“How many evenings did I stand in the middle of grocery store aisle, paralyzed with fear and indecision? It's not just the time I regret; it's the loss of who I might have been if I wasn't so consumed. It's who I might have loved, how I might have lived, what I might have accomplished. I might have been a force to be reckoned with.”
― Harriet Brown, Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession with Weight--and What We Can Do about It
How many times in the past week has your weight or appearance directly affected your mood or outlook? How many times in the past week have you deliberately tried to restrict your nutritional intake in order to change your body? How many times in the past week have you exercised in order to change your appearance? These are 3 questions that I have answered many times during treatment, I think they are something to do with accessing quite how anorexic I was. But in reality, give a woman or man deemed ‘healthy’ these exact same questions and I bet they’d admit (if truthful) that these were relevant to them. So, when does this become a problem? When did I go from just a weight conscious young woman to full blown anorexic? When is a penchant for healthy eating and regular exercise not a positive way of life, but an issue that needs to be addressed? The theme of this years eating disorder awareness week is early intervention, a noble and important topic, yes. One I often receive messages about “I’m worried about my girlfriend/friend/sister/brother/colleague/daughter/boyfriend, how do I know if this is a problem or just a normal phase?” My answer, in general, is that if you suspect something, it’s probably an issue and if it’s an issue, it must be dealt with. All well and good, but dealing with it isn’t always as easy as you may think. You suspect you have a PHYSICAL illness, you go the doctors, tests are run, they are positive or negative, you are treated. You suspect you or a loved one has an eating disorder. You have to admit it, or get the person in question to agree that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with, you then need to make an appointment and get the medical professional who sees you to agree there is an issue. You then need to be referred to a specialist, the time in which this takes is usually determined by how ‘sick’, or more honestly how ‘thin’ you are. A fabulous message to be sending ‘the more weight you lose, the more seriously we will take you’. Wonderful! A disease which often strikes the overachievers, competitive, perfectionists of this World…tell them they’ve gotta be better anorexics before they even get a look in?! By the time you reach the top of the list and are ready to be seen, it’s more than likely the monster has its claws more deeply embedded into the brain. Why is this? How, in a developed society can we genuinely only allow someone treatment when they are critically ill? The problem, I believe, lies in 2 main camps.
1. People think anorexia is a choice. They may not admit it. They may say they know it’s not, but hey, I still feel stupid for the fact that I got ill. I still apologize for the years I spent starving myself. If I still blame myself, how can I expect other people to recognize that in reality, anorexia is caused by an imbalance of brain chemistry and circumstance? I didn’t choose to stop eating because I thought it would be fun. I didn’t lose my identity, freedom and body for shits and giggles, I was ill.
2. We live in a society where weight obsession is normal. Now, this point may seem confusing and to be totally dismissing what I said earlier. I am not saying anorexia is the same as going on the paleo diet, what I am saying is that it’s far harder to recognize whether someone is sick or just another food and weight obsessed individual. I struggle to tell the difference in myself and others. God, I workout, I am conscious of what I eat and I am celebrated for this. I celebrate it in myself. I take pride in my strength, but in reality, is this just a more acceptable form of disordered behavior? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone could give me a definitive answer, and there lies the problem. In a World where we are constantly faced with people’s determination to lose weight, where our friend’s referring to their ‘flabby belly’ is normal, where we all seem to order the SKINNY latte, where the majority of those around me read the back of the packet, where there are thousands of apps to track our intake and outgoings of calories and exercise…how are we to distinguish between anorexia and ‘health’ obsession? I am lucky, I am still closely monitored and have space to talk about and workout whether my behavior is ‘healthy’ or ‘disordered’, most do not. I got away with anorexia for a very long time, so it was difficult for me to know when things were out of hand and difficult for those around me to know when it was a problem.
So, there lies the problem, but simply presenting a problem is futile and unhelpful. The solution? It’s going to take a while, but I’d say what I always say to those who question whether behavior is healthy or disordered…if it’s a question, it’s probably an issue. If you feel immense guilt for not managing something, the sort of guilt that can ruin your day and consume you, it’s an issue. If you are totally inflexible with your calories, macros, fat etc and have no reason to be so (and by reason, I mean medical influence or if you’re a PROFESSIONAL athlete), then it’s an issue. I ask myself these questions daily, I am often asked by others, both those who knew me when I was sick and those who know me now. I recognize the issues and deal with them, I don’t deny them as I once did. I would urge anyone who is struggling or concerned about another to seek help and advice. I am willing to answer ANY questions, but I am not a health care professional, I’m simply someone who has struggled with anorexia, but that does not mean I know all the answers or that I can connect to everyone’s stories. We are all different. One thing I do know is that no one deserves to be trapped in a World where they are consumed by self hatred and calorie counting. We all deserve more. Happiness does NOT lie in extreme thinness and it definitely doesn’t lie in an eating disorder. Help others to help themselves. Start that conversation and let them know you are there.