Why I Can’t Just 'Turn My Eating Disorder Off'
You know in the movies, the person who has the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other shoulder? The devil is telling the character to take the “bad” route, make the mistakes and go against everything the angel on the other shoulder is saying — the “right” things, the things that go with that person’s values, the “logical” route. Even though that person probably logically knows what is right, the devil can be so convincing. What if I were to tell you that doesn’t only happen in the movies? What if I told you that’s exactly what it feels like? It’s hard to believe, right?
Unfortunately, that’s often exactly what having an eating disorder is like: you have both a devil (your eating disorder) and an angel (your own mind) in your brain at the same time, all day, all night, 24/7 — it never ends. People with eating disorders don’t usually expect anyone else to “get it,” because half the time we probably don’t get it either, but it’s important for others to understand that it’s not as easy as just “flipping a switch and turning it off.”
Eating disorders are not just anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. In fact, there are several other, less well-known but equally as dangerous types of eating disorders, such as binge eating disorder (BED) and other specified feeding or eating disorder (OSFED). Any of these eating disorders can experience the devil and the angel.
Often times, the devil can appear without someone even realizing it. It wasn’t until recently that I learned it wasn’t me making all of my choices, it was the “devil” in my brain. When I think of my eating disorder, I have a picture of what the devil might look like: a grumpy, red, mean looking man. This helps me when I am trying to separate those eating disorder thoughts from my own thoughts, and let me tell you: It’s way easier said than done. Here is why can’t I just “turn it off and eat:”
1. My brain is “wired differently.”
I was only recently officially diagnosed with an eating disorder this past summer after my eating disorder had completely taken over my life and I was unable to hide it from others. This diagnosis came after struggling with anxiety, depression, body image issues and food issues my entire life. Having said that, according to every mental health professional I have seen, I was born with, or quickly developed, many of the characteristics of an eating disorder. Perfectionism, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, the inability to effectively communicate or display emotions, the need to be in control, high expectations and picky eating are just some of the characteristics I’ve always possessed that make me who I am, but were also a catalyst in the development of my eating disorder. The list of characteristics are not limited to the previous list — there are so many things that could go on for someone in the development of an eating disorder.
2. I’ve experienced a life-changing event.
I know what you might be thinking: “Well, everyone at some point in their life has experienced a life-changing event, yet not everyone has an eating disorder.” And while you’d be right, for all the reasons I listed in my first point, sometimes all it takes is a significant life-changing event to send someone with the characteristics of an eating disorder into a downward spiral. I realize this doesn’t happen for everyone, but unfortunately that is what happened to me.
I’ve always struggled with my body image, with disordered eating and exercise behaviors. I always felt like the biggest of everyone around me, often spending countless minutes on the scale and in front of the mirror, wishing I could change every aspect of my body. All of this happened off and on for years — since elementary school — but it wasn’t until my grandfather’s (someone who was very important in my life) health started deteriorating that my eating disorder really started spiraling. The saddest part was: I didn’t even know it was happening. Things were getting worse and worse little by little for the two years leading up to the eventual complete disaster that very quickly consumed my entire life. I was already so consumed in my eating disorder in the months prior to my grandfather’s passing, but when my grandfather eventually passed away, the eating disorder became my way to cope with the loss. I didn’t have to feel the emotions that came along with his passing, or the guilt that I had about so many things around it. It seemed like everything around me was falling apart; I carried so much guilt and felt like I had no control over anything but my eating disorder and my weight, so how could I ever give that up?
3. I didn’t even know it was happening.
There came a point where I couldn’t hide my eating disorder any longer: I was losing weight quickly, I had completely isolated myself, my health was starting to deteriorate, and according to others “I just wasn’t myself.” I was told to “get help or we will get help for you,” and at that moment I reached out to a therapist. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me, I just did it to please the people around me. During this time in therapy I was closed off and not open to the term “recovery.” After all, what did I have to recover from? It wasn’t long before my therapist started pushing for a higher level of care. My first reaction was “absolutely not,” but once summer came, my parents got involved and I was off work, so I really didn’t end up having a choice. I was admitted to the partial hospitalization program (PHP) at first, still in denial that I had a problem. In my mind I still wasn’t sick enough, I wasn’t skinny enough, and there was nothing that anyone could say or do to convince me otherwise. The devil had completely taken over and I was consumed by the desire to either get skinnier or die trying — or so I thought. I lasted one week in PHP before I was pulled into a room and told I was not allowed to leave the building and go home that night, I was being admitted to inpatient 24/7 care until further notice for medical stabilization, and to begin working through the eating disorder. This was my turning point: I had hit rock bottom and I felt like I couldn’t go any lower unless I was buried six feet under the ground. I now realized I had a problem, but recovery still seemed to terrifying and out of reach.
4. Fear of the unknown.
By the time I realized I had a problem, my eating disorder had taken over my whole life, I strongly felt that without it I would lose my complete sense of identity. I had no idea what recovery looked like, so my head was instantly flooded with terrible thoughts of what my recovery future might look like. Who was I without my eating disorder? After all, if I wasn’t perfect I would be a complete failure and never get anything done, but if I recovered I would be selfish for focusing on myself and everyone would hate me more than they already do. If I gained weight in recovery I would be even uglier than I already am and no one would love me — my biggest fear would come true and I’d be alone forever. If my self-esteem and confidence went up I’d be greedy, self-centered and an overall awful person. Who would I be without my control? My life would fall apart, I wouldn’t be able to function or do anything right. All this time I thought my eating disorder provided me with my identity; to my co-workers, some friends, to the parents of my students, I had the perfect life. I had it all together, and if recovery took away my ability to have it all together, I would very quickly become a failure. I could and still can hear the devil loud and clear in my head telling me that without him I would be nobody, I would quickly become a failure and nobody would like me. Six weeks in the hospital helped me to begin separating the two voices in my head and learn ways to cope with the horrible thoughts my eating disorder gives me, and the urges to give in to those behaviors that my logical self knew was destroying my body. Much to my surprise, recovery wasn’t that easy, because I’m still consumed with these thoughts every single day.
Most people struggling with an eating disorder have no idea what recovery looks like, especially in the beginning. If I’m being honest, I still don’t know what it looks like, as I struggle every single day to shut that devil voice inside my head off. Believe me, I so wish there was a switch in my brain that I could shut off, and I’ve spent countless hours hating myself for “not being in control of my own brain.” Because of the stigma of mental health, I thought there was something wrong with me; I didn’t believe I was sick, but the reality is, I didn’t choose to have an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue I have struggled with.
I need help to get better; the help of medications, doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and a dietician in order to fully recover. This is no different than someone with a physical illness or injury, but unfortunately for most, you can’t physically see that someone has a mental illness, especially someone like me who is high-functioning. It took me forever to realize this eating disorder is not my fault, I did not chose to do this to myself, and I needed help — but I’m glad I finally did. I am not in recovery yet, and I still have so many bad days where recovery seems too hard or too scary, and going into total relapse seems easier, because then I could go back to numbing myself out and not dealing with stress or emotions.
There will be slips — I can’t just turn my eating disorder off even though I so badly wish I could, but please believe me when I say I am trying. I’m trying hard. I want to silence the devil and bring back the angel, the Rebecca I know is in there somewhere.
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Getty image via Chet_W