Eating disorders are very complex and hard to understand unless you have struggled with one. I can only speak about eating disorders from my own knowledge through my experience struggling as well as listening and hearing many other women’s stories. My story is, and will be different from any individual with whom you talk with. Each woman that I have met has had their own unique, individual stories, each different from another. Every person with an eating disorder or other mental illness suffers no matter their physical severity. From personal experience, I am able to define what an eating disorder looks like. A person with an eating disorder is anyone, despite age, race, outward appearance, and gender, who experiences emotional pain and uses food, in any way, to cope with this pain.
To continue, I have received all levels of treatment starting in August 2010, through April 2011. I have a great deal of personal experience which I wish to share. Jenni Schaefer, the author of Life Without Ed, personalizes her eating disorder, by calling it the name; “Ed”. She refers to Ed as her abusive husband that she is getting a divorce from. This technique has been very helpful for me to separate myself from my eating disorder. I like to personify my eating disorder because it helps me to see the difference between what a “healthy me” needs and wants versus what “unhealthy me (Ed)” wants.
There are many stereotypes and images that girls with eating disorders are placed into. The image is a young girl in her late teens, who is severely underweight and chooses not to eat, so that she can lose weight. This image is a familiar, but a somewhat mistaken display of a person struggling with an eating disorder. The disorder involves a much deeper understanding than that depiction represents. Eating disorders involve so much more than just losing weight to be thin. A person with an eating disorder could be the overweight boy in your science class, to the seemingly “perfect” mother of your best friend. Eating disorders do not discriminate and many cannot be detected solely by outward appearance. Eating disorders are very serious illness that causes many deaths in throughout the world each year. Recovery from an eating disorder is a very rewarding possibility, but is a long and difficult process.
Recovering from an eating disorder is not as easy as just eating normal again because there is a complex array of emotions attached to the food. Although emotions may be attached to food, eating disorders are not necessarily about the food. This is where even more confusion and misconceptions about eating disorder’s manifest. Eating disorders do involve food, and a person recovering will have to eat food in order to get better. This disorder is about much more than what a person eats or does not eat. It is about the emotions and feelings that are portrayed through and onto the food. Eating disorders are similar to drug and alcohol addictions because the person suffering tries to numb the feelings and pain they are experience with a substance. In the case of an eating disorder, the substance is food. A person struggling with an eating disorder uses food, their body image, weight, and many other factors to distract and numb themselves from feeling internal emotional pain. Some use their eating disorder as a way to release all the bottled up fear and anxiety. Others damage and abuse their bodies as a way to punish themselves for “failing” at losing weight.
There are many contributing factors to why people have eating disorders; one being an unhealthy mindset. A mindset that I had and still struggle with is called “all or nothing”, or “black and white” thinking. This means that if something does not work out perfectly the way one had planned, then it’s like it didn’t happen at all, and it “failed”. These thoughts are absolute, and extreme. Having this type of thinking makes recovery that much harder, because finding the balance (or gray area) is difficult to discover. Having this thinking can worsen depression, and anxiety because it creates extreme, opposite outcomes that are either perfect (which is rare), or just terrible.
From my experience, I thought that having control over the way I ate, and the way my body looked, I would have control of my life, and control over how much pain I felt. My mindset was definitely wrong and misled. During recovery, I had to accept that I ultimately didn’t have control, but I did have power to make the correct decisions for what my body needed. Controlling body weight through obsession of numbers (calories, pounds, grams, etc) helps to create that false sense of control and perfection in an eating disorder patient. If they get to this certain number on the scale, then they will be accepted, deserving, happy and successful. So in the mind, along with many other non-eating disordered people, losing weight and being thin equals happiness and success. This is a very false notion of the “importance” of being thin, and the media spreads this idea to women and men of all ages.
Another personality trait common in eating disorder patients is selflessness. This is the willingness to help other people no matter the consequences of one’s life. The eating disorder creates a lack of self worth, which in returns makes the person care a great deal for others, that they disregard their own needs. Sensitivity is also very common among eating disordered people. I know that I am very sensitive to any kind of conflict, or argument. This leads to caring a great deal what people think of you, and how you are perceived. Having this trait has made me very vulnerable for Ed to come into my life. Ed took my sensitivity to other people to the extreme and made me constantly compare myself to others, and try to be perfect so everything would work out and be okay as to avoid confrontation. Along with perfectionism, a need for control is common among eating disordered individuals.
