Kendall Baker recently wrote an article that inspired questions about what an eating disorder is. It’s a difficult disorder to understand and challenging from the standpoint that with other “addiction” type mental illnesses because you can’t abstain from food. One has to eat to survive. Michelle posted a question and these two young ladies answered it.
My name is Carly and I’ve been in recovery from an eating disorder for almost 6 years now. I struggled with anorexia as well and still have a difficult time explaining it.
It’s almost as if there is another person in your head who is fighting to control your life if that makes sense. You want so desperately to be able to eat and not have negative thoughts, but the anxiety around eating is so overwhelming that it’s sometimes easier to just not eat.
It’s a battle between wanting recovery but also wanting to soothe the overwhelming anxiety by not eating.
I wanted so desperately to be able to be “normal” and not have thoughts around food but at the same time fighting those thoughts was exhausting and brought up a lot of anxiety, along with the depression that most people suffering ED have. Again, it’s a very complicated mental illness that has a lot of different parts to it.
As someone who struggles with an ED, I definitely heard friends and family show impatience only thinly veiled, “if you want to recover, why don’t you just eat?” And although every case is different, I’d like to mention a couple of points. My explanation is not exhaustive by any stretch, but I want to mention some things that I feel often get left out when this discussion arises.
One of the things that makes EDs unique are that they are both physical and mental illnesses. Anxiety and thought distortions, especially around food often exist before the disorder gets into high gear, but once a person’s physiology starts to be effected by starvation, malnutrition or other unhealthy eating patterns, certain biological and survival mechanisms come into play.
I’d recommend anyone interested in how starvation can effect even a healthy brain, reference the Minnesota Starvation Experiment led by Ancel Keyes. Done almost eighty years ago, it shows how disruption one’s food and intake can make even healthy men crazy, food-obsessed, delusional, irrational, and worse. Furthermore, once these subjects were re-fed, later interviews hinted the profound impact of the experiment on some of them, even decades later.
I bring this up because starvation literally changes the way one thinks, and it isn’t as simple as, “Oh, I’m eating again” to reverse these changes. In general, the longer one can normalize one’s habits, the better the chances are of healing the neuro-circuitry. Modern day conventions of insurance and healthcare don’t always practically or financially allow for the support needed for long enough to heal some of the neuro/biological changes that can affect a person when an ED is at play.
Two, and this comes from a more personal note, you can want recovery from an ED very badly. However, food is something that permeates almost every aspect of the world we live in. Substance disorders often preach abstinence, but how does one implement that with food? What is too little, too much, too often, not enough? And to deal with that cycle, that dance, three times a day, every day? There is no respite.
One literally must have constant vigilance not only against one’s own anxious and distorted thoughts, but anxiety caused by biological reasons, not to mention society’s prejudices and assumptions about food and dieting, availability and affordability of food, cultural and religious implications of feast and famine and celebrations. Those of us who are lucky are able to keep most of these in check and between internal and external resources, can push through.
For myself, I want recovery, but also know that I need support at almost all meals in order to do so, which isn’t feasible. So I do my best, but get exhausted. Give up once or twice. And once or twice is all it takes for the ED to clench on, full force. Should I have been more vigilant? Perhaps.
But I am human, and fallible, and I cannot fault myself for that, but it doesn’t answer the question of how to shake myself free of thoughts and behaviors once they start to reappear. Imagine that internal battle day after day. Year after year. The strongest of us keep fighting. Some of us get weary and ask what the point in fighting is.