Uncovering shame holds power to heal

October 13, 2018

Nichole Mischke didn’t set out to tell stories of pain and shame, much less her own, until last November, when the former KHQ reporter publicly shared for the first time about her eating disorder.

Mischke, 30, struggled with self-image since third grade. After high school, she began binging and purging. Even her husband Luke never suspected bulimia, and she never planned to tell him or the world.

Then a pivotal moment came about a year ago, listening to “The Kindness Diaries” filmmaker Leon Logothetis being interviewed in Spokane about the power of sharing pain, a point he makes speaking at schools. Mischke was livestreaming the event from the KHQ studio.

“He said there are kids who are just angry and tell him they don’t want to be kind,” Mischke said. “He said ‘That’s OK, you don’t have to like kindness, but just promise me one thing, that you will share your pain, because if you don’t, it will grow and fester. It will become something nasty inside of you.’ ”

His words “punched me in the gut,” she said.

Mischke has shared that pain since, and often, bringing unexpected relief and healing. In June, she left her job on KHQ’s morning news show to spend time with her two children and start Nichole Uncovered, “a passion project,” using Facebook and Instagram to let others tell their stories of shame.

So far, people have shared about prescription drug addiction, suicides of two brothers in one family, and anorexia.

Although Mischke tried in the past to see a counselor, around the time her now 9-year-old daughter Annabelle was very young, she talked herself out of it. Mischke names pride, fear and shame as part of why she previously thought nobody could help her.

“I did not want to have a thing to do with eating disorders,” Mischke said. “I was in complete denial. I was 100 percent set on making sure that I never got caught.

“When I started Uncovered, I realized when I shared my story, when you share your shame, it’s the most healing, it’s the most terrifying, but there is such huge reward in opening up and doing that.”

After her dad’s death from cancer in 2011, she first started thinking about how fragile health can be, and how she was potentially killing herself. She began regularly listening to inspirational speakers, “trying to change the way I thought about myself, to rewire how I valued myself,” she said.

“Slowly, I was able to not purge.”

Mischke said she now fears that sounds too simplistic. It wasn’t easy to overcome poor body image and the fear of comments on what she ate, she said. Another wake-up came around the time she was pregnant with her son Emmaus, now 2.

She found what was likely canker sores and panicked, thinking she had mouth cancer from bulimia. She stopped purging food “cold turkey.” While fear affected her, Mischke said she admires people who are able to seek therapy for eating disorders.

“I don’t think I ever would have been able to admit having the problem while I still was having a problem. I was very proud of myself secretly because still, nobody knew.”

The first person she ever privately told was another reporter, Virginia Kerr, around August 2017. Mischke had looked up Kerr, a former KHQ reporter now in St. Louis, because she heard that Kerr reported on inspirational stories.

“I just happened to click on a video on her Facebook page of her sharing publicly for the first time about having an eating disorder, and I started bawling,” Mischke said.

Before then, she didn’t think anyone would understand. When she finally worked up courage to call Kerr and share her story, “this huge weight instantly lifted off my shoulders.”

Mischke thought telling one person would be enough, but something still gnawed at her. Then a friend invited her to do a fall 2017 talk for “Pivot Spokane,” a storytelling platform, on the topic of promise. Around that time, Mischke heard “The Kindness Diaries” filmmaker’s urge to share pain.

“The first thing that popped into my head was that toxic promise you’ve made to yourself to chase after perfection,” Mischke said. “I pushed that aside, thinking there has to be another story.”

But that topic stuck, and after recording her story, it still wasn’t easy to talk. Telling her husband, who she’d met while both were Gonzaga University students, was even more difficult.

“This sounds terrible, but I was at work and I texted him,” she said. She sent him an email of what she wrote for Pivot. “He responded so kindly. He was so blown away and said, ‘I wish you would have told me sooner. I would have done anything to help you.’ ”

It was still a sensitive topic a few weeks later, when her husband tried joking about a fitness video as a Christmas gift. He later apologized. “I wanted to say to him, ‘I just want to blame you,’ but I couldn’t say that because I didn’t think that was fair,” she said.

But he already knew. “He said, ‘Don’t think for a second I haven’t woken up every day since you’ve told me, and not remembered all the things I did or said that probably pushed you more into your problem.’ That was so healing. It’s not his fault, but he got it.”

Some people with eating disorders have since told her their triggers were different than hers, such as a feeling that life is out of control, or physical abuse. But for her, she links body image issues to childhood memories of being big for her age, and comments about how she ate.

Raised near Portland, in third grade she was too big to fit a third-grader’s desk. “So I had to have a sixth-grade desk; that just made me feel like I was enormous.”

For test-taking day, her mother sent a snack of half a tuna sandwich as “good brain food.” Another student stood up and said, “Hey, Nichole is eating a sandwich; that’s why she’s so fat.” That started a “hyper awareness,” she said, of thinking people noticed what she ate.

She thinks she was close to 5-foot-7 by fourth grade, and in fifth grade, she was placed on her school’s eighth-grade basketball team. High school is when boys finally started noticing her, she said. Focusing on her appearance became more important.

Then she was approached by a modeling agency her senior year, and again felt pressure about her size. She went on a strict Atkins diet and lost weight. Comments about food, though, kept happening. Friends would tease her about going with them to Red Robin, because she’d “just eat lettuce.”

At a party, a mom said something about her weight loss, and then someone else mentioned that she hadn’t eaten anything off the table. “It had a bunch of baked goods, but I remember wanting to prove I could eat normal food.”

So she took a plate and ate in front of them, after six months of cutting out sweets and fats, and immediately felt guilty.

“It was the first time I went up and purged, thinking this is the first and last time. It started a cycle of being around people and wanting to appear normal. I wanted the comments to stop.”

Since going public about her bulimia, she’s heard from professionals about a “fine line” of sharing her story and not inadvertently pushing people into eating disorders. She’s also learned it can affect all ages and genders, hearing from boys as they struggle to reach athletic goals.

“In some ways, I feel I’ve been shamed online for being so open about my eating disorder. I’ve had experts reach out to me and say you’re not sharing responsibly, because by mentioning these habits or things, you could be triggering somebody.”

But she also remembers the lifeline from Kerr: “I’m at this point in life when I think bringing your biggest secrets into the light is one of the best ways to not have them control you anymore. I feel like there is a benefit to being open and honest about those sort of things.”

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