Negative thinking is a vital part in keeping the eating disorder active. Unfortunately negative thinking and other emotional pain does not go away easily. Negative thinking includes seeing one’s self in the worst possible way. This is why many people with eating disorders view themselves as “fat” even when they are not. This is called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. BDD, for short, is a disorder that often comes with Ed, in which the outside appearance of oneself is distorted. One will see themselves as “fat” no matter what their weight is. They will see themselves in a very negative way. These are also related to bad body image, which many people, eating-disordered or not, suffer from. Once again, the person suffering from an eating disorder takes this to the extreme, and causes self hate. Self hate only keeps the negative thinking cycle alive. And that cycle of negative thinking, keeps the eating disorder in full force with increased symptom usage.
Eating disorders tend to develop in the teenage years when young women and men feel most vulnerable because of constant change in their life. Change is a part of growing up, and with that comes confusion and ambivalence. This creates room for the eating disorder to take over. Throughout the teenage and even young adult years many people are trying to figure themselves out. It becomes so confusing and easy for some people suffering to turn back to old comforting habits. Eating disorders install a sense of worthlessness in its victims. This lack of self worth can lead to self injury, and even suicide. Many people I have spoken to have suffered from this very serious illness. Luckily they have also received treatment for this.
With all the outrageous diets, and exercise advertisements recklessly thrown around everywhere you look, there’s no doubt that the media plays a part in the development and growth of eating disorders. However, the media is not all to blame. Non-eating disordered patients can participate in a diet and exercise program, and still remain healthy. The difference is that Ed takes it to the extreme. It not all just about wanting to be skinny, or thin, it’s about trying to control your life when you cannot otherwise do. Including the media, there are many other factors that can aid in development and worsening of the eating disorder. Whether it be a parents’ divorce, other addictions, fight with friends, a bad grade, rejection, abandonment, death or abuse; all can be trauma to a person. Each individual experiences their situations in different ways, so if one event is a trauma to a person, it may be nothing to another. All of these traumas can lead to self judgment, negative thinking, and becoming one’s own worst enemy.
We learn a great deal of coping techniques in treatment. We see a therapist, psychologist, and a nutritionist once a week. Depending on which level of treatment, there are also groups run by a therapist. Throughout treatment we learn new coping skills. The eating disorder took most of our coping skills away because we turned to our eating disorder in stressful or painful situations. Some examples of coping skills are reading, drawing, meditation, breathing, crocheting, knitting, or are as simple as picking up the phone to call a friend. Among the many skills and tools that are taught, we also learn about nutrition and how to negate what Ed “tells” us. We need to learn and practice the correct portion sizes of each type of food needed for a balanced diet, and learn how to slowly get back into, or start exercising once we are medically stable. We learn that it’s okay to eat. And that eating a balanced diet will not make us gain a million pounds overnight. There is no “good” or “bad” food, and everything in moderation is okay. It’s also important to separate food from emotions. We could be very angry at a person, and therefore not want to eat. But in recovery, we have to let ourselves feel that anger, and then put it away so that we are able to do what is good for our bodies. Self care is also reincorporated into our lives with help from the professionals. We learn to take care of our bodies and minds, by eating the right portions, allowing flexibility in our life schedule, and not overwhelming self with distractions like work and school. A very important part of us that is lost in the eating disorder is our voice and ability to speak up. In treatment we learn that it’s okay to have and express emotions, and that no feeling is good or bad; only comfortable and uncomfortable. All of this information and knowledge that we gain through treatment may seem very simple and just natural. But an important thing to remember is that our eating disorder was our lives for months and even years. We had neglected ourselves very much and had to re-learn how to take care of ourselves properly.
In the midst of the eating disorder, many people experience physical ramifications of this illness. The damage done to the internal organs could lead to death. It’s very sad to say that, but so very important to realize, so people can get the help they need. Along with the physical effects of the eating disorder, there are many emotional effects including isolation. With many eating disordered people, isolation of one’s self is very common. Losing friends, family, and relationships are results of isolation. A person with Ed dissociates themselves from the people they love, as another way to numb the pain they are feeling. With this, they also lose their own sense of self and voice. This is why recovery is very difficult, because the person suffering has to re-learn to trust not only herself and her beliefs, but other people as well.
