“It’s just a phase.”
“She’ll grow out of it.”
“He’s so vain – who is that vain?”
“He’s just doing that to cut weight for gym.”
“She has no control – it’s like she’s addicted to food.”
“If models and Barbie looked like real people, we wouldn’t have this problem.”
I’m not going to say that eating disorders are about none of these things. They are, and they aren’t. They are about control, body image, anxiety, obsession, addiction, sports, ballet. They’re also about so much more.
For some of us, we might have an eating disorder for a while as a child, as a teen, or as an adult. For some of us, we might have an eating disorder for more than while. It could send us to frightening nights at the ER, wondering if we’re having a heart attack after purging. It could lead to going into debt or being arrested for stealing food to feed a binge eating problem. It could lead to lower school attendance because we’re too ashamed of our bodies and our habits to be seen in public. Our grades suffer. Our friends suffer. Our families suffer. Our jobs suffer. Our lives suffer.
An eating disorder is different for everyone.
The eating disorder might make us lose weight. It could make us gain weight. It could make our weight go back and forth. We might starve, hoard food, and have more and more strange habits about our food. We might over-exercise, over-eat, or make ourselves sick. We don’t do it because we want to. We do it because…somehow, the chaos has become necessary.
The thing that matters most about eating disorders is that we don’t get to choose. We don’t decide what kind we have. We don’t decide when they start or how they end. We don’t decide whether or not it’s about how we look, how people treat us, or how we feel about ourselves in the world. Eating disorders are elusive emotional, mental, physical demons that fight with us from the first time the number on a scale suddenly matters to the day we finally realize we bought something other than skim milk from the grocery store without even thinking about it.
We do get to choose one thing though. And, that’s if we want to fight it. We can choose to go to battle until it barely has the strength to whisper. We can fight it even until it’s gone completely. We can choose to get better.
I’ve fought with my own eating disorder since the last year of high school. Mine was a stereotypical beginning, just like every eating disorder movie ever made. White, upper middle class, a ballet dancer. Now I’m 30. My therapist has told me that eating disorders can be cured, that they can be finished forever, and not by dying. Ours is a disease of life and death. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychological illnesses. It’s not just starving and taking diet pills. Mine had very little to do with the size of my jeans and more to do with obsession overridden by self-destruction. That number, those sizes, did serve as a proxy for how much damage I was willing to enact on myself.
I’ve dealt with a relapse-remitting eating disorder for over 13 years. I’ve been diagnosed with both anorexia nervosa and eating disorder not-otherwise-specified (EDNOS). But, I’ve gotten a lot better. My last relapse was only two years ago. It was short and brutal. Worse, it was horribly embarrassing. I was 28, had been “recovered” for several years, living up all that hard work. Unfortunately, my treatment was never finished in full due to a lack of oversight and failed continuity of care. Relapses are common in these situations. Ending treatment too early is one of the biggest factors predicting relapse. In Jacksonville, FL, eating disorder treatment is limited. So, there I was, 28 years old, binging and purging, starving, counting, paranoid about leaving the house, and wondering if I were ever going to be “sick enough” to take myself seriously. After a particularly bad night, 3 months into the spiral, I thought that maybe I was sick enough. I knew this place. This was not a good place. I’d seen the other side of recovery. I wanted it back. I wanted to eat one piece of bread with butter on it without eating the entire loaf of bread. I wanted to eat out with friends and not burst into tears over cheese sticks.
I’m much better now, but recovery is hard. The stress in my life did some serious damage to my psyche. I’m not totally recovered by any means – I still face the demon almost every day. But it’s a hell of a lot easier now than it was then. One of the things that got me through that last, hopefully final, relapse was knowing that I had choices. The world wasn’t going to end if I somehow failed. There was more than just one thing for me to do in the world. There is so much more to me. I could, if I tried hard enough, refocus my destructive habits and channel them into something else.
I’m still dealing with other things that triggered my eating disorder and its subsequent relapses, but I have a better grip on things now. I finished undergrad. I’m about to finish graduate school. I speak at conferences. Small ones, but people listen to me now. I write. I failed 9th grade English, and now I’m turning into a writer. I am working on living my dreams.
I learned a lot.
I learned its okay to mess up.
I learned to take myself more seriously.
I learned that even a “little” sick is sick enough to ask for help.
Here is another article written by J NOËL WEST on mental health and the diagnostic process.