I never thought I would have an eating disorder.
Girls with eating disorders were “vain”, “self-conscious”, “out of whack”, or came from “messed up” homes. As for me, I never paid much attention to my body. I loved food and never thought twice about it. Eating was my family’s way of establishing fellowship, and as a medium for artistic expression. (My father is an avid cook and passed the love of cuisine down to me.) I have always had a high metabolism, so I could eat what I wanted and maintain an average figure.
Some girls can pinpoint the exact event that triggered their descent into the hell that is anorexia or bulimia. For me, it was a gradual process of which I was not quite aware until the moment I was leaning over the toilet for the first time wondering what on earth I had just done to myself. I knew in my heart that I would regret it, but at the same time a voice inside my head whispered, “Good job! You’ve successfully forced yourself to do something you hate. That shows that you are in control, not your body.”
By that time, December 2009, I had undiagnosed depression and had been an on-and-off self-injurer for several years. (The reasons behind that mostly stemmed from issues like anxiety, anger, and passive-aggressive rebellion.) My parents had recently found out and, in their panic born of naiveté, kept me under constant scrutiny, hiding all sharp objects and not even allowing me to shave without supervision. You could say that the eating disorder emerged as a way to strike back without making a scene.
By that time, my identity lay in the chaotic. I urged myself that I had to have something abnormal about me, or there would be nothing to separate me from everybody else. Instead of nourishing my God-given talents like writing, I instead turned to self-destruction as a way to feel unique.
The thing most people don’t realize about eating disorders is that they are not about food or physical appearances. Yes, those may be contributors to the problem, but in the end their role is surprisingly small. The more you grow accustomed to starving or binging and purging or whatever way your eating disorder manifests itself, the more empty you become, and the more you convince yourself that the only thing that will fill you up is more starving or binging and purging. You feel miserable, and yet your body has become addicted and you feel that if you stop you will be failing. Failing yourself, failing your family and friends, but most of all failing the voice that has grown from a whisper to an internal scream, never leaving you alone—except when you’re asleep.
I slept a lot those days. The first thing I would do when I got back from school was take off my shoes and curl up in the private bedroom we kept for guests, retreating into the sweet, cool mist of unconsciousness. But whenever I woke up (and I always did, unfortunately for me), I would find myself staring at my blotchy face in the mirror directly in front of the bed and would hear the voice screaming, “Hello, worthless. Did you enjoy your rest? I hope so, because you’re going to test your limits tonight.”
I would go all day at school without eating and then come back home to a family dinner, which was unavoidable. This I would scarf down with feigned relish, and afterward I would seize the first moment I could to retreat to the bathroom with the excuse of taking a shower. I lost track of how many times I went through the familiar ritual: turn on the overhead fan, adjust the shower spout so the rushing water made as much noise as possible, place a small rug in front of the toilet for my knees, twist back my hair in hasty bun and subsequently attack the far reaches of my throat, fingers aggressive in their resolve to bring everything up. It was not pleasant or beautiful or anything it does not pretend to be. Quite frankly, it was nasty. But I was proud of myself for being “strong enough”.
Eating disorders are not tame. What I mean is that as much as you try to convince yourself that you have control over them, it is really they that have control over you. You tell yourself that you will only purge once a day and only in a particular spot, but that rule is swiftly broken when you find yourself having just consumed a doughnut at school and being unable to deal with the unpleasant feelings and emotions that follow. Your eating disorder begins to show itself everywhere: at church, in the classroom, when you are going shopping, and even while you are babysitting. You are like a puppet, following its every command. If it tells you to do something completely illogical like put off your homework and walk to the nearby convenience store in the rain at 2:00 AM for candy, you will do it. You will do it because it is the only way to shut up the voice and have peace…if only for a little while. What you don’t realize is that you are confusing peace with a state of numbness.
If you are one of the lucky ones like me, then eventually you will get help. You will meet with counselors and have your food intake monitored and might even be hospitalized for awhile. If you are one of the very lucky ones, the voice will go away completely. If, like me, you are the tiniest bit human, then you will only manage to learn how to fight it. You will write down endless lists of things you like about yourself and begin to eat balanced meals and perhaps take up jogging. But the fact is that the voice never goes away. You may have learned how to shut it up, but there will inevitably be times when it tries to make a reappearance.
It could be that you are having a bad day. Perhaps you lost a big assignment or ate too much for breakfast or forgot to work out for three days in a row. Perhaps you find yourself comparing your arms to the girl’s in front of you and telling yourself that you could stand to lose a few pounds, no big deal. Or perhaps you are simply bored with your healthy, average lifestyle. Whatever the reason, the voice will whisper to you at the most unexpected of times, and sometimes you will listen to it.
Nobody is as put together as they appear. Nobody. Eating disorders—or any type of mental disorder, for that matter—have nothing to do with age, gender, weight, race, or social class. Anyone is susceptible; no one is exempt. I learned this most effectively during my weeks in a behavioral health hospital, during which I met some of the most sincere people I will ever hope to meet. They were as different as the colors of the rainbow, and yet this one common thread held us all together in unity.
This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness (NEDAwareness) Week. I’m writing this to show that although it’s possible to survive and overcome an eating disorder, it’s extremely difficult to become free from it entirely. Many people don’t consider anorexia or bulimia “real” diseases. It is a widely assumed fact that eating disorders are “chosen” by their victims, that they are simply lifestyles. This is ludicrous. Do you think we would choose to force this misery upon ourselves? You wouldn’t blame someone for having a tumor, would you? So why would you blame someone for having an eating disorder?
It’s important to understand that eating disorders have been around for centuries. While it’s true that the media has increased the number of eating-disordered people within the last several decades, it should not receive the brunt of the blame. There is more to eating disorders than pictures of skinny models and tabloid articles about dieting. The factors are often buried deep down inside and require professional help to safely dig up and deal with in an appropriate manner.
Eating-disordered people are more common than most people think. You probably know someone whose life has been touched by an eating disorder, or perhaps you yourself know something about it from experience. College campuses in particular are a favorite breeding ground for eating disorders. As many as 10% of college females suffer from anorexia, bulimia or EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified). Males are also susceptible to eating disorders, but they are harder to number because few of them admit to having a problem. As a college freshman in my second semester, I can attain to the truth of these statistics.
Don’t be ignorant. Look around you and watch for the warning signs of an eating disorder. Does your friend act strange around food? This would include some or all of the following behaviors: eating too much or too little, tearing food into tiny pieces, drinking abnormal amounts of water, disappearing for a fair amount of time directly after the meal, exhibiting signs of anxiety, or avoiding meals altogether. He or she might prefer to eat alone, because eating with others makes them feel self-conscious. If you know someone who is acting like this, it’s possible that they might have an eating disorder. Without jumping to any conclusions, you might want to take them aside and ask them how they’re doing on a deeper level. If you don’t know them very well, ask one of their friends to look into their situation. Remember, you aren’t responsible for their problems. Whether or not the person opens up to you is up to them.
Remember, eating disorders are treatable. It is possible to break free. This week, I encourage you all to spread the word about NEDA. For information, statistics, and articles, visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website.
Remember, you are cherished. Nothing can or will change that. Your body does not deserve to be abused, and neither do you.
Filed under: Everyday Ramblings, Special Occasions