What I’m about to share is an unedited version of my first attempt to express my views on eating disorders… what they really are and how we can talk about them differently.
I wrote this because I have an opportunity to share this (more edited message) at Ignite Cardiff in a five minute talk. The five minute version is less wordy 🙂
I love this version though and want to share it with you.
When I was 19, I was a sophomore in college, taking a course called the Psychology of Adolescence, and I heard about a category of psychological problems that fell under the term ‘Eating Disorders’. I learned about anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive eating.
At the time, I was competing in college cross-country and track. Being a college athlete is a big deal. You train 5 days a week, 2-3 hours per day, compete on Saturdays, and Sunday, as opposed to being a day of rest, is a day to fit in a 10-12 miles in 60-80 min; you do the math.
Running, or your sport, becomes your life. It becomes your identity.
And with that identity, is an expectation to perform, otherwise, you’re off the team.
And with that expectation, came another one, that I would have to look like her in order to perform.
I clearly didn’t. Aside from the few extra inches I had on her and the more robust thighs that lacked the muscle definition I strived to obtain, it clearly wasn’t easy for me. I think my face gives that away. 🙂
But it’s true. Running wasn’t easy for me. There were times I loved it, but most of the time it was an effort, a chore, but I stuck with it because it gave me something I was after.
As a runner, I was disciplined, fit, had a cute ass, an automatic community.
This gave me something more: Love. Acceptance.
And I’d be damned if I was going to lose that just because I couldn’t complete a 5k in under 18:30.
And so I fought for it.
And when the miles I put in wasn’t enough, I looked for other solutions.
Thank you professor who enlightened me in such a timely fashion that there was another solution. I now had options to get results with my body that I was convinced would get me results on the track, and give me the love I was looking for.
I had always been very careful about what I ate since highschool, since running wasn’t easy for me then either and part of my eventual success came after I lost 5 lbs. In highschool I cut out all fat from my diet. I was famous for my bagel and lettuce sandwiches at lunch when everyone else was eating fried chicken cutlets.
So in college, there wasn’t much more I could cut out of my diet.
Plus, I love food! I always have.
And I was attending a college with it’s dining halls competing with 5 star restaurants in terms of quality and variety of food.
So I had this internal tug of war going on. Tempted by the abundance of food around me, yet fearing that if I ate it, I would put on weight, which would mean I couldn’t keep up in my sport, which would mean I would then be left with nothing.
So thanks to the course I was taking, I found a way to have my cake and eat it too.
And thanks to the DSM guidelines, I knew that so long as I didn’t binge and purge every week for 3 months in a row, I wouldn’t have anything wrong with me, because I wouldn’t have fit the definition of a bulimic.
So I dabbled.
You hear eating disorders being talked about as mental illnesses. And I ask myself, was I mentally ill?
When I think back to when my bulimic behaviours started, I look at a girl who was problem solving and found a solution. I see someone who was resourceful. I see someone who’s spirit was broken, and who picked a solution that served her at the time, but quickly got out of control.
I don’t see the illness. I don’t derangement or abnormality of function; a morbid physical or mental state.
I see a girl who was seeking love, and did everything in power to try to ensure that she would have it.
How is that different to you?
For the past 18 months, I have been asked and have been answering the question, how did you get over an eating disorder?
Simply put: I found a way to love me.
I found a way to let go of expectations for my life.
Silence the shame about who I was believing I was.
And face the fears of rejection, failure, loneliness.
I got to know myself. My true identity. All facets of me and accept them, own them, and start to make choices that reflected me.
I don’t deny that at my worst, I was living a very disordered life with disordered eating patterns. I would sneak eat my roommate’s food (aka stealing), I would buy food fantasizing about the binge I’d have later (self-sabatoge), and on a few occasions I would call in sick to work when I just didn’t have the willpower to face the world I was living in (that’s called depression).
But here’s the thing, to label an accumulation of thoughts and behaviours that add up to anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating and call it a disorder, sickness, mental illness, we are buying into the accepted approach that victimizes, and robs the average person of their own power to know themselves best.
To use words like inpatient, treatment centers, ‘get better’, perpetuates the belief of the person who is asking for help… that there is something wrong with them.
There is nothing wrong with someone who is seeking love.
There is nothing wrong with someone who experiences fear, who wonders if they are enough as they are, and who attempts to carve out their place in the world.
It’s called being human.
There’d be something wrong with someone if they didn’t. It’s called psychotic.
What is the difference between the woman who goes on a 3 day juicing cleanse to fit into her dress for her friends wedding, only to gorge herself at the cake table on the day, from someone who is considered bulimic?
What is the difference between the man who has a mid-life crisis at 40 and leaves his family to run off with another woman who he thinks will bring him the joy and happiness he’s looking for, than the girl her starves herself, because she thinks that will bring her the joy and happiness she is looking for?
Or the woman who eats to comfort a pain, and overeats to protect herself from being physically attractive and subjected to further harassment, than the person who spends their free time at the bar, masking their own pain and hiding their true self from the world.
I’m asking you to see, that there is no difference.
To call an eating disorder a mental illness is to say that we are all mentally ill.
We all want to experience love, and we will do crazy things to force that outcome. Some are more socially acceptable than others. Some are more physically harmful to ourselves than others.
My plea is to stop de-humanizing an eating disorder by calling it an illness, a disorder.
Understand that a person choosing those behaviours, has had their identity shaken and so they are trying to live up to expectations so they can control what their identity is. They have fallen prey to the forces of fear and shame, and their disordered behaviour with food is a symptom.
Just like alcohol, just like drugs, it is their way of coping. Of finding a way out of the version of hell they are living in.
Let’s stop labelling people by their symptoms. Let’s reach out and connect with each other to find out what is really going on.
Let’s show up with love.
Because that is what we are all searching for in the first place.