It was on my to-do list to stop by my local bank to do some paperwork. Not urgent: just one of those things it feels good to tick off in a day’s errands. It was a sunny day so I made a meandering hike of it, enjoying a nature trail and nodding hello at strangers.
But it was at the bank that I got to do the thing I personally believe makes the most difference in eating disorder and mental health advocacy: the opportunity to alter a stranger’s view of eating disorders in a casual conversation. I think of it as creating one more new sentinel in the community who could save a life or two over time just by hearing things differently.
Because all of us encounter families facing eating disorders, but not all of us recognize it or know what to do. Early intervention saves lives.
My banker asked about my work and allowed me to communicate three key points:
- Eating disorders are not what they may seem.
- Eating disorders are treatable.
- Your knowledge of these facts deputizes you to see this topic differently, for the safety of the community around you.
For his part, this young man was curious and genuinely engaged. He asked questions, he listened, he took it seriously. He made me feel welcome to share my thoughts, and he valued my passion.
I wish that was the usual reaction, but we all know it is not.
Yet this young man did two important things today. He became a person out there in my community who might recognize a cousin or a neighbor or co-worker’s discussion in a new light. He might hear a comment about eating or exercise and be on the alert that it might not be what he would have thought. He might mention F.E.A.S.T. to a relative who describes a young member of the family as struggling. If I did my job right, he will probably not be laughing at casual jokes about eating disorders, and he’s not going to accept without thinking this season’s inevitable diet chatter. It wasn’t a college course on all aspects of eating disorders, or a day-long seminar, it only took three minutes or so. But that conversation introduced both a new point of view and action, a kernel of doubt about assumptions. If he observes something that might be an eating disorder he is prepared to go look it up, and to share information with those who might need it without pity and with optimism.
Imagine a world where there is such a person in many rooms.
Imagine if each family facing an eating disorder diagnosis had a few of these sentinels out there making it that much more likely they will feel supported and guided toward better science and treatment.
I have these conversations all the time, as do many of us in the F.E.A.S.T. community and the larger eating disorder community around the world. It often feels thankless, even futile. Sometimes it starts with a polite question from a stranger, sometimes it’s a testy conversation over the holiday table. But these conversations introduce that little bit of doubt of the usual narrative, and a little bit of hope into a new narrative.
That young banker became a sentinel today, but he also helped me as an advocate, by making one of those conversations be so positive that it will carry me though a bunch of the inevitable awkward and less satisfying encounters to come. If this happened only 10% of the time I’ve got the energy for all the rest! Let’s let this wise and kind young man be our encouraging standard during this holiday season of conversations, my friends: I will.