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A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

The Mask of a Smile

Faking normal at work when you have an eating disorder


From "Workplace: Disclosure and Accommodations" issue of Visions Journal, 2018, 13 (4), p. 21

I never planned on having an eating disorder (ED, or, as I like to call it, Ed). In what felt like the blink of an eye, Ed had convinced me to give him my heart in exchange for his mind. Ed made me feel that as long as I had him, nothing else mattered. Ed numbed the pain of everything else in my life.

As my anxiety and self-doubt increased, Ed was there with open arms whispering that he didn’t like me very much… but here was what I could do to make it better—which worked well for me, because I didn’t like me very much either, and I wanted to do anything I could to make it better.

Ed and family

Depriving myself of food and exercising excessively became an addiction. By the end of high school, Ed had complete control of my thoughts, my self-esteem and my confidence. I’ll never forget writing my English 12 provincial exam while my mom waited in the car out front to take me to my first intake meeting for therapy. I knew that my obsession with my body was getting extreme. That’s why I had agreed to try therapy. But while I was trying to concentrate on passing my exam, Ed was busy trying to convince me that I was fine. I sat there at the desk, hardly able to breathe I was so nervous. My body shook violently. I feared that I was “too fat” to get help. My focus was not only not on my exam—it had completely left the room. I didn’t know at the time that Ed’s control over me would only increase.

I was diagnosed with an eating disorder when I was 17 and spent the next several years in and out of various treatment programs and therapy units. Ed had me on a tight leash. I was his slave. He whispered in my ear constantly—that I was stupid, worthless, ugly and fat. Because of Ed, I starved my body, my mind and my soul. Although I passed my high school final exams—barely—it soon became clear that university was out of the question. I couldn’t concentrate on anything except calories and exercise, and I had difficulty putting two thoughts together. Failing grades in my university prep courses made me feel like even more of a failure as a human being.

I felt numb and became more distant from those I cared about. It pained me to watch how Ed made me push away those who loved me most. I felt as if I was behind a glass wall, screaming for help, yet no one could hear me. My parents became increasingly concerned that I was so distant, that I had started to avoid family meals and had begun to buy my own groceries. To make matters worse, my parents had their own marital problems and eventually filed for divorce.

All I wanted to do was escape—to run away and be with Ed. I decided to leave home and move to Vancouver.

Ed and work

Vancouver excited me. There was so much happening. I loved the city’s culture, its lush green trees and its charm. But what I loved most was being alone with Ed.

But living in Vancouver was expensive. My wage as a barista was not enough to get by—especially when Ed started encouraging me to spend more money on my appearance—designer clothes, make-up, hair extensions—all the things that a girl who’s “too fat” needs in order to be accepted, by Ed or anyone else. I took on a second job serving in a run-down pub downtown.

It was hard enough trying to fake happy with my family. It was another challenge trying to put on that mask of a smile for my new employer. My self-esteem plummeted further with each shift I worked.

It wasn’t the customers so much as the other staff. “You need to eat a burger,” the chef would say to me as I grabbed the order to take to a table.

“A burger?!” the manager replied incredulously. “She needs about 20 burgers!” She turned to me. “Do you even eat?”

I would plaster a smile on my face and try not to cry. Once, when I came out of the bathroom quickly between waiting tables, I overheard the manager say, “I bet she was making herself sick.”

I didn’t have the confidence to stand up to them or shrug off their comments, or—heaven forbid—admit that I really did need help. Instead, I went home sobbing, feeling like I had failed my co-workers. As punishment, I would deny myself food.

I quit the job at the pub, and Ed convinced me to apply for a position at a restaurant chain known for hiring extremely beautiful servers. Ed told me that the only reason I was offered the job was because I had become so skinny—so I’d better stay that way. I didn’t realize that working there would only make things worse.

As part of our training, the manager had us sample bites of everything from the menu. While all the other girls dug in, I fixated on finding any excuse to not take a bite. I sat in my chair, plastered another fake smile on my face and politely declined everything that was passed my way.

Serving at that restaurant was even more challenging than serving in the pub. It completely consumed me, pushing me into being somebody whom I now know is completely not me. All of the servers looked like models or actresses. What did I have? Nothing, I told myself. But Ed loved the glamour, the fashion and the fake. Ed assured me that if I stayed skinny, then maybe I would be accepted.

Soon I had guests and servers alike asking me to share my tricks for staying so slim.

But I had become a basketful of lies. My body was breaking down. I was sore, tired and cold all the time. I started feeling faint at work. Carrying the trays of food and drinks had started to feel nearly impossible. I felt like the walking dead. I knew I needed treatment. At a recent check-up, my heart rate was so low that the physician had told me I should really be hospitalized—in fact, that I would be admitted involuntarily if I didn’t check myself into an inpatient program.

Good-bye to Ed

I spent days over-thinking the stories I would tell my boss so that I could go on leave. In previous jobs, I had requested time off for treatment, but it was always difficult to explain why I was asking for accommodation. Honesty really wasn’t something I was used to, and by this point it had become second nature to lie—to myself and to everyone else.

One morning, I dressed carefully and approached my manager in my two-inch heels, which clicked against the hard floor. I remember feeling my frail frame trembling as I asked if I could speak to him.

“YOU!? You need to go into therapy? I didn’t think you were that skinny! What do you weigh now? What do you have to weigh in order to get out of the hospital?”

The questions stung. I was ashamed—but I was also angry. For the first time in a long time, I felt the emotions of the real me start to rise to the surface.

I’d like to say that from that point on, I was in recovery—but it wasn’t that simple. I was initially given leave from work to attend treatment, but my employers weren’t happy when I told them the inpatient program required a minimum three-week commitment. Their accommodation came with pressure to provide an exact date of return, and I didn’t feel that the comments were coming from a place of caring about me as an individual.

I began to realize that part of what had attracted me to the service industry in the first place was that it was a place where someone who feels worthless can feel worthy—by serving others. And I began to see that I was doing a disservice to myself. In order to feel worthy, I should be treating myself as a worthy individual. In other words, it was time to stop serving others, stop serving Ed and start serving myself.

I quit my job, and after another long course of focused therapy and treatment, I slowly learned a new type of self-value. I can no longer imagine putting up with the type of treatment I endured in the food service industry, where so much emphasis is placed on outward appearance rather than on an individual’s inner worth and beauty.

I still have days that I struggle with my sense of self-worth—and with my eating patterns—and I have made some wrong decisions. But I’ve made a lot of right ones, too. And I now work in a supportive environment that fosters the sort of self-respect that I have spent years rebuilding. I go to work feeling motivated and confident enough to be myself. If I need help, I ask for it—and I know it will be given. Most important, however, I can proudly say that my heart is now mine—not Ed’s—and I’ve exchanged his brain for my own.

* pseudonym

About the author

Megan lives and works as a behaviour interventionist with children in the Okanagan region of BC. She enjoys spending time outdoor

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