You might have an eating disorder if… (stigma v reality)

Some of this may seem pretty darn ridiculous. This is because many people’s expectation for eating disorders is just that. I want to explore the general, uninformed thoughts of what someone with an eating disorder is like vs the reality of eating disorders. My hope is that this can help distinguish what is the truth.

Stigma

  • you look like a walking skeleton
    • Eating disorders have no weight or size limit. Have you ever heard of BED, OSFED, BN? None of these disorders are defined by weight (and anorexia to an extent can be the same). You could be severely underweight or obese and still your struggle is valid.
  • you believe you’re extremely fat
    • Feeling you are fat definitely can be a factor of having an ED, but isn’t always. For example, one study found nearly 50% of “normal” BMI women believe they are overweight. Not even close to all of these women have eating disorders, and not everyone with an eating disorder even struggles with this belief.
  • you order only salads and other”clean” foods
    • Under the premise of judging mental health based on foods people eat, every vegan or vegetarian would be labeled as an ED patient. Heck, tons of people have salads daily simply because they enjoy them.
  • you are an upper/middle class, white, adolescent or young adult woman
    • So, in order to debunk the myth about who can have eating disorders, let me give you a sampling of who I’ve met in treatment: adolescent and young adult men, people of color, a 70-year-old woman, children from 8-12, people with lower-income, middle-aged men and women. Hopefully, you get the point.
  • you are a vain person
    • The fact that some believe vanity is central to an eating disorder kills me. This has nothing to do with thinking you’re better than someone else or putting yourself up on a pedestal. For the most part, people with EDs tend to think very little of themselves.
  • you choose to have one
    • If I chose to have this eating disorder, that means someone would choose to have cancer, Parkinson’s or kidney disease. It’s clearly just for all of the wonderful attention we receive.
  • you just don’t eat
    • Finally, the “you just don’t eat” argument. Quite obviously, no one will survive if they literally eat nothing for an extended period of time, so that’s automatically false. Adding onto it, this assumes that the only/easy way to have an eating disorder is by starving.

This first list is either outside focused or under the assumption that mind-reading is possible.  News flash: no one has special mind-reading capabilities and can look into a person’s head to determine if an ED is present! An eating disorder is so much more than what you eat or look like. to me, the last three statements

Reality

  • you are a person
    • WHOA. So I’m telling you that just by being alive you can have an eating disorder?!? So weird, because you probably thought you must have some sort of obvious signs, maybe even a big blinking light. That would help.
  • you have ANY disordered eating patterns (ex: binge eating, eating in secret, eliminating all “unsafe” foods, purging..)
    • That’s right, folks. There is more than one disordered eating habit. The list here isn’t even comprehensive. Essentially, if something seems extremely out of the norm, it could be a sign of a subclinical or full-blown eating disorder.
  • your everyday existence is ruled by thoughts of food, behaviors, exercise, body image, calories, etc
    • Eating disorders are not something that only happens at meal time, while exercising, and as you look into the mirror. It encompasses your whole day (an average I’ve heard is around 12 hours a day!). Got a test tomorrow? Whatever you are studying will have the lovely background noise of the ED whispering or even screaming at you.
  • you have a body
    • Yet another mind-blowing fact. You only need a body? It doesn’t have to be a certain size or shape?
  • you have mass
    • Going along with what you look like, the amount you weigh is another false determinant for the presence of an eating disorder. EDs happen all across the BMI chart and a vast majority are in the normal-overweight range. (Another tidbit: BMI = bullshit meaningless information because it cannot begin to tell you a person’s health level.)
  • going into the kitchen creates a huge amount of anxiety
    • This is something that is pretty much a given. Whether you deal with binge eating, restriction, or anything in between, eating is a fear in some way. Since food is prepped and stored in the kitchen, it becomes a room full of all the anxiety.
  • you have different physical symptoms due to a MENTAL illness
    • I find this last one to be of utmost importance. No matter what someone may look like on the outside or even through their actions, you will never be able to tell what’s going on within. This is not a physical struggle, even though there are often physical results of the behaviors. So many people in this world have invisible illnesses – both mental and physical – that can only be seen by looking below the surface. You have to realize this when dealing with eating disorders as well.

