"What do you think the tiny yellow seeds are?" my boyfriend asked, eyeing the freshly baked multigrain bread on his sandwich. “Amaranth,” I replied, without missing a beat. “It's naturally gluten-free and high in fiber.” He laughed, shaking his head. “Why do you know so much about this stuff?” And there it was: the moment of truth. I could have shaken it off like it was common knowledge, or lied and told him I once considered becoming a nutritionist. But ultimately, I chose the truth. I told my partner about my eating disorder, and that single conversation changed our relationship in ways I never expected.
My history with disordered eating began in my junior year of college. After a devastating, blindsiding breakup with my boyfriend of two and a half years, I lost interest in just about everything, which included eating. Just a few weeks later, I contracted mono, which also took a toll on my appetite. Within a couple of months, I had visibly lost weight, and people took notice. "What's your secret?" They asked. But it wasn't yoga or Paleo — it was crippling depression and illness.
As the praise began to build, I felt a mounting pressure. If I looked great now, that must mean something was wrong with me before, right? What would happen if I gained the weight back? I didn't want to find out. So, my eating habits became stricter, and my exercise routine more vigorous. When I moved out to Los Angeles for my final semester of college, I spiraled further — and by the time I flew back home post-semester, my mother cried because she didn't even recognize me. The next day, my doctor confirmed that I would need to seek treatment for an eating disorder. It took two different nutritionists, one super challenging meal plan, countless visits with several therapists, and a handful of group counseling sessions, but within one year of being diagnosed, I was on my journey to recovery.
Why did I opt to conceal my life-altering experience from my boyfriend of seven months, who I love and trust? Because shame is a powerful thing. In my eyes, I felt that my history with disordered eating made me seem weak. Additionally, since I met my boyfriend four years after I entered the recovery stage, I convinced myself there was no need for him to know about my previous struggles. So, I compartmentalized that part of my identity in an effort to protect myself from judgement or scrutiny. It existed solely in a small dark closet in the corner of my mind, a door I rarely opened, except for in therapy.
But hiding my ED began to take a toll on my relationship because I was only allowing my partner to see a portion of myself. For instance, he couldn't understand why going five or six hours between meals gave me intense anxiety. That empty feeling I got when I'd gone too long without eating made me panicked because it reminded me of how I felt all the time when I was in the throes of my disorder. But how could he possibly be compassionate or supportive if he didn't know my history?
Dr. Jennifer Rollin, clinical psychotherapist and founder of The Eating Disorder Center, emphasizes that choosing to tell your SO about your past eating disorder is ultimately a personal decision. That said, she encourages individuals to consider opening up about this piece of themselves (if they feel safe doing so) because there are so many potential benefits to sharing.
"Shame thrives in secrecy, and there is nothing shameful about having struggled with an eating disorder," she explains. "Plus, if you're [in recovery], that's something to be proud of. For many couples, it may only serve to bring them closer together, and if it doesn't, that is also something that could be important to know."
Dr. Rollins is right. There were several times when I had been tempted to tell my partner about my ED before, like when he happened upon an old photo of me during my lowest point of disordered eating, and I wondered if he already suspected something. Still, the words always got stuck in my throat somewhere — that is, until that moment at Flour Bakery, when I felt as if I'd reached a turning point in my relationship. I could either keep maintaining a level of secrecy or let my boyfriend in. Maybe he wouldn't like what he found, but at least then I would know whether or not he loved me — the whole me, not just certain parts. So, when he asked me why I happened to know so much about a particular superfood, I took a deep breath.
"Because that used to be a big part of my life," I explained. "Knowing all of the nutritional facts and benefits of every food. It was an obsession. An unhealthy one."
He nodded, and I could see the wheels turning behind his eyes.
"So, what happened?" he asked. He took a bite of his sandwich, and something about his casual response made me feel comfortable. I could finally let my guard down.
The story came pouring out of me: how the disorder started, how it grew, how I got through it, and how, for a while, I wondered if I could.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this before?” he asked.
“I guess I was a little worried about what you would think of me,” I told him.
After taking the last bite of his meal, he looked me square in the eyes. I felt as naked as a fully clothed human can feel.
“What I think,” he responded, “is that to survive that, you must be very strong."
From that point on, I no longer worried about accidentally slipping up and revealing something that pointed to my history with disordered eating. I found comfort in the fact that my partner could be more sensitive to my experience, and more aware of any potential triggers — like talking about diets or making any comments about weight loss or body image.
Not only that, but exposing something so personal seemed to inspire us both to be more candid with each other about our past struggles — painful breakups, deep-seated fears and insecurities, unhealthy tendencies — and how they shaped us so that we could be more compassionate and understanding partners to each other overall.
Moreover, I had been so worried that telling my boyfriend would change his perception of me that I didn't even consider that it would change my self-perception. My recovery began to become something I could wear proudly, like a medal. In fact, once I told my boyfriend about my past, it felt like the floodgates opened, and I was eager for more opportunities to talk about the experience. Within a couple of months, I became a repeat speaker at the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association's (MEDA) weekly Hope & Inspiration series in Massachusetts, where I recited a speech for women currently in recovery and participated in a Q&A.
My boyfriend not only drove me to and from MEDA but gave me an encouraging pep talk beforehand and took me out for a celebratory brunch afterward. In fact, he's been my biggest cheerleader in sharing my experience with others so that maybe, just maybe, I can help to erode the stigma and shame around eating disorders and inspire those on the road to recovery to keep fighting.
Author and researcher Brené Brown says that vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, and courage. And I've certainly found that to be true. Letting myself be seen was a risk, but that's what true intimacy evokes — knowing if someone loves all of you, with no conditions and no stipulations. And for me, opening up not only affirmed my partner's love but my capacity for self-love, too.
If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) is here to help. Call the toll-free, confidential helpline at 1-800-931-2237, or click to chat with a NEDA Helpline volunteer. For crisis situations, text “NEDA” to 741741 to be connected with a trained volunteer at Crisis Text Line.
Dr. Jennifer Rollin, clinical psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist