I wince as I read the latest message in my “other” inbox on Facebook. It’s from a girl in Canada, and it reads, “Thank you for sharing your story. You’re an inspiration.”
Since writing about how I battled bulimia and mental illness as a student almost a year ago, on average, I get one message like this a week. I have the same response every time.
Of course, at first, I feel grateful for the chance I was given to share my story. Then, I feel glad my story has hopefully helped someone else in his or her struggle for recovery, as I know how comforting stories of recovery are.
And later, I feel like a huge sham because I am not brave, I am not courageous and I am not an inspiration.
I am someone who was lucky enough to recover from an illness that ruined not just my life, but also the lives of my family and friends for a whopping five years.
It still continues to rear its ugly head at the least convenient moments imaginable (my penultimate term at university, for example), so I decided to write about my experience with an illness that affects one in four people in the UK alone.
I didn't do it to inspire others; I did it because I was sick and tired of being labeled as “just another girl with an eating disorder.” I was tired of watching girls like me being pressured toward unattainable ideals of perfection.
I know it may sound as if I’m actually being ungrateful for all the support I’ve received from some amazing people all over the world, but ironically, whenever anyone calls me “brave” or “inspirational,” it upsets me.
Why? Because these people are unintentionally buying into exactly what I was writing against.
Should I require “bravery” or “courage” to admit I’ve struggled with food, my weight and body image for seven years?
Or that this time two years ago, I had only just managed to get myself on track with my recovery?
Or that two months ago, I was on my knees in the halls of residence's communal bathrooms, sticking a toothbrush down my throat?
If the answer is yes, then seeking much-needed help and support becomes next to impossible.
If the answer is yes, then it’s automatically implied I should be ashamed of everything I went through.
If the answer is yes, I should “bravely own up” to having an eating disorder, like a child who owns up to eating all the sweets (something that happened more than once during my illness).
If the answer is yes, then there’s also one small problem: I am not ashamed of anything I went through, even though it’s been seven years since I developed "disordered eating," five years since I was diagnosed with an "eating disorder" and three years since my eventual diagnosis: bulimia.
It's quite the opposite. I am proud of the strength and resilience I’ve shown over the past seven years, and I’m more than happy to "own up" to it.
Even on "bad days," which I still have, I’m proud to say I can keep going and I haven’t given in.
Yet, there’s a difference between being proud and being brave. For example, my eating disorder terrifies me, and the thought I might have another relapse frightens me beyond all belief.
Writing or speaking about my mental illness, however, does not and never has scared me.
Well, aside from the day I sat my parents down at the kitchen table and said, “Mum, Dad, I think there's something wrong with me.”
I burst into tears, worried I let them down. With friends or strangers, on the other hand, I’ve always found that talking about my mental illness has actually helped me with my own recovery.
Admittedly, this is partly because I’ve managed to avoid a lot of hurtful people by taking the view that if people judge me or label me as “crazy” because of what I went through, then they frankly don’t deserve the pleasure of my company.
But, it’s also because of the freedom it’s given me. I suppose you could even say that my decision to tell my story was selfish, not brave.
After all, it has provided me with a bulletproof network of people who support me and who I know won’t yell at me when I refuse to eat full-fat yogurt or when I “accidentally” skip a meal.
Thanks to social media, that network is now worldwide. When I’m struggling, I always have someone to reach out to.
It also means that, whenever I do have a bad day, it's not just me I'm letting down, it's my entire support network.
While I resent the fact people think I'm brave or strong for speaking out, knowing that sharing my story can help motivate other recoveries motivates me just as much.
It sounds clichéd, but I'd like to help as many people recover as possible. And that's something I can't do when I'm struggling with a setback.
I still think it shouldn't require bravery for those struggling with mental illness to reap the rewards I have.
It shouldn’t require courage to admit you’re struggling, and I am not, should not and never will be an inspiration.
My story should motivate, not inspire people, especially since I couldn't have gotten to where I am now without the support of countless friends, family members and kind strangers.
I hope more people will realize you don't need to be brave to speak up. I hope that, as we move forward, more people will become become proud to admit they have struggled, fought and overcome mental illness.
I hope one day no one will need to be brave anymore.