This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which has me reflecting a lot upon my struggles with disordered eating. I think people mistake awareness of an issue like this to be awareness of the symptoms. “If you are restricting yourself from eating more than 1000 calories a day, be aware that you might have an eating disorder. If you are bingeing and purging, you might have an eating disorder! If you obsess over food and withdraw from social life to avoid unplanned meals, you might have an eating disorder!” For those with eating disorders, they are often fully aware that their behaviors are dangerous. But to them, the alternative of consuming unwanted food/calories outweighs the dangers of disordered eating. Weighing less is more important than slowly killing yourself.
Like all mental illnesses, this is a very difficult concept to understand for those who have never experienced it themselves. I know when I was younger and first heard about anorexia and bulimia nervosa, I thought “Who would want to do that? I love food too much!” Once disordered eating begins, it is hard to discontinue these behaviors and change your mindset back to the once naïvely blissful state.
I think most people know the warning signs of eating disorders. Slowly, I think people are becoming aware that there are more types of eating disorders than anorexia and bulimia nervosa. I think the most important part of NEDA Week is opening a conversation between people to better understand eating disorders. I wish I had been braver sooner to speak up about my eating disorder, but even now it’s difficult. I worry about people judging me, thinking about me differently, or not treating me the same. Then I remember how ridiculous that is.
A few facts: 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will experience some kind of disordered eating in their lifetimes. I imagine this number would be much higher if more people came forward with their issues, as only 1 in 10 people receive treatment. 25% of college-aged women binge and purge to manage weight. Over one half of teenage girls and one third of teenage boys use unhealthy techniques to lose weight, like skipping meals or taking laxatives. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
If this is so dangerous for so many people, why aren’t we talking about it more? This is something I question constantly.
I began counting calories in high school. I was a competitive dancer wearing very revealing costumes, and I felt pressure to maintain my thin body. In college, after gaining a few pounds, my orthorexia began. I never knew this was even an eating disorder until years later, but now I can recognize that my obsession over “healthy” foods was very apparent. I struggled to eat normally or socially. I never had anyone suggest to me that what I was doing was unhealthy or a warning sign. I was just a picky eater that was too hard on myself. Once I became a fitness instructor, my eating habits were cloaked by my passion for health.
For a couple years, I obsessed over food and exercise. I was not social, and I lost a lot of friends. I was incredibly insecure and lacked social skills to boost my confidence. Still, I remember always being commended for my confidence since I was so “fit.”
After a rough breakup and other personal issues, my disordered eating only became worse. I began restricting, but ultimately this led to bingeing. I was always sick and I was always getting injured, mostly due to malnutrition. Even though I wasn’t doing any cardio for a whole semester and began lifting weights, I dropped to an all-time low weight. Looking back at pictures, I looked like a skeleton. I didn’t look like me, and I didn’t look happy or healthy. No one ever reached out to me asking if I had an eating disorder. I knew I had one, but I can’t help but think everyone around me had to know too. What is the point of being aware if no one wants to talk about it?
More personal issues continued, and I was a wreck. Thus, bingeing led to purging. To this day, I have a hard time accepting that I have been one of those people. The word sounds so vile and surreal. Still, it happened. I kept telling myself it was just that one time, that I’m not that person. I don’t do that regularly, just sometimes. Still, it consumed me.
Finally, something in me clicked. I knew I couldn’t live like this for the rest of my life. Something had to change. I tried to educate myself on proper nutrition and exercise, and I tried to find my own personal balance. This would not have been possible without CHAARG and my friends, many of whom had similar experiences and offered tremendous support. It took several months, but I was slowly able to normalize my eating. This isn’t to say that I don’t have bad days. There will always be bad days. There will always be times when my body image is poor. But, I am able to look back now and see how far I’ve came, and how I never want to go back, and this is why I share my story.
I remember a girl in high school who obviously had an eating disorder. Everyone knew she wasn’t eating. She was known for starving herself, pinching her body in trouble areas, obsessing in the mirror, and more. Why did no one reach out to her?! Was this how people were with me? Did everyone know and no one wanted to say anything?
Of course, I worry about everyone secretly judging me behind my back, and this is why I want to change the stigma around mental illnesses, especially eating disorders. I don’t think there is one clinical treatment that is best for everyone. I have had friends move into eating disorder-specific facilities in intensive care, and they still struggle years later. While I can’t say what is best for everyone, I think that open conversation is our main hope. If 25% of my female peers are experiencing the same struggles, then this should not be such a difficult conversation.
I don’t think the conversations should be rooted in judgment or advice. No matter how many times you are told “You are beautiful. You are skinny. You are enough,” it is still not going to change the eating disorder. No matter how many times you are told “You’re too hard on yourself. Get over it. At least you’re losing weight,” it is not going to change the eating disorder. Offering your listening ear or your shoulder to cry on is sometimes the only thing to help in a moment of need, unless immediate medical attention is necessary.
I still believe in the education of proper nutrition and exercise, and teaching people how to do so in a healthy, sustainable way. I know that I have a voice, and I want it to be heard for something better. I think that we should talk more openly about eating disorders, above all, with love. Everyone you know is experiencing a struggle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.