Recovery from an eating disorder is a process. In my opinion, recovery is not the destination but the journey. If I wait until I’m recovered and have stopped thinking about Ed to start my life again, then I may never get the chance to do the things I strive to do. But as I go along each day, learning something new about myself, I am able to have insight on what I want, and how to achieve that. Being “recovered” is not my ultimate goal and is not where I strive to be. Yes, it would be nice never to have to think about Ed again and to not struggle with eating disordered thoughts anymore, but I have to be realistic. The media is not going to change; I’m still going to hear about all the new fads of losing weight. The important thing is what I have learned and am still learning on my journey through recovery. I have no idea where this journey will take me, and that’s okay. I am in the process of recovery and am learning so much, and am meeting many amazing people who are shaping my life and who I am. I am not my eating disorder, nor am I the recovered version of my eating disorder. I am Julie who is shaped by her relationships and values in life. Yes, I am struggling with overcoming my eating disorder, I’m not denying that. I am using the concepts and ideas I’ve learned throughout my recovery and the relationships I developed to define myself. Throughout the recovery process we gain back so much more than we lost, and I’m not talking about weight here. We gain healthy organs, a voice, and more friends, family and support than we could ever imagine. Every day is a struggle, and who knows when it will get easier. There is no set point at which I will be recovered right now. I’m still learning and will always continue to do so. It’s the journey of life and recovery that I’m focusing on to help me get through the difficult times.
My experience with an eating disorder will be different from any other person who shares their story. There is no set point, event, or physical trauma that caused me to develop an eating disorder. It was no person’s fault, and I’ve learned it was not mine either. Eating disorders, depression, anxiety are all mental illnesses, and are not chosen by the individual suffering. Although these illnesses have made me and many others feel as if their lives were out of control, in reality, one can gain control back from their eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. The media, sports, dance, my parents’ divorce, losing friends, trying to figure out who I am, my siblings troubles, my picky eating, and many other factors have all contributed in one way or another to my eating disorder. Although I cannot pinpoint the exact date or time when my eating disorder began, I can tell you about some of my internal struggles, which not even my family knew about.
As a child, I was always small and short and I got attention for my appearance. A part of me hated the attention because it made me think of how I was not small enough, and how someone was always smaller. From a young age, I was self conscious of my body. I never voiced this because I was too shy. I was a happy kid, and I loved life and my family and friends. I grew up in a loving and caring family who spent much time together. Despite this, I was a very shy and timid kid in school. I was smart, and did all my work, and learned the material, but didn’t talk very much. I also was never happy with myself, or my work; I could and should have been better. This is the perfectionism that I still struggle with to this day. My perfectionism took the form of “all or nothing” thinking. This developed all throughout my elementary and middle school years, and continued to take the form of depression, anxiety and an eating disorder in which I used food to cope with stressors in my high school years.
As an athlete and a young woman growing up in today’s appearance-obsessed culture, I was constantly comparing myself to others and obsessing about how my body looked. This was a way to distract myself from the confusing pain I felt growing up and trying to figure out what made me; me. All while having so many factors being thrown at me. My picky eating turned into vegetarianism, and I slowly cut other foods from my diet. I damaged and abused my body as a way to punish, and distract myself from my depression and anxiety. It took the form of needing to lose weight, needing to be perfect, and beating myself up for everything I did “wrong”. My eating disorder served an important purpose in my life; a coping mechanism. This was a very unhealthy coping mechanism.
My journey to recovery began with telling my best friend that I thought I had an eating disorder, and that I needed help. Before this I had lost many of my friends due to my sole focus on food, and isolation. I was very lucky to have a supportive friend. With her help, I was able to tell my mom that I wanted to see a therapist. My mother had mentioned before that I should see a therapist because I wouldn’t talk to her, or anyone else. This was in October of 2009. I was very stressed out at this time because of college applications and other stressors in my senior year of high school. I went to see a therapist for about 6 weeks, once a week. This was the first time I had ever talked about my eating disorder and my fears and internal struggles. I hated seeing a therapist because I had to talk about myself, and I didn’t like talking about emotions in general because it made me feel vulnerable. In order to protect myself, and my eating disorder, I stopped going. I was convinced I could recover on my own and that I didn’t need help. At the time I thought this was the best decision because I didn’t feel like therapy was even helping, it only made me feel worse about myself. I wasn’t totally open and honest because I didn’t know how to be; I was still in the depths of my eating disorder, used to hiding and pretending everything was okay. I continued a life full of constant stress from swimming, academics, work, and home life. I lost all sense of hope for myself and completely over worked my mind and body by holding all the internal struggles in. I finally had a breaking point in December 2009. It happened at a swim meet when I had not done my best in a race. That was the last straw after over working myself filling out twelve or more college applications while still achieving straight A’s in school. I started to cry and have an anxiety attack in the locker room, and a former teammate was the only person who could calm me down. My coach and mother were yelling at me, not understanding what was going on and I had tried to leave so I could drive my car into the side-rail and hurt myself. That teammate truly saved my life that night, I was over worked, over whelmed and just couldn’t take anything more. But she told me that it was going to be okay, and stayed with me until I felt better.
