As so many of us know, this week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. A very important week for those who struggle with eating disorders or those who have a loved one who struggles, to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around eating disorders. With that being said, I thought I would write out a few truths about these diseases that are so commonly misconstrued.
- Eating disorders are invisible.
They look like nothing. Anorexia is not just thin. It is not some frail girl with her ribs poking out and hollowed cheeks with a feeding tube stuck in her nose while she is being wheeled around the hospital. Bulimia is not some white blonde chick whose friends wait outside the bathroom door telling her she is perfect and can stop throwing up now and return to the party. Binge eating disorder is not an overweight girl who has no self control. Orthorexia is not the super relevant and super hipster chick with dreads and a nose ring eating only raw vegan smoothies and birdseed. And EDNOS is not the almost eating disorder. It is not the not quite thin enough, not quite sick enough. It is just as, if not more, deadly as all the others.
They are underweight, overweight, normal weight individuals, men and women, young and old, black and white, and everything in between. And, there is a reason why they are the deadliest psychiatric disorder because no one sees them. No one sees them because our society is too ignorant to know or care how to.
- Every eating disorder is unique.
Sure, there are similarities. There are diagnostic criteria that help to spell out the scaffolding of the disease, but at the end of the day I could be sitting in a room of a thousand eating disorder strugglers and not one of us would have the same problem. Everyone’s behaviors are different, everyone’s reasons for using them are different, everyone’s fear foods are different, everyone’s safe foods are different…
Let me try to paint a picture of the complexity of these disorders. First off there is a vast range of behaviors- restricting, binging, purging, laxative abuse, diuretic abuse, diet pills abuse, over-exercising, cutting food into a million little pieces, only eating clean foods, only eating packaged foods, eating only when alone or eating only when with others, the list goes on and on. And, each person uses a different combination of these behaviors. One eating disorder might choose restriction, over exercising, and laxatives while another might choose binging, purging, and diet pills. So, before you make these overarching assumptions that you know what an eating disorder is because you once saw a women on the show “Intervention” or because you read a paragraph about it in the DSM, think again. You couldn’t possibly understand an eating disorder unless you personally battle one or you have seen someone battle one and were there holding their shield while they fought.
- People in recovery from eating disorders are silent warriors.
People with mental illness in general, depression, anxiety, bipolar, etc., fight on a daily basis a silent war, a war within themselves, a war society has preached is not acceptable to be spoken about. For that, even getting out of bed when you have a mind full of the very demons you are battling with, deserves a gold medal. But, of course, no one acknowledges that.
Addicts fight the urge to use all the damn time. They have to constantly be on guard when going out. Will there be alcohol? Will I run into my old dealer friends? Will I be strong enough tonight fight my body/mind’s cravings? I am close with several individuals who are in recovery from various substance abuse problems and I have seen the vital importance of their 12 step meetings and of the chips counting days of sobriety. It is a daily battle, an ongoing battle, and a battle that unfortunately has to be fought among the shameful stigma blanketing addicts.
Then, there are eating disorders. Imagine having your drug of choice be the one thing that you cannot escape from. You have to eat to survive. You have to face your biggest fear/struggle/demon at least three times a day for the rest of your life. It is like putting an addict into a closet full of heroin and saying “alright now, remember balance is key. Not too much. Not too little. Just shoot up the exact amount that your body needs and try not to loose control.” It is absurd when put into that context, right? But our society is unable to recognize the magnitude of eating disorder recovery. Why does is take so long? Because it is so hard! Because you have to figure out how to become friends with, what has been for so many years, your biggest enemy.
And, that is only the food aspect of eating disorder recovery! This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the true nature of the disease. A disease of self-hatred, self-blame, body-shaming, and an endless monologue played by media that you have to change in order to be beautiful or perfect or desirable. It is a disease bred around traumas which lead to more secrecy and more isolation and more self hatred and more behaviors. It is a disease that offers nothing less than a cycle of destruction that will play on a loop until the body after so much physical and mental abuse, either dies or, by the grace of God, finds recovery. But the latter only happens when we finally start to recognize the disease for what it is.
Invisible. Unique. Complex. Ruthless. Insidious. Deadly.
Realize that and then maybe others will start to see the armor and intensive training it takes to even enter into the battlefield towards recovery.