Thursday, 25 February 2016

5 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Eating Disorders

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week! As you guys know, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when I was 14. I was 'recovered' by 16, and body positive by 21, but there are so many things I've learnt about EDs, even my own, in the last year alone. So I thought I'd take this opportunity to tear down some myths, to reassure some of my fellow warriors, and spread some truth. And if you'd like to read more about my personal journey, you can do that here!

1. They come in all shapes and sizes

I bet when you read the word anorexia up there, a body type instantly sprang to your mind. It's the same body type that 99% of us would think of. But what if I told you that body type doesn't have much to do with eating disorders at all?

Eating disorders are a mental illness, and only some sufferers experience the physical symptom of extreme weight loss. In fact, the majority of people who suffer from EDs are never underweight at all. And I know a lot of you are probably thinking 'uhmmmm how is that possible?'

It's possible because a person can experience preoccupation with food, obsession with their weight and appearance, exercise addiction, extreme dietary restriction, binging, purging, and so many other forms of disordered eating at ANY weight. I have a friend who according to BMI is 'obese', and according to BMI she was 'overweight' a little while ago. Around that time she was starving herself, obsessively working out on serious injuries, she was self harming, she was suicidal, and she was admitted to hospital for exhaustion and malnourishment. But because she was 'overweight' the whole time, everyone insisted that she was just on a diet. That she'd just taken it a bit far that day. That she was definitely still trying to do the right thing in losing the weight. For her health. Because, y'know, screw mental health.

Dani (@chooselifewarrior), now campaigns for ED awareness at every size, and every single day she has her experience invalidated. I can't count the number of times she's been called a liar, or the amount of abuse she receives that would risk triggering any ED survivor into a relapse. All because of our narrow idea of what an eating disorder is. And lord knows how many people we push over the edge because they don't meet the criteria.

2. Weight restored does not mean mentally recovered

After I was 'recovered' (read: weight restored), I spent about a year on a bathroom scales rollercoaster, with my weight skyrocketing up higher than ever, before plummeting back down to barely 'restored' numbers. And the way down looked like this: extreme caloric restriction (often less than 800 a day), extreme over exercising (often more than 2 hours a day), obsession with weighing myself (often more than 3 times a day), constant preoccupation with food, constant preoccupation with my appearance, refusal to eat around people, secrecy and fear and addiction. What do all those things sound like to you?

They are an eating disorder.

But because I was no longer underweight, nobody called it that. Nobody took me for treatment (that stopped as soon as I reached a 'normal' BMI). Nobody considered that actually I was still desperately trying to claw my way out of anorexia, with the added demons of binge eating disorder to battle as well. Because I no longer looked like the emaciated figure of anorexia we all picture, I was fine...

I was far from fine.

But it's something that we're not supposed to talk about. As soon as I wasn't 'visibly' anorexic anymore, people just assumed I was healthy. I was thrown right back into a world filled with diet talk and beauty standards and perfect body expectations, but my head had barely left the recovery station.

And I want all of my fellow ED warriors out there to know that it's okay to not be okay, despite people assuming that you should be. You are not a failure, you are not alone. Your mind has been completely ravished by an utterly devastating mental illness, and it's okay not to feel fully recovered just because you're no longer underweight. It's not that simple. You still deserve recognition, support, patience, and a full recovery, no matter what your body looks like.

3. They have nothing to do with not liking food

"Go and eat a cheeseburger!"
"She looks like she needs a good meal!"
"Why don't you just eat more?"

We've all heard them. Ignorant comments that reduce eating disorders to simply fussy eating or diets gone too far. Eating disorders are complex, multi-dimensional illnesses, influenced by thousands of factors. Not a fierce dislike for chocolate cake or an aversion to the taste of pasta. Stop belittling a disease with a 4% mortality rate. Or better yet - stop telling women what to eat and what their bodies should look like.

4. The reasons why are all around us

In 1999, Harvard researchers published the results of a study on body image conducted in Fiji. Before 1995, eating disorders in Fiji were unheard of, and the cultural standard of beauty traditionally favoured a fuller figure. In 1995 TV was introduced to Fiji. And within 3 years 74% of girls reported feeling "too big or fat", and 15% of them were bulimic. 

Of course the media is not the sole cause of eating disorders, but the saturation of diet culture that stems from it, the idealisation of unattainable body types, the cultural obsession with thinness and the societally perpetuated idea that women are bodies first and humans second, has one hell of a huge part to play.

And if there is one thing that's not to blame for your eating disorder, it's you. You never deserved this, and none of it is your fault, and recognising that is crucial to your recovery and to developing a body positive outlook. If you still believe that you're to blame, please read this.

5. There IS such a thing as fully recovered

At the height of my eating disorder I was placed into a youth psychiatric unit. And one of the first things that was said to me there was this:

"You know you'll never fully recover, you'll struggle with this for the rest of your life."

Maybe that would help some people, but to me it sounded like a death sentence. It stripped me of what little, fragile hope I had. Why even attempt to fight the hardest battle of my life, if I could never win?

I wish that person could see me now. I wish I could show them how hard I fought, how many tears I shed, how many demons I overpowered and how much self hatred I overcame. I wish I could show them that recovery IS possible. But since I can't show them, at least I can show all of you.

So please, never give up on yourself, little warrior. You are so much stronger than you'll ever know, and you CAN beat this. You can be free. Who knows, you might even become a body positive badass who falls in love with every inch of her chubby recovered body. Anything is possible. Recovery is possible, I promise.