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You Can't Always 'See' an Eating Disorder

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Over the past several years, I’ve struggled with a severe exercise addiction, orthorexia (a form of disordered eating), anorexia nervosa, depression, and anxiety. Having worked for years to overcome these things, I’m invested in spreading awareness about mental illness, particularly eating disorders since they get left out of the conversation far too often.

woman selfie

This picture is one I took right before cutting off several inches of hair last summer. The sad thing is my main reason for cutting my hair was because I thought it might trim a little bit off my weight. That’s the thing with anorexia, even half a pound can make or break your entire week and determine if and what you can eat. My hair was also falling out in chunks so I figured it would be less noticeable if it were shorter.

This picture is the face of someone with anorexia nervosa. When I started dropping weight people told me I looked great because I still looked mostly healthy for the first few months. This picture is from about a month before I started to actually look sick. What you don’t see in this picture is the pain behind it. You don’t see the hours spent agonizing over every single number down to the 3 calories in a stick of gum. You can’t see the pain. You can’t see the times I broke down crying because I was so terrified to eat. I was in constant agony, and every second was spent feeling terrified that I would gain weight. You don’t see the hours in the gym, the battles fought over dinner, the lies to cover it all up. You don’t see the times my mom held onto me crying because she thought she was going to lose me.

This picture doesn’t show you that I spent last summer at doctors’ appointments. I went to my psychologist and my dietician weekly, went to the doctors biweekly, and had to have blood tests done every month. It doesn’t show you I was a hospital outpatient for many months and was set to be made an inpatient many times. My mom and psychologist worked incredibly hard to keep me at home. You can’t see the painstaking work my parents put in by doing the Maudsley method, a form of eating disorder treatment for adolescents.

The stress on your body isn’t always obvious. My muscles, including my heart, were deteriorating and being used to fuel my starved body. I had severe heartburn. I couldn’t eat more than a quarter of an apple without my stomach hurting. My nails were blue. My skin was grey. My bones poked out. I bruised from a tight hug. My body was dying, but from this picture I look like a normal, happy teenaged girl.

You can’t always tell someone has an eating disorder by looking at them. You don’t have to “look” severely sick. In this picture, I’m underweight, but you can’t necessarily tell. Plus not all eating disorders cause you to become underweight. The idea that you have to be underweight to be “sick enough” for treatment stops a lot of people from seeking the help they need and deserve. There is no such thing as “sick enough.” If you are sick, you are sick enough. On top of having this widely held idea of what someone with an ED should look like, an ED will tell you you aren’t sick enough too. It will convince you that you’re “fat,” that you’re not enough, that you don’t deserve to recover.

Anorexia isn’t skipping a meal or thinking you’re fat. Eating disorders are not an edgy punchline on a sitcom. It’s much harder to laugh at when looking at the painful repercussions on both the person and their loved ones. It isn’t a “white girl illness” –anyone at any age can be affected. They are not about vanity or about being skinny.

Today, I am strong. Today, I am healthy. I listen to my body, and I treat it as lovingly as I can. I work on it every day. I nourish myself so I can be a good friend, a good daughter, a good student, a good person. I feed myself so I can be myself. Loving my body is not easy. I don’t love how it looks yet. But I’m learning to love what it does for me: it lets me walk, and talk, and have fun. I’m able to run, jump, go to school, dance, spend time with friends. I’m able to be Abby again.

To anyone reading struggling with an ED or disordered eating, you deserve recovery. You deserve treatment. You deserve a life without your ED screaming at you nonstop. There is no such thing as an exception to recovery. We all can. We all deserve to. We are all strong enough to. I often hear people say they can’t recover or don’t want to. That’s the ED talking. Life with an ED is not a life at all; it’s a slow death. You’re worth more than that. I know everyone says “it gets better” and it means nothing coming from doctors who have never been where you are. As someone who told their psychologist to F herself over and over when she told me it would get better, I get it. But I’ve been there. I know how it feels. I promise it gets easier every day. Recovery is hard, but once you get to the other side it is so worth it. You can enjoy life again. You deserve to be happy. You are worth it. You are more than enough.

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.

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Originally published: January 15, 2017
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