Dear Bartender and Priestess,
I have always believed that couples are allowed to keep portions of themselves locked away from their partners. You know, the part where we keep our deep secrets, where we can turn thoughts over as we work to understand how these thoughts and memories and philosophies have helped shape us into the people we become. (I mean, does my husband need to know that when I was a kid I had a secret crush on Walter Matthau? But he was so funny..!) My husband similarly keeps things to himself; I didn’t know about when he nearly got expelled from high school, until we had been together for quite a while. Suffice it to say, we both have our skeletons, and I think they can, for the most part, stay deep in our respective closets.
I do struggle more with some issues than other, however. For more than a decade, I’ve hidden my binge eating from my husband. It kind of didn’t matter. I was handling it, you know? And it wasn’t like it was something I did every day. I reasoned that I would keep it from him because it was my problem, not his, and…OK, I admit it, I’m ashamed of it. And I’ve started to realize just how bad this is for me.
I need to fix this. It’s not going away, and I am not getting better. My kids are getting older, and I don’t want them to normalize any of my behavior. I feel so trite when I think about by binge eating, because it connects to a litany of problems. Oh, great, I’m Therapy Girl. But I need to be free of this, and I have to say…I have no idea what to say to my husband. What’s my opener? Hey, honey, funny story, but I thought you should know I compulsively cram food in my mouth until I’m ready to burst, and then tearfully throw out all the evidence?
Sick And Tired Of All This
Dear Sick and Tired,
B: Indeed, you are absolutely right. A coupled relationship is made of two separate individuals, both of whom have the right to keep some things…
HOLY POCKETS! Hold the phone! Wait one second…did you just compare having an oddball man-crush (for the record, I crush on Oliver Platt, want to make something of it?) with having an eating disorder?
You do realize, these two things are not legitimate comparatives, right? That’s not a matter of pitting apples vs. oranges, that’s like trying to compare apples vs. nuclear submarines.
What I find interesting, and heartbreaking, is the way you diminish yourself and your issues under a jokey mask. You ha-ha, push away, then denigrate yourself for being some kind of pathetic “Therapy Girl”. Do you think you don’t deserve to spend time on yourself? Does asking for help give you heartburn?
I understand, it can be incredibly difficult to admit that you’re vulnerable. That you have a problem, that you need help. There is a culture in the US that glorifies the idea that you can A) pull yourself up by your bootstraps as you B) stoically suffer in silence. You know what that brings? Worn out boots and endless suffering. And, in your case, a face full of whatever’s in the fridge. I want you to repeat after me: THERE IS NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WHEN I NEED IT. THERE IS NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WHEN I NEED IT. Again. THERE IS NO SHAME IN GETTING HELP WHEN I NEED IT.
P: I’m really glad you wrote to us, because it means you’re scared enough to do something about it. Terri’s points are really well taken. There is no shame in getting help, in fact, there are only kudos for thinking you’re worth it.
I think you’re missing the point that this isn’t just a shameful habit, it’s a disease that is harmful to you. Eating disorders aren’t a problem just because you’re controlling your world through food (and of course binge eating is giving up all control), they do your body damage.
You’re owning up to living with this for at least a decade. Now is the time to get help. This isn’t about calling a therapist (this isn’t JUST about calling a therapist.) This is about calling your doctor immediately and getting enrolled in a program.
Many food disorders need to be dealt with in live-in programs. This could be a question of life or death. I think writing to us is a statement that you’re willing to choose life. Because nobody writes to the Bartender and the Priestess thinking we’re going to say, there, there, don’t bother.
I’ve known two people who died of eating disorders and many who have spent years in in-house programs. We don’t want this to be you. We want you to live and be happy and healthy.
We hope you want the same.
B: What Ann says. Binge-eating isn’t just a “thing”. You don’t have a weirdo quirk, like having to put your left shoe on before you put on your right. And it’s not like having an inexplicable crush on a potato-faced celebrity. You have a legitimate disorder and it is serious. Your binge eating could impact your health in the long run, as it has been shown to contribute to various diseases, like type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and certain cancers, just to name a few.
P: Of course, ultimately, you’re right in that this is your problem. Addictions have family implications, but they’re an individual’s problem and disease. It’s the weird thing about addictions — They are diseases, to be sure; but they’re also a problem. It is up to you to decide you’re worth saving. This is your chance. Take it. Do something with it.
