It’s Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme this year is “Three Minutes Can Save a Life”. And while it is well intentioned and someone struggling may benefit from the 25 question survey, it’s missing part of the point of having a week dedicated to awareness; spreading awareness to non-sufferers.
Our society lacks awareness of what an eating disorder really is. I think the vast majority thinks 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 we’ve conjured up in our minds, those suffering don’t get the care that they need. The average cost of a 30 day stay in an inpatient facility for eating disorders is 30,000 dollars. Thirty thousand. For thirty days. There is something very wrong with that picture. If you need treatment and your insurance company determines that you don’t fit into their little cookie cutter criteria (hell of an alliteration), then guess what? You are royally fucked. Unless your family takes out a second mortgage. And more often than not, I hear of people either being denied coverage all-together, 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. ANY. BODY. 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, purple, blue, male, female, transgender; point being 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 a pity party or me saying that my experience is worse than/better than anybody else’s. But truth be told, I’ve struggled with a restrictive-type eating disorder for twelve 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 fucking suck. It’s like 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 is a very secretive illness.
Relation to gravity (aka 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 recommended. We know you mean well, but to us it means we are fat. I’ll just leave that right there.
I was born with a very harm avoidant personality. Like a lot of others, 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 this really neat 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 make me feel better or 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. Much like an alcoholic fills their void with alcohol, I fill my void by feeling my void. Emotions become the enemy and an eating disorder becomes the numbing agent.
Why does starving myself actually fuck up 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 of your body that don’t seem as necessary, solely to conserve energy…until it shuts down the important functions…like say, your heart. It fucks with your brain. Your anxiety becomes magnified, your thinking becomes less rational. When I’m in the depths of it, my brain feels like a puzzle that has been thrown into the air; all of the pieces landing in a crazy 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; “You’re fucking crazy, Abby. Here you are again, in a mess. People are sick of you. You don’t deserve help anymore. You’re a piece of shit who 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 start to become a bit exhausted. It gets exhausting to the point that your anesthetic just isn’t cutting it anymore. You become immune to it, so you look for another escape. For a lot of people, the only other choice is a permanent one. I get really heated when people label those who have committed or have 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 is far greater than the fear of dying.
Well we just got really dark there, didn’t we? Let me follow up with something lighter. Four years ago I moved to DC. 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. And while I don’t want treatment to be a revolving door for the rest of my life, I also don’t think being dead for the rest of my life is a viable option.
Recovery is never a linear process. Let me repeat that. NEVER is recovery linear. It’s not as simple as throwing a bandaid over a cut, letting it heal and watching the scar fade as the years go on. Eating disorders are much like tumors (for lack of a better comparison); you get in there and you cut out as much as you possibly can, but nobody can predict if that fucker is going to grow back or not. And if it does, you aren’t going to stand there and say, “Mmmm, yeah. You’ve already been removed, tumor. We already did treatment 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 bastard as MANY damn times as you need to. See my point?
So to wrap things, 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’s 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’s 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 just avoid the party all together. But what I have learned is that 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 won’t 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.