6 Things I Wish People Knew About My Eating Disorder
I could write so much about the things I wish people knew about eating disorders, from how it’s not a choice to how we’re not doing it for attention, to how every waking (and sleeping) moment is filled with thoughts about food, even down to how we are hungry but can’t face that will to eat for fear of gaining weight or being judged by others and ourselves. So, I’m going to talk about just six things that I wish people knew.
1. Eating disorders are not a choice.
One of most upsetting things people said to me when I was unwell is that I was choosing to be that way. It can be so hard to express to somebody you are unable to control your own thoughts, and that voice in your head is constantly telling you all sort of negative things and causing you to deny yourself one of the most basic human rights — the right to eat. While making that choice to eat was at times possible, it was not possible to choose to avoid the feelings of intense guilt and self-hatred that follows after eating — where you just want to hide somewhere and cry, like that little space in the bedroom or that space at the bottom of the garden.
2. It’s OK to talk to me about my eating disorder and to ask questions.
When I say this, I don’t mean by asking how much I weigh or how much I’ve eaten today, or even what I’ve eaten. This will make me defensive, embarrassed or even ashamed of myself. It’s OK to ask me how I am or if I’m finding anything challenging, or if there’s anything you can do to help. If I’m not comfortable answering I will sometimes say so, but chances are it will make me feel like you care and want to support me. I may not show it. People with eating disorders can often feel very ashamed, and it is by talking and encouraging openness and honesty that we will break down the stigma surrounding them and promote recovery.
However, please don’t comment on my appearance. You might see me making progress, and that’s great. Whilst I might speak positively about recovery, I may still be constantly battling my distorted body image. If you have noticed I seem happier, please say so. If you think I have been more relaxed, please say so. But please don’t tell me I “look well” or that I am looking “much healthier.” My rational brain understands that you mean well and are trying to be complimentary and supportive. My eating disordered brain will translate those comments into “you look fat” or “you have gained weight.” This can cause both parties to feel guilty and upset.
Eating disorders are about so much more than appearance, and it is by talking about the thoughts and feelings that go alongside them that we will really begin to understand them.
3. Please try and be patient.
I will tell you things are fine when they aren’t. I will start doing well, and then I won’t again. None of these things mean I’m not trying and that I don’t care about you. Often I am hiding things because I don’t want to hurt you, and because I feel guilty for putting you through this. Please don’t give up on those who are struggling. Continue to encourage them to talk to you, and remind them you are there no matter what stage of recovery they are at.
4. Eating disorders are a mental illness.
There is nothing vain about having an eating disorder, whether it’s anorexia nervosa, bulimia or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS). Wanting to lose or control weight is a side effect of deeply rooted and complicated emotional difficulties. It is not about wanting to look like a celebrity or to gain attention, and I’ve found personally I had a deep sense of shame and did not want to draw attention to my illness.
I have been so scared at times that people would think I was behaving in these ways to “gain attention,” when I had actually spent so long trying to cover it up and hide it from others. Eating disorders are incredibly dangerous and more physically painful than is imaginable. Even after recovery, the physical side effects can last for months, years and even be permanent.
5. Men get eating disorders, too.
Eating disorders are so commonly thought of as a female illness. This can cause men to feel ashamed about accessing treatment, so the true figures of how many men have eating disorders is not generally known. People must learn that eating disorders do not discriminate. They can, do and always will affect people of any age, gender and race.
6. Recovery is possible, and it is worth it.
I had an eating disorder in one form or another for 12 years. I have been treated under Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and adult services, and as both an inpatient and in the community. October 2015 marked the end of what I hope to be my last episode of treatment. At time of writing, February 2017 has marked the longest time I have been “in recovery” without relapse, and I am currently the furthest into recovery I have ever been.
It is hard to fully appreciate how all-consuming, debilitating and painful eating disorders can be, and it can seem like it is impossible to get better. But it is possible, and it is worth it. There were countless times when I felt like giving up, but my life is so much fuller and richer now than it has ever been. I am immeasurably happier, and it is by far the hardest but most worthwhile thing I have ever done in my life. I would encourage everybody to talk about eating disorders, whether you know someone with one, have one yourself or want to spread awareness to others. I wouldn’t be where I am today without learning to talk.
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Thinkstock photo via ceazars