4 Things I Wish People Who Don't Have Eating Disorders Understood
I don’t often verbalize much pertaining to my eating disorder to anyone outside of a select group of close friends and my treatment team. When I do, I’m often astounded with the responses I get. Most of these responses are due to ignorance and a lack of education. Yet, in this day and age I don’t accept ignorance as much of an excuse anymore.
In recovery, things can be more confusing than when we are wrapped up in the midst of our disorder. We are often extremely sensitive to your remarks. This is why recovery can be particularly difficult in a world where diet and weight loss are normalized and education on eating disorders is sparse.
So here are a few things that I want those who are not afflicted with an eating disorder to know:
1. Diet talk is one of my biggest triggers.
While in recovery, we certainly don’t want to hear what diet you’re following. I really don’t care if you’re vegan on Tuesdays, vegetarian during the full moon and only eat carbohydrates if the date falls on an even number. In fact, I would rather not know.
However, my face will tell a different story. I love a good conversation about diet and what different nutrients do to our body. My eyes light up when talking about eating clean and green. I relish the conversations where we analyze the cause of society’s obesity epidemic and what we can do to stop ourselves from reaching that same fate.
What I want you to realize is this isn’t myself talking. This is my ill mind, my eating disorder’s voice. The more I engage in these types of conversations, the more I feed my eating disorder, leaving my healthy mind gasping for breath when it gets the chance. When you tell us you have lost “x” pounds, a million things flash through my head.
I haven’t weighed myself today. Have I gained weight? I’ve put on “x” pounds so I must be fat. Do I need to lose weight? I don’t know what I weigh because my parents chucked out the scale and I’ve only ever been blindly weighed. What if I’ve gone too far the other way?
This wreaks havoc on a recovering mind because it’s hard enough to accept weight gain during restoration. It’s even harder when all you hear about is other people’s “successful” weight loss. The easiest thing people can do is leave the diet talk at home and let’s talk about “Game of Thrones” instead.
2. I need to follow a meal plan.
If I asked you if you were hungry right now, then you could probably tell me a resounding yes or no answer, with confidence your body is telling you the truth. As someone with an eating disorder, I don’t have this luxury. You can skip a meal and not fret about the next one. You can make up for it without worrying about turning it into a binge. When you have been busy all day and have forgotten to eat, you don’t have to worry about restrictions taking hold once more. These are all privileges I did not quite appreciate before realizing they could be taken away.
I have a meal plan that keeps me safe. It aids in binge reduction, as well as reducing restriction. If I’m going to be out all day, the first thing I need to consider is whether or not there will be safe foods. If not, I need to pack something. There is no, “I’ll just go hungry for a bit.” It’s how I manage my illness.
3. Binging is not a simple “lack of control.”
You’ve probably heard that eating disorders are about control. So it’s easy to think perhaps binges are about a lack of self-control. It’s not that simple. When I go on a binge, it is like someone has taken over my body. My hands grab for everything and anything within reach. I am powerless to stop. So we aren’t talking about a simple lack of self-control. It is a lack of presence, a lack of self. In that moment, there is no self to control.
When I eventually come around and realize what I’ve done, a pit of guilt swells in my stomach and panic sets in. Shame shadows my very existence, and so I purge. I purge, until there’s nothing left. When I purge, there is a moment when I feel lighter. While you might not be able to help us overcome this one, avoiding talking about binge eating like it is simply overeating or a lack of self-discipline because that it is certainly not.
4. My brain believes two different things about my eating disorder.
“But it’s doing more harm than good,” you say. Chances are, if we are in recovery at least part of our brain knows this. The only way I can begin to describe it, is I know and believe two completely different things. I know under-eating causes malnourishment, low blood pressure, heart palpitations and bradycardia. I know purging disrupts electrolytes, tears up my oesophagus and rots my teeth.
However, I believe I am exempt from the physiology. I believe I am doing no harm. One day, in a heated exchange with my mom, she said implied I was “too smart” to have an eating disorder. This does two things: 1. Shatters my self-confidence because if my treatment team says I have an eating disorder, then maybe I’m not intelligent. 2. Invalidates my disorder. Research has shown those afflicted with eating disorders are quite often high achievers in multiple settings, including academics. So the assumption I should be able to “outsmart” my eating disorder is a complete misunderstanding of what an eating disorder actually is.
These are just a few of the more pertinent messages I want to get out to the public regarding eating disorders. It is absolutely unacceptable that people still believe they are a choice, that they are a quest for vanity or that they are not serious illnesses. It’s time society becomes educated and helps stop the stigma. Stigma can only be changed with education.
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.