drinks, I developed a lot of time-consuming obsessions and irrational paranoias about myself and others that stopped me from forming any real connection. And that impacted my relationships with people for years afterwards.

Casting shame aside

Finally, after a lot of investment in myself and my mental wellbeing, I can finally look back on what happened to me and piece it back together. For years I couldn’t, I told myself I couldn’t remember any of it. It’s just that I didn’t want to remember. I still carried so much shame and embarrassment. I didn’t want to think about what I put my family through, and how much concern I must have caused people. So, to everyone in my life at that time who offered kind words, late night phone calls, invites to social gatherings that I can’t have been much fun at, and offers of friendship that I pushed away or couldn’t see… I can’t tell you how much I now appreciate that. And thank you. 

Rather than feeling shame, I can finally appreciate how strong it makes me to have come through a time that I really wasn’t sure I would make it through. I’m not saying that every day is a great day, and that I don’t experience intrusive or negative thoughts trying to get into my head on a daily basis. I still do. The negative self-talk and bouts of anxiety will probably always be there. I’m human, and that’s my natural disposition. The difference now is that I’m happy being the person I am. I’m happy with the life I have. I feel like I’m being the person I always wanted to be. And that has nothing to do with my weight.

I can finally be me

During my teen years, there was a constant voice in my head that told me I was worthless and that I had to prove myself every day. That I had to live up to a definition of “perfect” that has never existed and will never exist. During those years I genuinely thought that the voice in my head saying those things was me. The most empowering thing was to discover that it’s not. 

Sure, I still have conversations with that voice from time to time. It never goes away. But now I tell it that everything’s going to be OK if we do this or don’t do that. I tell it that I hear its insecurities, and understand them. I tell it that in fact, my self-worth is not defined by my weight, or how good my skin looks, or whether or not a person I only just met likes me. As I’ve gathered more and more tools to manage that voice through therapy, coaching, and hearing others’ stories, those conversations have become far fewer and easier. And I can finally be me. Back then, I never thought that I would be able to connect with people the way that I do now. I didn’t think I would ever be able to laugh, cry, and love the way I do now.

When I was 15, a doctor told me that I would “never recover” from my eating disorder. That I would simply learn to “manage it”. I don’t believe that’s true. And if I hadn’t heard it back then, maybe I would have had a different journey. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt like my mental health was something to fear, something to be “managed”, something that was separate to me that I would have to learn to live with. Maybe I would have talked about it sooner, put my story together, and found power over it rather than carrying it around like a shameful secret identity that could rear its head at any time. 

Recovery is possible

If I could go back to that girl, I’d tell her something very different. I’d tell her that recovery is possible, that she’s beautiful, and worthy, and perfect without needing to prove anything. I’d tell her that she is going to love and be loved by others so fiercely that she’ll never feel like she’s alone again.

Being a teenage girl can feel like an incredibly lonely time. You, and everyone around you, are changing at such a fast rate it’s difficult to make sense of it all. And if you don’t fit the mould, it can be even harder. So, take it from the loudest, proudest, geekiest 33-year-old with pink hair that I know – being you EXACTLY the way you are is absolutely valid. And the more you allow yourself to be exactly who you are, the happier you’ll be. 

Read more: How to feel confident and accept that you are enough 

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