That's what most people's initial reaction to me telling them about my eating disorder is. For someone who's ridiculously horrible at lying (as in, I tend to smile and giggle)- this came as a bit of a surprise. I guess I was good at hiding things. I guess that since I maintained my weight and ate food, people didn't notice the fact that I was running to the bathroom to purge after eating. I guess the fact that I didn't reach a state of emaciation for a majority of my disorder, people didn't notice. I was just "Lauren, the picky eater" or "Lauren, the girl who doesn't eat in the dining hall" or "Lauren, the girl with weird food allergies/stomach problems". I mean, since I struggled with body and self image from the time I was little bitty (like preschool) and I WAS an unusually picky eater- how could I have expected anyone to notice that my strange quirks and feelings were translating into something more sinister? I mean, I didn't even recognize that I had a problem for four years. Why would someone else notice? How would they notice? We live in a society that has such a perverted way of thinking about food and weight. Disordered eating is even seen as, might I say...normal? Society jumps from fad diet to fad diet. Juicing. Cleanses. Constant battles with the scale and numbers on the inside of our clothing. It's kind of hard to see the line between dieting and disorder when everything is so close. What's healthy for one person is bad for another. Add in the fact that eating disorders are horribly misunderstood- and we've got a massive problem on our hands.
I thought I might share a few words on eating disorders today. After all, it is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Maybe someone can learn from my experience. Maybe you know someone with an eating disorder and you don't know what to say or what not to say. Maybe you don't understand why they can't "just eat" and get better. Maybe this little post can help. Maybe this post can give you a glimpse into my world.
- Not everyone that has an eating disorder is underweight. There is more to an eating disorder than weight or level of emaciation or a certain diagnosis. Anorexia is defined by refusal to maintain a natural or healthy weight (or BMI) and it IS marked by being underweight. But, Bulimia, EDNOS/OSFED, and Binge Eating disorder can all occur in healthy weight or overweight individuals. These illnesses are just as serious as anorexia and can have similar health consequences. Interesting fact- my bloodwork and all came back perfectly normal when I was 20 pounds underweight. When I went to treatment the first time (to do weight restoration), I wasn't really having major health issues. It wasn't until months later when I began to abuse laxatives and diuretics that the dizziness and chest pains and heart issues started popping up. By that time, I was weight restored to my "ideal body weight". Just because someone is at a "healthy weight" by BMI or IBW standards doesn't mean that they are healthy, they don't have an eating disorder, or that they can't seek treatment.
- Most people with anorexia DO eat. Asking me if I eat isn't a funny question. Yes, I eat. Even at the point of my disorder when I restricted the most- I still ate. I ate three "meals" a day most days. Were they substantial? No. Were they healthy? No. I was eating "starvation diet"- which simply means that I ate less than 1200 calories a day. That magical 1200 calorie number? It's not the magic weight loss number. It's the number at which your body goes into starvation mode. It's not really meant to be used as a diet, and definitely not long term. Some days I may have eaten less than 1200 calories, but I almost always ate something at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That's one reason why most people were so caught off guard about my disorder. I ATE. I ate real food- not just diet foods or vegetables. Anorexia doesn't mean that you never ever eat. It is marked by restriction- not necessarily total avoidance. Otherwise, anorexia would kill you in 1-4 weeks.
- Most people who purge don't "like" throwing up. The purging side of my disorder is my least favorite and it was the first part that I really committed to giving up after this most recent relapse. This might get a little messy- but I think it needs to be said, so I'm going to say it. Purging ISN'T like it is in the movies and on TV. It's messy. It's not leaning over a toilet once, sticking a finger down your throat, and everything from dinner magically coming up. No, it's spending a half hour leaning over a dirty, messy toilet. It's vomit splashing up and hitting you in the face. It's crying and tears and wanting it all to be over and the food to just "get out" because you have this fear that the food is literally sitting in your stomach, multiplying- and you're totally going to gain 20 pounds if you don't get it out. The marathon vomiting session is normally followed by massive amounts of guilt and fear and crying and messy feelings involved in all of this. It's not glamorous, it's not beautiful and it's not something I enjoy. On one of my ER visits last year, I had an especially awful nurse who asked me extremely personal and rude questions about this- they were totally unrelated to my medical care. PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE...if you are in the medical profession- don't tell me how you've "never met an anorexic before" or ask me if I "like, make myself throw up and how" ...because you want weight loss tips. Anorexia is NOT A DIET. It's a serious medical condition.
- The media and/or society does not create eating disorders. I'm beginning to learn more about eating disorders, and I've come to the conclusion that I have the perfect genetic makeup for developing one. I'm highly perfectionistic, anxious, and I have low self image and body image distortion. These factors along with my genetics made me extremely susceptible to developing an eating disorder. It wasn't the skinny actresses or models, or gossip magazines, or anything like that. Could society and the media have contributed? Sure. They may have pulled the trigger to the gun- but they didn't create the gun. I wasn't constantly told I was fat and ugly by others- I was told that by my own self- my brain. These messages had been in my brain since I was itty-bitty. I had these messages in my head in the days before I watched TV or read magazines....and I never really enjoyed watching fashion shows or models. The thoughts were in my brain, creating a breeding ground and something finally "clicked" and it became an eating disorder. I don't know what "clicked", but the media and society did not create the disorder. My brain and genetics did.
- It's a choice, but it's also not a choice. I once heard it said that it's not a choice to develop an eating disorder, but it is a choice to recover. Recovery is hard. It's the hardest thing I've worked at. Telling me to "just eat" or to not count calories or not weigh myself...it's not really useful. I know what I need to do. I've been to treatment. I know the tools. I know the coping mechanisms. It's about convincing my brain to use them. For my, my eating disorder is all about compulsions. It's feeling this need to control what I eat. It's feeling this need to control the number (I always get really obsessed with numbers). Sometimes, the compulsions are too strong and I can't help but do them. Some days, I am simply not strong enough. You can tell me that drinking water won't make me gain weight, but when I'm in that "compulsion" mode, you aren't going to convince me. It's not because I'm strong, it's because the disorder is strong. Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses. They aren't just about vanity or "getting skinny". I mean, it'll trick you and make you think it is....but it's really not. I often compare my eating disorder to demons from the Bible. I'm not totally convinced that it's not a demon possession sometimes- that's how strong the urges and compulsions are. It's really hard to explain, and it's really hard to try and control.
In a nutshell, that's five things that most people have "no idea" about eating disorders. Some misconceptions and some explanations. I think the key here is grace. Offer grace. Offer support and love, too- but don't forget about grace. Recovery is full of mess ups and slip ups. But, don't give up on us. Don't give up on me. Please.