I hope that this can serve as a (somewhat sarcastic) guide for those who aren’t quite sure what eating disorders are and aren’t. I hope that you have a few takeaways from it:

  1. Physical symptoms of anorexia are all too often used as a reference point in deciding whether someone has an eating disorder.
  2. It is way too easy to believe you can read minds and use this magical power to determine whether someone has an ED. News flash: mind-reading is impossible, even when someone shows *all* of the signs you know of.
  3. Eating disorders look different on everyone. A person of any gender, size, socioeconomic status, race, age, BMI, etc can be struggling. Never assume elsewise.

Thank you so much for reading! Do you have any others you would like to add?

NEDAW16 – Day 4: To those silently struggling

Today I want to talk specifically to those who are silently struggling. First off, I want you to know that my heart breaks for you. It is so incredibly painful to have an eating disorder and doing it alone makes everything so much harder. I’ve met so many people who have spent years or even a decade or more without a single person knowing their pain.

You are not alone. There are 30 million of us just in the US and millions more worldwide. We are all in this battle together! The eating disorder will isolate you and make you feel like you’re the only one in the world who is like you. It will attempt to convince you that no one will understand. It is a liar. There are so many support groups, blogs, and online communities where you can find others going through very similar circumstances. MentorConnect here is an amazing site that connects you to mentors who can help you on your recovery journey. A list of support groups all around the country and world through the NEDA website is found here. I am completely open to anyone contacting me through here as well.

Reaching out is the best thing you can possibly do for yourself. Silence can be deadly when it comes to eating disorders. At best, it isolates you and reinforces the aloneness feelings. There are infinite ways to reach out. Telling a trusted friend, parent, or other person close to you is great for physical support, which, in my opinion, is one of the most helpful forms. Support groups are a place to talk with others going through the same things and help each other along the way. I highly recommend professional help of some kind, most importantly a dietitian and therapist. NEDA has a list of treatment providers of all kinds here. Another place to find therapists is on Psychology Today’s site here. If neither of those have a therapist or center near you, calling a counseling center and asking for someone who is familiar with EDs. Whichever route you go, I know it can be scary. The truth is, however, once you overcome the fear you’ll find how beyond worth it reaching out will be.

Recovery is both possible and worth it. Being trapped in an eating disorder, you may feel broken, hopeless, and destined to be like this forever. This is so untrue. Each day you live in an eating disorder is one where everything you are and all aspects of your life are being consumed in darkness. Eating disorders are absolute hell. Recovery can be as well, but its the kind of hell that will not kill you like an eating disorder will. I have gained more than weight since beginning my recovery journey. I’ve discovered parts of myself I haven’t seen in years, rebuilt relationships, discovered freedom, experienced more joy than I ever thought possible, gained confidence, have begun healing my body, cared about myself more, and lived. I haven’t avoided really shitty days, lots of tears, and numerous relapses, but I still continue to get back up and choose recovery all over again. As a wonderful girl years into her journey told me recently, you can always go back to your disorder. You know exactly how to get there again, so why not try giving it up?

I will end this with one of my favorite songs that encompasses the kind of support and love I want to extend to each of you. Stay strong and give yourself a chance ❤

A few more resources you can explore:

NEDAW16 – Day 1: 3 minutes to save a life

Today is the start of NEDA (National Eating Disorder Awareness) Week! The theme this year is “3 Minutes Can Save a Life.” A free questionnaire screening for eating disorders and disordered eating is available and can alert either of these problems in around three minutes. The NEDA website also has a ton of information on EDs, treatment options, signs someone may be suffering, how to help people you know with an eating disorder, and much more. www.nedawareness.org


 

When I first discovered that maybe my “problem” with food, exercise, and body image was more than it seemed, I was scared. I had no clue what it meant, or if I was one of “those people” with eating disorders. I combed through articles and diagnostic criteria. For a few days, my mission became discovering as much as I could about eating disorders, hoping to disprove that I could ever have one. I read through well over a hundred stories, trying to use them to show I wasn’t sick. I couldn’t be. I saw images of others, of how dead they seemed when you looked in their eyes. Mine matched, but I couldn’t see it.

