My therapist once had an eating disorder. I learned that right away because she told me. She chose to share that piece of her with me because she knew something I didn’t at the time; self-disclosure matters.
Before that moment, I’d had therapists that only spoke in the first person when they were discussing something that most folks experience. Anxiety before a test, a fight with a loved one, things like that. I’d never asked if they’d been through what I was going through because their boundaries indicated that the question wouldn’t be welcome (which is okay, everyone gets to set their own boundaries). So, in essence, I’d never had a therapist like me.
I was a vocal, first-person advocate for mental health issues before I entered social work school. I had a blog, an Instagram, even a couple of YouTube videos. But when I entered my graduate program, I felt pressure to shut those all down. They were public, so my clients might find them and easily know it was me. I felt inauthentic concealing my experience to advocate in the third-person. I knew that sharing my own experiences as a peer helped people. But how could I do that as a provider? According to the general consensus in social work, I couldn’t.
When my therapist told me she used to have an eating disorder, my jaw dropped. Here was someone who worked with people with eating disorders all day every day and wasn’t triggered by anything they shared with her. I was thinking that I’d never fully recover from my ED but here was living proof that it was possible right in front of me.
I started thinking about what I am living proof of. I am living proof that you can heal from self-harm. I am living proof that queer and gender-queer kids can grow up to live authentically as themselves. I am living proof that someone struggling with suicidal ideation can love and be loved. I was privileged in the mental health support I received to get here so I am not a promise. I am a possibility.
As I struggle to decide whether or not to wear long sleeves in my social work practice to cover my scars or what to share about myself with clients, I remember my therapist. There’s a time and a place for sharing things about yourself, of course. Social work was made to help people like me, not hire us, so it’s not the most welcoming space for lived experience of mental illness. I’ve even considered quitting for that reason. But if me wearing a three-quarter length sleeve could be someone’s living proof of a future, I’ve got to keep fighting to be here.
Even Marsha Linehan, the creator of DBT, has stepped up to share her own story in her memoir, Building a Life Worth Living. She was hospitalized for a number of years and enured various treatments for what she now considers to have been Borderline Personality Disorder. While she only felt comfortable sharing this later in life, she is living proof to all of us.
Who is your living proof? Whose living proof will you be?