And, this is your partner, your mate, to whom you promised faithfulness. Lying about anything is cheating. Lying about addiction that is potentially harmful to you and to your family system is big time cheating. Marriages need honesty: first, with yourself; then, with each other. Hell, every relationship needs honesty. Who else are you lying to? And is being a liar how you want to think of yourself? No, it’s not. So you need to stop. However painful that is. But when you’re telling the truth, remember, you’ve said you’d handle this for years now. You haven’t — because it is both a problem and a disease.
So now you need to try something different, something that admits the imperfections, (everyone has them, know that, everyone), and starts working on honesty in self and in marriage. Imagine a life where you had no dirty, little secrets. It would be so freeing. It would be so healthy.
B: Why do you think your husband doesn’t need to know this? If he were, say, an alcoholic, do you think it would be his problem and his alone to manage? I would hope you’d say, of course not. I would hope you’d say, I married you, and we are a unit, and I will be there to support you as you struggle to regain control of your life. I would hope you wouldn’t say, “La la, your problem, bud, not mine. See you later!” And if you would say that to your life partner, then I would have to ask, why are you even married? We are supposed to find comfort and support in a relationship, not every-man-for-himself-ism.
P: You have children. Giving life means honoring it. It means honoring your own life and sticking around to raise the ones you brought to life. You need to model good health. You owe them the healthiest you you can possibly give them.
PS, your children probably know more about your disease than you think. You probably spend more vulnerable moments with them than with your husband. You’re used to hiding it from your husband; in even the closest marriages, you have a lot of time apart. The kids are with you and they’re always watching. And learning. Do you want to teach your kids to binge, or do you want to teach them that it’s really, really unhealthy.
And kids have a keen nose for lying. You not only want them to think their health is important, you want them not to lie. Lying’s a lousy way to go through life… you’re recognizing that now. That’s what you came to us wanting to change.
You also want them to know they can trust the people they love — family and friends to know the worst about you and love you still.
B: I’m glad that you’re motivated by not wanting this behavior to seen normal to your children, because they deserve better than to have to grow up under the burden of your issues. I just wish your primary motivation was because you loved yourself too much to keep hurting yourself. You talk about your concerns about your husband (does he really need to know…) and your concerns about your children, but where is your concern for you? When you finally say you know it’s bad for you, you immediately counter that by declaring yourself “trite”. Oh, dearest. How I wish you would make yourself a priority.
Going back to your initial question: yes, it is OK to keep skeletons in the closet. If you cheated on your high school boyfriend, learned life lessons from your un-stellar behavior, and don’t feel like that needs to be listed on your disclosure sheet, that’s fine. I don’t think anyone in a relationship needs to discuss former lovers, their “number”, or what your aspirations at age 12 were for your adult career. I don’t think you necessarily have to talk about your awkward period, what color bike you had, when you had your first beer, or any of that. UNLESS it is still impacting your life. You had your first beer at 15 and haven’t stopped drinking yet? Disclose. You cheated on your high school boyfriend and now he’s stalking you? Disclose. When you were 12 you really wanted to be a marine biologist but your parents would only send you to school for accounting, and you’re still resentful and angry about it? Disclose.
You have a potentially life-threatening eating disorder that you’ve struggled with for a decade?
There’s no way to soften the telling, there’s no jokey mask to hide behind. Send the kids away for an overnight with a babysitter, then sit your husband down and talk to him. Just say it. Write it down if you need to, so you have a script in front of you that you can simply read. Forbid him from speaking until you’re done, if you think you don’t have the wherewithal to get past interruptions. But for mercy’s sake, tell him. And then make yourself a priority, so you can let the healing begin.
P: Right. This is not an insignificant issue that might make him think less of you; this is your life, and your sense of self worth. Even if you think he’s going to bolt if you tell him, hiding this is not an option; not if you’re going to get better. I do think you have a couple options in the way you tell him. Which will feel better to you? Which will help him cope?
Do what the Beautiful Bartender suggests: Make the time and the space, tell him.
See your doctor; be clear with the doc and yourself that this is an emergency. Be ruthlessly honest. Find out what your options are — and then, sit down and do what the Beautiful Bartender suggests.
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