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When I was thirteen, I lied to my best friend about having bulimia. I wanted drama. (This was middle school, after all.) I wanted attention. Most importantly, I wanted someone to talk to me about my relationship with food.
I do not want to delegitimize eating disorders. These mental illnesses are genuine and scary, deserving of our attention and care. Instead, I also want to give legitimacy to those facing mental health issues that do not come with a diagnosis. Their problems deserve just as much attention and care.
I didn’t have an eating disorder, but I thought about food a lot: I wrote rules for myself in a code language and pinned them above my desk. I kept a hand-written food journal before the days of calorie counting apps. I watched everything that my friends ate and compared it to my own meal.
I wanted to talk about food with my friends, but I felt like I didn’t have a legitimate claim to a conversation. I thought that I needed a diagnosable problem—either bulimia or anorexia—to be taken seriously. I thought that it wasn’t right of me to ask for attention when my friends had real problems, problems with names, while all I had was a food journal.
Now, I know that I shouldn’t have lied about having bulimia. I should have told my friend that I was struggling and looking for help navigating the world of food. Even without a diagnosis, I was showing signs of minor mental health issues. I have always been lucky to have thoughtful friends who help me work through made-up problems and the real ones underlying them. But I know hard it feels to seek help if we think our problems aren’t “real” enough.
So I gave my bad relationship with food the label of “bulimia” even though I had never purged. I felt like that label would give an appropriate level of gravity to my thoughts. I told my best friend (and eventually all my friends) that I had thrown up a few times and got the desired result: attention and support.
My decision to fake bulimia might make it seem like I’m just an attention seeker. And, admittedly, I took drastic measures to get validation and attention. But most of us are constantly looking for attention, and I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. We want others to validate our thoughts and work through them with us. This is human. Asking for attention can lead to some of the most powerful and intimate conversations. “Attention seeker” shouldn’t be a derogatory term.
Instead, let’s make “attention giver” a positive term. Sometimes, when we are on the receiving end of these conversations—when our friend wants to talk about their thoughts—we can forget that they are probably just asking for attention, and that their call for attention is valid.
I’m not saying that all mental health issues develop as a call for attention. I am saying, however, that some problems can begin this way; that people who engage in self-destructive behavior as a cry for help are not inherently bad and deceptive; and that we all have a role to play as friends to take people’s thoughts seriously before they manifest as actions.
Too often, we expect our friends to come to us with evidence of a problem. We want their problem to have a big and scary name like anorexia or bulimia. We want to be able to see their problem in their untouched plate of food, or to catch them throwing up in the bathroom. We are not as quick to identify a problem when our friend is thinking a lot about food. Yet these thoughts in themselves, before they become actions that we can observe and name, are already real threats to mental health.
As students, it is not enough to recognize and talk about what our friends are doing that are indicative of mental health issues. Instead, we also need to consider what our friends are thinking. We need to respond with just as much care and attention to these thoughts as the actions they might inspire. We need to give our friends attention before they ask for it in self-destructive ways.
Harvard and its students already do a lot to tackle mental health issues on campus through counseling and dialogue, and we should be proud of that. But we need to reinforce the institutional effort on the individual level.
Maybe all we need is to talk to each other a little more, with a little more openness about our desire for attention and a little more willingness to give attention back. Let’s fill our campus with attentiveness—to those struggling with diagnosable mental health issues, and to those who just want to talk.
We can’t wait for our friends to lie about having bulimia to talk to them about food.
Sophie G. Garrett ’20, a Crimson blog and editorial editor, lives in Quincy House.
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