There is much guidance and information about eating disorders just from the click of a button. Research, social media, maybe information from a friend or family, a celebrity or just common knowledge, may lead people to believe they know what encapsulates an eating disorder. Perhaps within someone’s world, that will suffice as they or others around them may never be touched by such a complex and devastating condition. However, with an estimated 1.2 million people (BEAT, 2021) just in the UK thought to be affected, it is hard to believe that we won’t meet someone during our lifetime that will be suffering with an eating disorder.
More awareness is starting to rise, and certain misconceptions are beginning to be challenged. Eating disorders do not discriminate. Many may know that an eating disorder is not just a teenage girl phase, striving for attention. Eating disorders affect all genders, at any age. They are not diets gone wrong nor about vanity or attention seeking. An eating disorder is not a choice, but a serious and complex mental health condition. There are certain risk factors that might predispose someone to develop an eating disorder, however the onset is usually a combination of psychological, biological, and sociological factors.
Reading and research may support understanding of what an eating disorder is and how they present; however, the true secrets of living with an eating disorder and understanding the significant turmoil that they create can only be understood from living with one or sharing deeply intimate years with people who have suffered. There are many different types of eating disorders and even within the same one, everyone’s experience will vary as every single person is unique, so will be their experience. There may be common features and similarities, but each person will have a different story to tell. As eating disorders are not just about food, but ways of managing emotions and gaining control within one’s life, the recovery from one is a difficult process where healthier coping strategies need to be found to replace the function of the eating disorder, and an exploration of why it began in the first place.
Most people will feel ambivalent about recovery for this reason. The eating disorder serves as a comfort, a safety from the world, and the emotions that the world has given through relationships and experiences. Taking away an eating disorder means having to experience those once numbed feelings that could have been replaced with countless hours counting calories, exercising, binging, purging, self-harming, ruminating about body weight and size, desperately trying to gain control in a somewhat uncontrollable cycle.
Many people living with an eating disorder might never want anyone to know about some of the irrational thoughts and compulsive routines that feature in their lives. For example, someone with anorexia may struggle breathing in the aroma of cooking food fearing it might be absorbed into the body resulting in weight gain or tarnishing the feeling of cleanliness. Or the fear of not wanting to take pain relief either because of not feeling deserving or of worrying it might affect salt intake, in turn affecting fluid balance and weight, or blood results. However, that’s just it. For people struggling amid an eating disorder, this does not feel irrational. It is an intense fear of losing control. Certain routines form safety and can become a dominating factor within daily life inhibiting normal functioning ability to participate in the world and expand outside of the eating disorder.
Recovery is difficult. It is not linear, and it is not a magic one-fits all fix. The process is never ending and despite someone being at a certain stage of recovery, might not necessarily mean that eating butter is a walk in the park, or that being left alone with food in the house is easy, or being invited out for an occasion, or going food shopping, or knowing that stressful significant events or triggers can make recovery seem impossible. Don’t be offended if someone seems rude when a group of women may be talking about dieting, this is difficult to hear. Recovery is not based on the size of someone’s body, or their weight, so comments on this can be detrimental. Hearing others make negative comments of other people’s bodies might cause someone trying to recover to internalise this and lower their self-esteem about their own. Just because someone is a healthy weight, does not equate to being recovered. The mind and body are often at different stages. It is not a personal attack or awkwardness for someone to make their own meal or refuse dessert, this might be the only way someone can manage to get through the day whilst battling the thoughts that arise. Mealtimes are stressful whatever type of eating disorder or disordered eating they may be suffering with. Just because yesterday was okay, does not mean tomorrow will be plain sailing.
Living with an eating disorder is all consuming, constantly overwhelming, exhausting, boring, and confusing. It seldom sleeps and never wants to be forgotten. An eating disorder can be a lonely road teamed with feelings of shame and guilt which often inhibit healthy communication. The form of self-expression is usually internal and can sometimes be reflected through behaviour or at times demonstrated by pain through the body. At the heart of an eating disorder is often the feeling of not being good enough, and this can take time to slowing explore the root of this belief, as we are not born feeling this way. Recovery means different things to different people, but it is long and difficult, but in every story, I have ever heard, there is always hope. Recovery is possible and it is always worth it.