February 25th begins National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Eating disorders are very stigmatized despite the fact that they have the highest mortality rate of any psychological illness. About 20-25 percent of those struggling with eating disorders are male.
I remember the day in April 2007 I finally confided to my psychiatrist that I was struggling with drugs and alcohol. I did not mention at that time that I had also struggled with both exercise and traditional bulimia for over two decades
I felt completely stigmatized and alone in my eating disorder and did not feel that anyone, including him, could understand or help. Adding to the stigma was my profession. Not only was I a male with an eating disorder, but I was also a male lawyer with an eating disorder. How stigmatizing was that? I have spoken openly about my eating disorder recovery for years and to this day, I am unaware of any other male in the legal profession who has publicly professed to dealing with an eating disorder. The hard statistics of how many males are afflicted with eating disorders tell us that they are of course out there. Along those same lines, I have received numerous emails from females in the legal profession who are struggling or are in recovery from both anorexia and bulimia.
Why do males struggling with eating disorders in the legal profession seem to be so few and far between? We can look to a recent study of mental health issues in law school published by the Journal of Legal Education, which found 27% of law students (18% of male respondents and 34% of female respondents) screened positive for eating disorders. Yet only 3% of respondents had actually been diagnosed. While I do not have the breakdown, I suspect that the majority of that three percent diagnosed is female.
I believe one reason for this reluctance to seek treatment compounded on top of the strong societal stigma is the culture of the legal profession. The fear of showing weakness and vulnerability. The fear of showing “weakness” is so ingrained into our thought process as lawyers and even starting as law students that as a profession, we are often unable to distinguish between how feelings need to be channeled to do our best to excel in the profession versus what we need to do to help ourselves when we are struggling with mental health issues. We have difficulty stepping back and embracing the vulnerability of telling people when we are struggling as being a virtue.
Here is the catch. This type of vulnerability is something that is absolutely necessary in mental health recovery. Particularly eating disorder recovery. It may involve opening up the well of emotions that may date back over a lifetime that are holding you back from getting better. Not a pleasant thought, is it? Very counter-intuitive to the projection of knowledge, competency, and strength in the profession
I can tell you that while I struggled with my eating disorder, and then moved into recovery, that recovery did not begin in earnest until I allowed myself to be vulnerable in a setting that I felt safe to do so. And it took time to feel safe. I finally got honest with my psychiatrist and those close to me. I then began to move forward in a positive way. I had been lying by omission for years, simply getting my anti-depressant meds and not opening up about all the unresolved pain, layer upon layer going back to childhood. The mentally abusive relationship with my mother. The severe bullying as a teenager. (I do not blame either as causes of my eating disorder. As we know, there is a difference between cause and correlation.) The feelings of inadequacy and lack of self-worth also played a role. While there is no other history of eating disorders in my family, the role of genetics cannot be dismissed as well.
I see this issue regularly when I speak to lawyers and law students who are struggling. People who would rather pull their toenails out with their teeth than talk about such things. Talk about the pain of a little boy or girl, failed relationships, trouble at home. Possible environmental triggers that have been long buried in the subconscious.
It’s easier to simply say, “I’m over that,” and move on. To emotionally isolate from the world. To compartmentalize the pain. But they often have not moved on and those feelings are always just under the surface, waiting to trigger destructive behaviors or playing a role in not dealing with the ones already present. The stress of billing. Stress of trial. Stress of grades. Problems at home. Childhood trauma. The list of possible triggers is endless. I totally get that. Binging and purging was a huge stress release for me during both law school and as a practicing lawyer. The same was true of my obsessive-compulsive exercise. Probably my biggest trigger issue present day.
I am here to tell you that allowing myself to be vulnerable and let those feelings out was a key in my long-term eating disorder recovery which now stands at just over ten years. Those feelings that dated back to childhood no longer control me. I even write letters to my teenage self. I talk to my “inner child.” Doesn’t sound very “manly” or “lawyer-like,” does it? It does not mean telling everyone your childhood secrets. It means realizing that being vulnerable and facing such feelings is both beneficial and necessary in moving forward in recovery. Find a safe setting. Give it a try.
One of the deadliest symptoms of an eating disorder is silence.