An important and courageous guest post from Angela Han that touches on eating disorders, sexual trauma and cultural diversity issues with regards to shame and stigma.
In a 2014 study at the Yale Law School, approximately 70% of all respondents who were Yale Law students reported experiencing mental health challenges during law school. Of that group, 80% considered seeking clinical treatment, but only half of that group actually did so. I had bulimia for seven years, including my first two years of law school. If I had the opportunity to participate in that study, I would not have even admitted to having a problem. Needless to say, I never asked for help.
I did not see my bulimia as a problem for a long time because I thought it was an excellent coping mechanism. I grew up seeing my parents’ struggle with their marriage, and as an only child, I tried to get in between them and stop their fights and solve problems that were not mine. I felt helpless because I could not help them in spite of my best efforts. They assured me I made them happy, but I felt like I was not enough to make their problems go away. I thought that maybe if I did good things, like go to a good school and get a good job, I could fix their marriage.
As a result, when I moved to the US for college halfway across the world from home in Seoul, South Korea, I pressured myself to be independent, high-achieving, and perfect. But being alone in a different country, without any family, trying to adjust to a society that I had never been part of was not easy. I felt helpless before, but now I felt helpless and alone. When I was drowning in negativity with these feelings, I sought pleasure and relief in food. When I felt alone after not understanding another inside joke or helpless after getting my social security number application rejected for the third time, I binged. When I binged, I felt guilty for indulging myself, and I felt like I needed to be punished for it. So I purged. At the time, I actually thought I was handling my stress well because I was not bothering anyone.
But even if I had acknowledged a problem, I was doubtful anyone could have helped me because I had a few “run-ins” with the system during the years I was sick. The first was a trip to the ER because my body was purging so hard I had trouble breathing. I waited in a bed for three hours feeling exposed and vulnerable, thinking, “Now everyone knows about my secret.” But half of my mind wished that someone had asked me at least one question about my bulimia so I could get the help that I need. However, no one actually asked questions, let alone sat down next to me. A doctor handed me some over-the-counter pills and a brochure. Weeks later, I received a bill for almost $1,000. I felt like I was being punished for asking for help. Naturally, I dealt with this helplessness by purging.
The second time was when I called the school psych clinic after someone directly across from me on the subway faced me, unzipped his pants, and masturbated. I felt cornered. I felt my hands shaking, heart palpitating, and an unshakeable urge to tell someone. I called the clinic and shared what happened. The lady on the phone asked me a series of questions about my medical history and told me to hold. When she came back, she said a doctor would have to review my file and set up an appointment in the next few weeks. After we hung up, I thought maybe my experience was not traumatic enough to warrant the doctor’s time today. Maybe there were other students who had bigger issues. I felt like my problems didn’t matter.
By the time I was in law school, I had hardened to the idea of asking for help. After about six years, I woke up to the rude awakening that no one was coming to help. I needed to do something because I was tired. If I was ever going to have a chance at passing the bar and becoming a lawyer, I could not be tired like this. I decided to accept my bulimia as a problem and confront it, but even that first step was rocky. I started exercising and eating less, thinking that I would be healthier by losing weight, but I relapsed because I did not find answers in weight loss. I went through high fluctuations in my body weight, developed an unhealthy body image, and felt guilty when I did not exercise.
Despite the rough start, I was proud of having finally taken the first step. I began looking for anyone out there like me to help make sense of my struggle. I started with where I felt most comfortable: social media, where I did not have to talk to anyone that may not necessarily be interested in what I had to say. I looked for stories on Instagram and YouTube, where I found so many courageous women who shared their journeys and had gone through exactly what I was going through. They talked about their eating disorders, body dysmorphia, and insecurities that led them astray for so long until they realized that health is not about weight loss but about strength.
I learned through these women that exercise and eating right should be a celebration of how strong your mind and body can be, and that we are all capable of that celebration no matter where we begin. Slowly but surely, I no longer felt alone. I felt understood, even though they had never met me. I was empowered to know exactly what I had to do be stronger, and, moreover, to be grateful and content even when I felt imperfect. I finally understood that courage was not about acting strong but being strong enough to face my fears and not give up until I addressed them.
Looking back, I wonder if the seven years of struggle would have been cut short if I had the option to speak with someone who cared. While I may have fully recovered from bulimia itself, stress is a fact of life. Some deal with it better privately, and some deal better with the help of others. While I dealt with mine privately, there are days when I wonder if there are others who are like me now, whether it is okay for me to speak out and reach out.
I hope that one day, mental health is considered as important as physical health, where rushing into the ER with a broken mind will get the same attention as a broken leg. I hope that one day, mental health is not stigmatized so that lawyers feel free to share their experiences and mentor others who may be going through a similar journey that they did. I hope that one day, lawyers’ mental health is as respected as the stellar work they put in for their clients. And on that day, we will no longer be a mere statistic on a mental health study but will have become a movement that fundamentally shifts perspectives in support of mental health.
**Angela Han is a healthcare lawyer and a plant-based personal trainer for lawyers. She works with lawyers who want to take back their strength while helping them saving time, money, and energy. Learn more about her at www.angela-han.com.