When I was in elementary school, I had an American Girl Book that was a pre-teens guide to the female body. You know the kind. It’s the one that makes your inner 12 year old cringe with embarrassment because it talks about all the crazy stuff that’s going to start happening to you as you make that magical journey from girl to woman.
(Insert collective eye-roll here)
In that book, there were two pages that talked about eating disorders. One page devoted to Anorexia, complete with the typical drawing of a stick-thin girl looking at a distorted reflection of herself in the mirror, and one page devoted to Bulimia, with a picture of a girl coming out of a bathroom. Nice.
I couldn’t understand as a 4th grader why those disorders would happen to anyone and much less couldn’t fathom that I’d become one of them. But I did.
Flash forward to April 2010.
I was a junior in college, desperately missing my boyfriend at the time who was studying in Rome. My grandfather was dying. My senior year was quickly approaching, which meant I needed to get serious about deciding on a career path and writing my thesis. I got rejected for an internship I really wanted and decided to go study at my college’s program in the south of France, which at the time didn’t seem at all like a bad alternative.
On the outside, my life didn’t seem that bad, and it wasn’t. I’m not claiming to have overcome tremendous difficulties or tragedies, because I know that compared to most people in the world, I had it pretty good.
On the inside though, I felt out of control.
I felt worthless.
I felt hopeless.
I felt like no matter what I did, I was one step behind my high-achieving friends, even though by many standards I was considered high-achieving as well.
Convincing me of this was a moot point because in the depths of my core, I truly believed I wasn’t good enough for anything or anyone.
I tried to control these feelings of shame by blaming it all on my body. My body, which had just allowed me to live in Greece for half a year, walking around ancient temples and ruins, catching trains, planes, and automobiles to discover an ancient and modern world, became the focus of my self-hatred.
If only I hadn’t eaten so many damn vegetarian gyros! (But they were SO good…)
If only I had laid off the Mythos (crappy Greek beer) and Baklava!
If only I had run the Marathon with that handful of crazy runners in my program!
If only I weighed less! If only I was a few sizes smaller! If only I were thin, my life would be better. I’d be happy.
If only I was anything but what I am, maybe I wouldn’t hate myself so much.
My desperation with my body, pain, and need to control something in my life led me to purging and restricting, and within a few short months I had a full-blown, out of control eating disorder.
When I got back from France late that summer, I was greeted with compliments on my weight loss, which I very discretely couched as being the result of a desire to “be more healthy.”
Healthy, yeah right.
Upon starting my senior year, my best friends, sister, and boyfriend tried to intervene in my self-destruction. They begged and pleaded for me to get help, and finally it was my boyfriend who said bluntly, “Get help or I’ll leave you. I won’t sit by and watch you kill yourself.” So I did get help…and at the time I did he also left me.
Looking back, I see that the one thing that prevented me from getting help was the belief that I was not “thin enough” to have an eating disorder. If I wasn’t thin enough, that also meant I wasn’t sick enough.
At the time, I thought eating disorders were reserved for those special, super-thin girls. As if having an eating disorder was something to be proud of. But you’d be surprised, because many who struggle do at one point or another feel proud, strong, sometimes even super-human for being able to deny themselves food or do terrible things to their bodies. I don’t judge those who think this way, because admittedly, at my sickest, I used to also.
I know differently now. I know that eating disorders are dangerous, and given the chance, they can and will kill you. They aren’t fun, they aren’t glamorous, and they sure as hell aren’t reserved for some special group of people. Eating disorders don’t discriminate. Race, gender, ethnicity, religion, it doesn’t matter.
I ended up going through several rounds of treatment, at various levels, in various states for about a year and a half. During my last time in inpatient in December 2011, I told myself that was it. I wasn’t going to give in anymore. I wanted a life!
Thinness is not necessarily a measure of sickness. (I’m not arguing that having a low body weight isn’t dangerous, it certainly is, but being in the “normal” or “healthy” weight range doesn’t mean you are normal, healthy, or not in danger)
Electrolyte imbalances, vitamin deficiencies, and organ damage/failure can’t be identified by how thin you are. And these things can kill you!
( Click here to read one moving story about a young woman named Andrea who died in her sleep at age 19 because of an electrolyte imbalance, my interview with her mom can be found here )
Being malnourished, which can happen no matter your symptoms or diagnosis can cause your thoughts to be distorted and for obvious reasons make it hard to think straight. This means that from a physiological perspective, it is VERY hard to see reality as it actually is. AKA YOU CAN’T SEE WHAT YOUR BODY ACTUALLY LOOKS LIKE!!
Emotions can distort your body image, making you “feel fat.” Sometimes emotional weight is mistaken for actual body weight that doesn’t really exist.
You don’t have to be emaciated to have an eating disorder.
You don’t have to be skeletal to have an eating disorder.
You don’t have to look the way another person with an eating disorder looks to have an eating disorder.
There are a lot of combinations of sub-categories of eating disorders, which means that even if you don’t fall into the narrow criteria for Anorexia or Bulimia you don’t deserve and need help.
ED-NOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified) is a LEGITIMATE eating disorder! I say legitimate because it just means that clinically you don’t have every criterion necessary to fit the very rigid DSM diagnoses. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a “real” eating disorder, that you aren’t sick, that you don’t deserve and need help.
Your blood work might show that you are sicker than someone who you think is thinner than you.
If you let your distorted body image control the shots and determine whether or not you get help, you will never get to experience how amazing life is in recovery.
Not all my days are perfect, but my worst days in recovery are better than my best days in my eating disorder.
Be strong, fight for yourself, and live courageously because playing with an eating disorder is like playing with fire. It’s a game of Russian Roulette because you don’t know when your body will give up on you.
And you really do have too much to live for to be given up on.
Please talk to a qualified therapist or doctor if you, or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder. Below are several resources to help get you started. Each link goes to a specific page to make it very easy for you to find the exact information you need!