The Secret Relationship That No One is Talking About
Consider the course of action you would take if a friend confided in you that her significant other was abusing her. Would you help her find resources? Or maybe help her to find the confidence and fearlessness to leave her attacker? It has become common knowledge, at least for most individuals in today’s society, to not tell a person in this type of situation to “just leave them.”
So why are we still telling people with eating disorders to “just eat?”
If only it were that simple.
My sophomore year I took a course on Human Health and Disease. A group of people did a presentation about the different types of eating disorders. The presentation didn’t go into depth about the disorders or talk about treatment, but instead listed off all the subtypes of anorexia and bulimia that exist. One group member started off her portion of the presentation by saying something along the lines of:
“This next type of eating disorder is probably the weirdest yet. Pregorexia! Pregnant people with anorexia, can you imagine?”
We were required to have an interactive portion of this project, and this group used a true/false exercise. One of the questions was “People with eating disorders are vain and self obsessed. True or false?”
As I thought about my past, not even knowing that I was on the verge of a relapse that would eventually lead me to my eating disorder recovery, I thought of all the packed lunches I had thrown away as a child. The hours I spent examining the non-existent fat on my stomach. The nights after my sports practices when I would cry in the shower because of how disgusted I was with my body. I immediately circled false.
“True! People with eating disorders become fixated on their appearance, and are vain and self obsessed with the way that they look.”
I felt sick to my stomach as everyone in the classroom nodded their heads in agreement.
To me, this comment felt as twisted as saying something like “People who have an abusive boyfriend like to be abused. They are obsessed with the bruises they have on their body because of it.” As drastic as that may be, misunderstanding is painful. And as much as we tell people that eating disorders are not just about the food, it often doesn’t click.
But it needs to. Statistics show that eating disorder prevalence has been steadily increasing since 1950. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other mental illness, both from complications of the illness and suicide. And they don’t discriminate—their prevalence is similar between Non-Hispanic Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians in the US. This is also a disorder that affects both men and women, despite the stigma associated with men and anorexia or bulimia. It is not a disease of rich, vain, white girls. And it shouldn’t be treated as such.
When I started restricting calories and throwing my lunches away as a 10-year-old, I had no idea the repercussions of what I was doing to my body and how it would affect me by the age of 20. For a while, I was in complete denial that my brittle bones and stress fractures, shortness of breath, nerve pains, severe fatigue, and heart palpitations had anything to do with my obsession with weight loss. But I didn’t choose to hurt my body in this way. Skipping a meal was like taking a hit, an empty stomach like a high. Before I knew it the carpet had slipped out from under me and I was a junkie- I couldn’t stop what I was doing even if I wanted to.
And I was also absolutely seamless in hiding it, in flying under the radar. Despite the images in the media of anorexia and bulimia, of stick thin girls with sunken faces, I was never underweight enough to be picked up as having this disorder. This was also partly due to becoming ill when I was young- I screwed up my metabolism so badly that each pound hung for dear life, and it unfortunately fueled my self-hatred even more.
As I began my recovery journey in the spring of my sophomore year, it was difficult to let this part of myself go. This is where people became confused, even became angry with me. If I hated what my eating disorder had done to me, then why was it so hard to say goodbye to it?
If only it were that simple.
Many people personify their disorder, call it Mia or Ana or Ed, and while this seemed odd and unnatural for me at the beginning of recovery, I soon understood why this is done. Ed was like a little devil on my shoulder, like a bad boyfriend. A boyfriend who held me in the arms of behaviors and told me I would be skinny and pretty and most of all happy but if I wronged him would throw me to the floor and scream in my ears that I was worthless.
Ed does not like restaurants or pizza parties but loves hip bones and loose fitting clothing. Ed also likes eating food late at night all alone when no one can see you, and chewing food up for the taste just to spit it out (one of the least known but most horrible symptoms of an eating disorder). While it was exciting to move to an apartment and no longer need to eat tasteless DH food, it was also incredibly difficult to do a grocery trip when the nutritional content of the entire store had long since been committed to memory. It took lots of therapy, medicine, and proper nutrition to be able to start saying no to my eating disorder.
And it wasn’t easy. Just as it is not easy for someone to leave an abusive relationship. Just as it is not easy for someone to put down the bottle or get clean. Eating disorders are not a choice- they are not a “diet gone wrong”. They are not a symptom of vanity, but a daily struggle that is experienced by individuals worldwide.
Everyone has their vice. I am not proud that restricting and overexercising was mine, but I am proud that I decided to get better. It does come down to a choice whether to get better or not, but a key factor to understanding is knowing that it is not like flicking a light switch on and off.
One of the most debilitating aspects of these diseases is how many never feel sick enough or worthy enough for help. But everyone is worthy of a life free of restrictions and self hate. Everyone deserves happiness. And for some, whether they struggle with another person or a mental illness, this path to happiness goes against everything they once believed in.
It is difficult. But it is also worth it.