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You Don't 'Try Out' an Eating Disorder

Editor’s note: This piece contains descriptions of eating disorder behavior that might be triggering for some. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

You got up this morning, stretched and staggered into the kitchen. Depending on your preference, you waited impatiently for coffee or tea, and then set about completing your morning routine. Maybe you’re a breakfast eater. Maybe not. You showered, got dressed and got ready to face the day, either at work or at home, again depending on where you are in your life. Lunch time rolled around and you were hungry, so you grabbed some food. An all-in-one meal from a fast food restaurant, or maybe you made yourself a sandwich. You were hungry a little later so you had some chips and a soda. You were going to make something for dinner, but friends called, so you headed out to the pub for some appetizers and dinner, maybe a beer or two. Once back at home, you did a few chores, watched some TV, grabbed another snack and once you were tired, you headed off to bed. As you were brushing your teeth, you realized you didn’t get in any exercise, but figured you’d get to it tomorrow, no big deal. You didn’t count calories. You didn’t give much thought to what you ate. You didn’t beat yourself up and call yourself foul names because you didn’t exercise. It never once occurred to you to throw up your dinner. You lived your day complete with food and friends because that’s how you do life. It’s what would be considered “normal.”

I haven’t had a day like that since I was 11 years old and since I’m 46 now, that’s a long time to go without touching normal.

I’ve met people over the course of my life that, once they learn I have an eating disorder, are eager to share the story of their own forays down that dark path. They talk about how they “used to be bulimic” because one summer at camp a group of them all decided to throw up their dinner every day, but then once they got home, they were cured. The talk about how they “used to be anorexic” because once, for a month, they ate only fruit and lost 15 pounds, but then they stopped and were cured. The anecdotes go on and on.

It seems that some people, except those afflicted, want to lay claim to an eating disorder. Implicit in their stories is the question why; why can’t I stop if they did? Believe me, if I could have stopped, I would have. If I could’ve changed my thought patterns so that every moment wasn’t an exercise in self-hatred, I would have. Those conversations enrage me. Trying on some bad eating behaviors for a period and then abandoning them is not the same as having an eating disorder.

When I broke up with my first love, I rebounded into alcohol and reckless behavior. A lot of alcohol. However, after a couple of months of getting drunk every weekend, of living with the hangovers and the empty wallet and the spotty memory, I’d had enough. I stopped. Drinking with reckless enthusiasm for a couple of months is not the same as being an alcoholic. It meant that I acted badly for a couple of months and then straightened up. I have yet to “straighten up” from my eating disorder. But my point is this: a few months of aberrant eating does not mean you have an eating disorder. For that, count yourself lucky.

I am currently five months “sober.” That means, for the last five months, I’ve eaten relatively normally; three meals and a couple of snacks every day, no excessive exercising, no vomiting. This is the longest I have been abstinent of eating disorder behavior (excluding the three months I spent at a rehab, and even there I restricted somewhat) since I was 19.

An eating disorder is not a game. An eating disorder is hell. It has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. It’s starving yourself until you can’t sleep, until you can’t think, until you can’t do anything but think about the next allotment of food. It’s driving around in your car from fast-food restaurant to fast-food restaurant, spending $20 at a time, shoving the food down your throat so fast it has no taste and then vomiting until the blood vessels in your eyes burst. It’s lying to everyone about your eating patterns and weight loss and weight gain. It’s learning to shop at a variety of different food stores so no one is aware of how much you’re buying. It’s lying to cashiers about this or that upcoming party so they don’t question the cakes and ice cream. It’s exercising for four hours straight and still hating yourself for the flesh on your bones. It’s thousands and thousands of dollars spent on food you throw up, exercise equipment you abuse and products to hide the evidence – air fresheners, breath mints and garbage bags for when you have to throw up in your room. It’s eating for an hour and throwing up for an hour, over and over for days on end until you pass out. It’s vomiting until there’s blood coming up from your lacerated esophagus and seeping from the infected sores on your hands. It’s shoplifting laxatives, water pills and mouthwash so that no one knows how much of them you use. It’s ulcers in your stomach, a devastated bone density and teeth rotting and falling out. It’s the knowledge you’re killing yourself and being desperate to stop, but continuing the behavior anyway. It’s starving yourself for a month and then binging for three days straight, vomiting until you pass out. It’s suicidal thoughts and attempts. It’s feeling like you can’t live in the hell your life has become.

What isn’t it? It isn’t a transitory thing you try on. It isn’t a crash diet. It’s not the same as that time you had the stomach flu for a whole weekend. It’s doctors who don’t understand you, nurses who deride you, emergency room personnel who judge you and ambulance drivers who think you’re wasting their time. It’s a family you are devastating and friends who beg you to get help because everyone is watching you kill yourself slowly. It’s wanting help, but to accept it would mean you’d get “fat,” and to you, that would make you just as much a failure as you already are.

It’s hell.

But I’m five months free of my behavior. The other side, all the underlying crap that drives the behavior, that’s harder. I struggle to believe I have value if I’m not skeletal. I struggle to believe people actually care about me; that they will like me even if I’m not perfect. I struggle with my voice, the one thing I want to learn to share. I want to be authentic; I want to say “to hell with you” to the people out there that judge, and criticize and detract. I want to grow a thick skin. I want to be able to say I love myself, I’m happy with myself and I’m an OK person — and believe it.

But for now, for today, I will take the five months and consider myself blessed.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

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