By Alexandra Miles
It was not until I began to admit that there was something wrong that I was truly able to start healing. My personal journey through eating disorder recovery began in 2018 and continues to be a fierce and determined journey to this day. Now, in 2022, I aim every day to not only acknowledge my own hardships and mental health journey, but to help others do the same. Voicing shame and voicing our struggles diminish their power. The more we speak about what is hurting, the less power it has to hurt us.
Just over one year ago, I began the pre-production phase of a short film, Blackbird, touching on my own prior experience in treatment where I met a young black woman struggling to recover from bulimia and past traumas. She was reserved, hardly speaking a word to anyone, let alone myself. The two of us could not be more different. I am a a thin, white-appearing woman who was at the time in treatment for anorexia nervosa: the eating disorder stereotype. I am bubbly, outspoken, and was, at the time, eager to befriend her and help her through her struggles. After weeks in treatment together, we began to understand each other through silent expression: art, poetry, and body language. She was incredible, though she could not yet see it herself. She changed my life.
It was noticeably difficult for her to talk about her mental health challenges, as it is for many. I began to find that while on the outside we seemed very different, we were more alike than I could have imagined. We shared beliefs that we were undeserving, we both felt disconnected from ourselves and others, and we both felt that we did not fit into this world. We were also both deep thinkers. We connected through deep conversations as treatment progressed, talking about feeling stuck in an almost ether – feeling immobile and paralyzed. We did not want to live but we did not want to die. We both felt shame over past experiences. It was painful, but it was real. Ironically, the intense themes that we discussed made us feel deeply connected – something we both were in need of in our lives. Upon opening up to each other, we were both able to recognize our own truths; by voicing our challenges, we enabled each other, and others, to share their struggles. We were able to form deep connections with them as well. This was the beginning of our journey to recovery.
While filming, I stumbled upon many statistics that made me realize even more the importance of what we were sharing. One particularly jarring statistic we found was that black teenagers are 50% more likely than white teenagers to exhibit bulimic behavior, such as binge-eating and purging. Additionally, they are half as likely to be diagnosed, or receive treatment. Why? I didn’t know. But I asked and continue to ask as many questions as I can to get to the bottom of it, and to change that statistic for the better. While I do not yet have all the answers, I have heard a very similar narrative over and over again when talking with both men and women in the black community, as well as various other minority communities: “Growing up, it was not ok to not be ok. We didn’t talk about mental health.” This promotes shame around dealing with mental health struggles. Shame is something that everyone can relate to. I continue to learn and discuss with those community members why that is, and how that has impacted them. It is a mindset that is beginning to change very slowly, but there are certainly indications of changes beginning to happen.
Upon completion of our film, I realized that our creation was much more than just a film. It was the springboard for a movement, a platform to support a much larger conversation. It was an opportunity for women of color to see themselves on screen represented in the realm of mental health. It was the chance to encourage minority communities, as well as others, to start discussing mental health and not feel alone in doing so. It was the chance to shed shame. I, myself, may not be a part of this community, but those from the community are a part of my world. I care deeply about the many people who are being impacted, and will do whatever it takes to help them share their story, and to help others heal.
Thus, I have started a much larger project that I hope will change lives. This project, PROJECT BLACKBIRD is an event that will tour nationally encouraging our audiences, and specifically minority communities, to be brave and vulnerable in beginning to destigmatize dialogue around mental health. Our hope is that if we can change the way these communities are able to grow up discussing mental health, we can change the statistic: we can help the healing.
We invite and encourage everyone reading this to be open about mental health, to help others do the same, and to #shedshame. You are not alone.