by Eva E. Fisher, PhD
PLEASE NOTE: The following blog post contains discussion of topics that may be upsetting, including suicide. Please take care of yourself as you read this article. If you are in crisis, know that help is only a call or click away at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
My goal since recovering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) has been to provide hope for others that recovery is possible. My story on the IOCDF BDD website focuses on the self-diagnosis that led me to seek professional help. I received treatment using Prozac and talk therapy. Now, 17 years later, I want to lead others down the path from constant mental pain to peace with one’s appearance.
After recovering from BDD at age 36, I was unsure how to help others suffering from the disorder. Ten years later, while conducting research for my PhD dissertation, I interviewed therapists who specialize in treating patients with OCD and BDD. Scott Granet, one of the therapists I interviewed, discussed his involvement with the International OCD Foundation and their efforts to provide support to individuals with OCD and related disorders. Scott invited me to my first Annual OCD Conference and BDD Special Interest Group (SIG) meeting. There, to my great delight, I met Katharine Phillips and Sabine Wilhelm. Their seminal research on BDD enabled me to diagnose myself with BDD after having had the disorder for more than 20 years.
I contemplated (and still do) writing a book detailing my suffering when I had the disorder, the steps that I took to recover, and the milestones along the way. However, my story is one of many. I learned during my research that individuals who suffer from BDD often feel alone and unable to share their feelings with friends and loved ones. That knowledge led me to focus my dissertation research on the personal disclosure and social support shared on an online forum for individuals with BDD symptoms.
I read and analyzed more than 900 posts while completing my PhD research. Many individuals shared personal stories filled with pain and suffering about how much they hated their appearance. Far fewer shared stories about overcoming symptoms. This saddened me but deepened my resolve to become a beacon of hope to those who felt ugly, depressed, and alone. These feelings often lead to thoughts of suicide to end one’s suffering.
The desire to commit suicide was evident in self-disclosures shared on the forum. Suicidality was fueled by a range of emotions including shame, depression, guilt, and anger. Shame was based on feeling that it was wrong or selfish to be so focused on one’s appearance. This is referred to as the “double whammy” of BDD: People not only have distressing thoughts they cannot control, but they also berate themselves for having those thoughts (Phillips, 2009, p. 61).
I too contemplated suicide when I was 18 because I hated my nose so much. I did not want my future children to inherit my ugly nose. Ending my life seemed like the solution to keep that from happening. Thus, I could empathize with the desperation that came through in the forum posts. One individual described her pain with such vivid language that I quoted her in my dissertation title.
Her post read, in part: “I hate the way I look, and I am starting to hate myself for looking this way … I feel like an idiot for saying what I have just said, because I have studied psychology, philosophy, and education in quite a bit of detail, and I know that there is so much more to our existence than what we look like. I am going to die someday, so why am I wasting my life feeling like this? The problem is that I feel too ugly to live.”
Reading disclosures like this one and many other stories of anguish during my dissertation studies was extremely triggering. My symptoms did not return but my self-esteem plummeted during the six years that it took me to research, write, edit, and then defend my dissertation. After receiving my PhD in 2016, my thoughts again returned to what could I do to help.
Sharing my personal story of recovery seemed like the best way to offer hope and support to those who still suffer the way that I did. I was able to post my story on the International OCD Foundation BDD website thanks to the support offered by the IOCDF staff and members of the BDD SIG. I have also started a Facebook group, Recovery from BDD, with both public and private pages where I post blogs about how to cope with symptoms of the disorder. I would be glad to gather stories of recovery for a future book that would include my story and those of other individuals who have also struggled and recovered.
I would also like to speak to students, families, and organizations about my journey from depression and anxiety to healing and serenity. I have come a long way since my symptoms first started when I was 16 years old. Now that I have lived without symptoms for almost 20 years, I want to provide help and hope to others. My email address is email@example.com. Please share your stories with me and I will aim to respond with kindness, compassion, and resources for your road to recovery.
Eva Fisher received her PhD in Public Communication and Technology from Colorado State University. She is currently a communication instructor at Colorado State University Global.
Reference: Phillips, K. A. (2009). Understanding body dysmorphic disorder: An essential guide. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.