In the end, none of these things really helped me. Many of the stories resonated with me but none was convincing enough to prove I was sick, at least in my eyes. I am the type of person who needs research, which I had plenty of, but also concrete results. I wasn’t okay with the “well maybe you have an eating disorder” answer. So I sought proof.

What I came up with was a screening on NEDA’s site very like the one made for eating disorder awareness week this year. After wondering and worrying and disbelief I had my answer: yes I most likely have an eating disorder and need to seek treatment. And thus began my recovery journey.

I tell you this little story because I believe it really captures why we so desperately need to share this new screening tool. If I had come upon this sooner, before I was actually told that I probably had an eating disorder, maybe I could have been in treatment earlier. If my mom, dad, or one of my friends who knew had seen this, they could have directed me to it as well. Earlier detection and placement in treatment means a greater chance of recovery. It truly can take just three minutes to change or even save a life, thanks to NEDA’s screening tool. We need only spread the word and make sure as many people as possible gain access.

What will you gain when you lose?

So many advertisements, celebrities, etc claim that simply by losing weight you will acquire confidence, beauty, attention, power, and more. While there may be a few “lucky” ones who are able to lose weight the healthy way and do gain those things, it isn’t always the case.

I was one of those who didn’t end up so lucky. Like millions of others around the world, I developed an eating disorder. What you will gain from these diseases is nothing like what everyone wants you to believe about weight loss.

Your confidence will cease to exist. You will grow to hate your body and yourself. You won’t feel worthy of food or love or anything good at all. You will get so good at brushing off compliments that you won’t have to even think about it. Every chance you get you will tear yourself down even more.

You definitely will get beautiful, if you consider dull and thinning hair, cracked nails, rotting teeth, huge dark circles under your eyes, fine hair all over your body, dry skin, and jutting bones pretty.

For those people who wanted more attention from weight loss, an eating disorder will help you get it. As you slowly waste away, you will grow accustomed to the worried looks of friends and family. Soon, all that will be on other’s minds is your eating habits and weight. All the loose clothing and excuses in the world won’t stop them from commenting.

At first, there is an illusion of gaining power a control through the eating disorder. You feel strong for denying hunger and exercising more than your body is meant to handle. Every time you listen to the eating disorder instead of your voice, the feeling grows stronger until eventually you don’t have any control at all.

A restrictive eating disorder may cause you to lose weight as you intended, but it will do so much more harm than good. Your body, mind, relationships, and future will suffer. Each day will be hell.

You will have to lie to anyone close to you. You will stay up late at night thinking of food and how to avoid it. You will become extremely isolated. You will always be cold no matter how warm it is. Every time you get up you will have to fight passing out. Sitting in a chair for more than five minutes will become impossible unless you don’t mind having your legs go to sleep. You will become extremely weak and will still force yourself to exercise. Concentrating on anything other than your eating disorder won’t happen, partly because the ED voice won’t let you and partly from malnutrition. You will get chest pains and wonder how much longer you can do this without your heart giving out. Depression and anxiety will be so high you might not care anyways.

Please, don’t let any internal or external pressure push you into an eating disorder. You are beyond incredible just the way you are. If you feel like yourself or someone you know is showing signs of an eating disorder, get help as soon as possible. It is so important to fight against the disordered thoughts and behaviors early instead of getting deeper into it.

Some websites with information on eating disorders and their treatment: