I wish everyone who knows someone recovering from an eating disorder would read this.
I’m recovering from an eating disorder. I’ve struggled with it to varying degrees for at least 7 years, and I’ve been flirting with recovery for 4 years. Mostly my journey has a lot of ups and downs. While I used to be anorexic, a lot of the time my eating disorder is sub threshold now, which means I technically don’t meet the criteria for an eating disorder. It’s sort of like when the doctor says, “Your cancer is in remission,” but it’s still a dangerous place to be in, because the cancer could come back at any moment, and often it does. But even when my eating disorder is sub threshold, like it is now, it still exerts a great deal of influence over my life. It tells me what I can and cannot do. It makes me feel anxious about many things. It makes me feel guilty when I don’t obey its commands. It causes me a lot of pain.
For the first time, I’m trying to really address it. I’m getting help, and I’m working towards fully recovering. I don’t want to have a ‘sub threshold’ eating disorder. I want to be cured. I used to believe that wasn’t possible, but these past few months have taught me that life outside an eating disorder exists, and I can find it. I can be happy. I don’t remember what that’s like, but I’m anxious to find it.
On the journey though, having an eating disorder (even one that’s sub threshold) means a lot of things for me. Things that I know my friends and family don’t understand, but I would like them to grasp, because their support and compassion means so much to me.
First, an eating disorder means the upcoming holidays are a time of exceptional stress and frustration. The abundance of family gatherings, work parties, and social situations which generally revolve around food is terrifying. For people in recovery who are just getting into the habit of healthy eating (like myself) the holidays are a threat that could easily cause an individual to relapse in order to cope with their feelings. Family members and friends who are oblivious to their loved one’s eating disorder might ignorantly make comments that are triggering. People who know about the disorder may be uncertain how to provide support, or unaware how difficult a time of year this is. Some tips for coping with eating disorders around the holidays can be found here, and this article by CNN further explores how eating disorders and the holidays are difficult.
Second, an eating disorder means my view of myself is often distorted. Recovery means that I’m learning to recognize and fight these disordered thoughts, but they’re still there, and sometimes they get the best of me. Recently I found myself sitting in my car, holding a cliff bar in my hand, but feeling absolutely tormented. Why? I was convinced that since I had eaten the day before, I not only didn’t need to eat that day (not even a cliff bar), but it would be greedy of me to do so. Eventually I realized how ridiculous this thought was, and I ate the bar, but instead of feeling good about it, I felt guilty and my thoughts swung the opposite way in a desire to punish myself: “I’ve screwed everything up because I ate. I might as well binge.”
I am also a master at distorting what other people say to or around me. When people you know haven’t seen you in a while, one of the first things they do is comment on how you look. Comments like, “You’re so thin!” “You’ve lost weight!” or “You look great!” are all pleasantries commonly exchanged. They’re well intended, but my brain twists them to mean something else: “You were fat/horrible looking before! …You need to keep losing weight! …You need to keep restricting!” Sometimes if they don’t comment I think, “Oh god, they aren’t commenting on how I look because I look so horrible they can’t even fake a compliment!” And it’s not just comments about myself that send me spiraling. If a friend says, “I need to lose weight,” I think, “if they think they need to lose weight, they must think I should too. I ate something yesterday. Obviously I shouldn’t have. I have to make up for this. What have I done?!”
Today while working on a group project for school a girl was complaining about how unhealthy her diet is. Her friend tried to convince her that in comparison to others, her eating habits are perfectly healthy. “No!” She whined. “I eat potatoes!” And I sat there panicked when I realized I too eat potatoes, therefore I must a horrible, unhealthy person. (Yes, I’m now aware how comically distorted that was, but at the time it was a serious, threatening thought).
That’s the thing; when I catch myself, I know these thoughts are ridiculous distortions of reality. None of them are true, or if they are even a tiny bit true, it doesn’t really impact my value as a person. But mental illness isn’t founded in rational, reasonable views of reality. That’s the problem. Often the hardest part is being able to decipher what is a distorted thought, and what isn’t. It gets confusing when what you feel is absolutely 100% true is false, and what feels 100% wrong is right. Sometimes what is healthy and what isn’t gets so complicated and unclear to me, I honestly can’t figure out where reality ends and distortion begins. It’s a little like living in the movie Inception, or an episode of the Twilight Zone. Things never really make sense, and often turn out to be opposite of how they appear, and you’re never really sure what is or isn’t real, what is an illusion, or how things are going to turn out. It’s unnerving.
To be honest, I haven’t found an answer to this second problem. I’m so ashamed and so baffled by this that I’ve never before spoken these thoughts ‘aloud’. I’m still working on sharing this with my treatment team- those who can help me. When I do, there will be no easy fix. It often takes years to work out of this mindset, and the process is painful. But if there were any one message I could give to the people who love me, it would be this: “Right now, I’m really struggling. I’m hurting, and I’m in a sensitive place. You can’t make everything better. You can’t force me to see reason, or singlehandedly cure my affliction. This is my journey, my choice. But you can encourage me. You can support me by showing compassion and offering encouragement. Please be gentle with me. Please be sensitive. Please listen and try to understand. And please be patient.”
Thank you for reading this.