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An Insider's Perspective of an Eating Disorder

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The theme of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week this year was “3 Minutes Can Save a Life.” And while I felt it was well-intentioned and someone struggling may benefit from the 25-question survey, I think it’s missing part of the point of having a week dedicated to awareness: spreading awareness to those without eating disorders.

I feel our society lacks awareness of what an eating disorder really is. I think the vast majority believe it’s an attention-seeking ploy, a diet gone wrong or an overwhelming desire to be thin and pretty. And because that’s the definition that’s conjured in many of our minds, those struggling may face challenges getting the care they need. The average cost of a 30-day stay in an inpatient facility for eating disorders is $30,000. Thirty thousand. For 30 days. I think there is something very wrong with that picture. If you need treatment and your insurance company determines you don’t fit into their criteria, then guess what? You are out of luck. Unless your family takes out a second mortgage. And more often than not, I hear of people either being denied coverage altogether, or being cut after two weeks or so. Because you can undo years and years worth of damage in 14 days, right? I think insurance companies have slightly improved (and I owe mine a huge thank you for the coverage they’ve provided me this year), but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Eating disorders can affect anybody. Anybody. You can be negative three pounds and have an eating disorder. You can also be 600 pounds and have an eating disorder. And anywhere in between. That’s the point I really want to drive home here. You can be any weight, you can be white, black, male, female, transgender — eating disorders don’t discriminate. No, I have not done extensive research, and I don’t have a “Dr.” before my name. I don’t want this to come across as me saying my experience is worse or better than anybody else’s. But truth be told, I’ve struggled with a restrictive-type eating disorder for 12 years. If I can offer any insight into the general function of an eating disorder, at least from my experience, I’d lay it on you like this:

Eating disorders suck. It’s like having a constant reel of your own self-deprecating thoughts running through your head, over and over again. And they breed in shame and isolation. It can be a very secretive illness.

Relation to gravity (a.k.a. the magical number on the scale) is not an indicator of how “well” or how “sick” someone is. Some of my worst relapses have taken place while I was at a healthy weight — by government standards. And body image has a part in all of this. The reeling, self-deprecating thoughts: “I should be x weight. Or y weight is too heavy. I’m gross, I’m ugly, I should do better than this.” It is not about vanity, it is about control. Control of the number on the scale, control of the choices you make for breakfast. Control over what you deem “good” foods and “bad” foods. While we’re here, a piece of advice. Telling someone who just came from treatment that they look healthy, good, or like they’ve filled out is not something I would recommend. I know you mean well, but for some of us, it may make us think we are “heavy.”

I was born with a very harm-avoidant personality. I struggle with pretty severe anxiety (social and general) and episodes of depression. So in a nutshell, I don’t deal well with “the feels.” I don’t do well with change. And so I use a supposed “anesthetic” I discovered at 15 years of age, starvation. It’s a chain reaction. Something out of my control happens. I experience anxiety and/or depression. I want to not feel those emotions. I numb them out by restricting my caloric intake. This provides temporary relief until the next event. Rinse and repeat.

Why does starving myself give me the illusion that I feel better? Good question. As mentioned above, control is a major function of the eating disorder, so if I cannot control what is going on around me but can control what goes into my body, then voila, a temporary fix. I fill my void by feeling my void. Emotions become the enemy, and an eating disorder is supposedly the numbing agent.

Why does starving myself actually ruin my life in the long run? Because restricting your caloric intake is like tripping the breaker in your basement. The body is a smart machine. If you aren’t fueling it, it starts to shut down the functions that don’t seem as necessary, solely to conserve energy — until it shuts down the important functions, like say, your heart. It can hijack your brain. Your anxiety can become magnified, your thinking less rational. When I’m in the depths of it, my brain feels like a puzzle that has been thrown into the air, with all of the pieces landing in a mess on the floor. And I don’t know where to even begin to put it back together. So that reeling tape begins again, and it’s up to maximum volume: “Here you are again, in a mess. People are sick of you. You don’t deserve help anymore. You will never get anywhere in life. You’ll never recover. What’s the point?” And do you know how I take care of those reeling thoughts? You guessed it; the chain reaction starts all over again.

It is a vicious cycle, that way of thinking. And after years and years of it, you can start to become a bit exhausted. It can get exhausting to the point that your “anesthetic” just isn’t cutting it anymore. You may become immune to it, so you look for another escape. For some, the choice is a permanent one. I get really heated when people label those who have committed or attempted suicide as selfish. I’m sorry, but until you’ve lived in the absolute hell of a mental disorder, please do not pass judgment. For some people, the pain of living can seem far greater than the fear of dying.

Let me follow up with something lighter. Four years ago, I moved to Washington, D.C. A change! I’ll let you do the math. Anyway, I relapsed and had a friend who helped me find a fantastic therapy practice in the area. Fast-forward to now. I’ve been with the same therapist and dietitian for four years (they are the dream team, I may add). They’ve sent me to treatment a multitude of times, and each time, they’ve saved my life by doing so.

Recovery is never a linear process. It’s not as simple as throwing a Band-Aid over a cut, letting it heal and watching the scar fade as the years go on. To me, an eating disorder can be like a stubborn weed; you cut out as much as you possibly can, but nobody can predict if that bastard is going to grow back or not. And if it does, you aren’t going to stand there and say, “Mmm, yeah. You’ve been removed. We already tried once, so sorry. Should have gone away the first time! Nothing we can do.” No, you’re going to go in there and attack that stubborn thing as many times as you need to. See my point?

So to wrap things up, eating disorders suck. They aren’t a hobby we just decided to pick up one day. There are genetic and environmental factors involved. Just because somebody goes to treatment once does not mean they are cured. In fact, there is not really a “cure.” It can be a matter of letting those reeling thoughts be in their little home (your head), but slapping the mute button on them. Eating disorders breed in shame, guilt and isolation. It might be a little embarrassing to tell people you’re afraid of the bean dip at the party when they ask why you aren’t eating it, so you might just avoid the party altogether. But what I have learned is it is possible to get into a better headspace. It’s possible to get to a place where your debilitating thoughts do not consume every aspect of your being. What we need is for people who have no idea to have an idea. Three minutes may not necessarily save a life. But becoming a little more accepting and understanding that an eating disorder is a mental illness, and that mental illness is real… Well, that just might.

Image via Contributor.

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.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

A version of this post originally appeared on Other Than That, Things Are Great.

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Originally published: November 3, 2016
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