After that, I would like to say that I sought treatment, but I didn’t. I continued to run for school secretary, and continue with my eating disorder and stressful life. In late April of 2010, I asked my mom to see a therapist again to help me manage my stress. So I did, but didn’t connect with this therapist, and I was too much introverted to get any benefit out of it. I did not consistently go to therapy and tried to avoid it as much as possible.
In June, I decided it was time to officially tell my mom about my eating disorder and ask for more help. I had researched The Renfrew Center, and I talked to my mom about seeking more treatment, and she helped me set up an assessment appointment. The assessment is still kind of a blur, but it ended up with me getting blood work, an EKG, and contacting my primary care physician so that I could go and pack for residential treatment. I chose to go to treatment against everything my eating disorder was telling me. I had already bought everything for college and was ready to leave for my freshman year, but I knew in the back of my mind that I was not ready, and that I couldn’t survive college with an eating disorder. So I chose treatment over school. It was the hardest decision I have ever made, but the most rewarding.
With my knowledge that I was going to inpatient treatment three days before I would be admitted, that left me with having to leave all my friends without goodbyes as they went off to college. I had told a few of my friends about it right before I was going in, and I was very lucky to have their letters and support.
My journey with residential treatment at Renfrew began on August 9th, 2010, and ended my 25 day stay at treatment on September 3rd. After that, I spent five weeks at the Radnor, Pennsylvania site doing the Day-Intensive-Outpatient program. Then I stepped up to the five times a week Day Treatment program to get more support. After two and a half weeks I stepped down to the night time Intensive Outpatient program which I discharged from on December 23rd, 2010. With all levels of care completed, I was left to just outpatient therapy, nutrition, and psychiatry appointments.
About four to six weeks after I was discharged, I relapsed and stopped therapy. I had told my dad and mom that I was struggling, but not the extent of the situation. I was in a once a week therapy group, where I was really struggling as well. One Thursday night, I was very depressed and did not feel like going on. I told my therapists that I just didn’t feel like living anymore. They called my mother and I ended up telling my mom that I needed help, and did not feel safe. I was in and out of hospitals trying to find some kind of mental treatment because I knew my suicidal thoughts were not okay. I spent three days and four nights in a psychiatric hospital to help deal with my thoughts. After I was out of the hospital around the middle to the end of February, I still had to fight the insurance company to start treatment. Finally in March, when I was stable mentally and physically, I went to another round of day treatment. I continued using symptoms, and thought that I could never recover. I discharged day treatment after 4 weeks, and did not continue treatment. During the beginning of day treatment, I was not doing well. It took me seeing my friends, family, and my new, and first boyfriend suffering because of me. It hurt me so much just to know that my eating disorder was ruining my relationships. With friend’s and family’s help, support, and guidance, I was finally able to start to open up, and lessen my symptoms. In late September, more than a year from when I was discharged from impatient treatment, I could finally say that I had my priorities and goals in place. I was living with my dad and attending community school, and have my love of learning back.
I have been symptom free for about three years now. I decided in January 2012 to finally go away to college and pursue my dream. After completing my first semester, I was accepted into the Bachelor of Science in Nursing at Penn College! I am now in the nursing program and love it! It is very challenging but without ED, I can do anything! I have also started running without Ed again, and it feels amazing!
This long, and emotionally painful, but very rewarding experience has given me my life back. I am no longer just surviving; I am actually living a life. I am finally in the process of achieving my dream of receiving a college degree. The most important things that have come out of treatment are more self-awareness, new coping skills, and the drive I have to accomplish my goals. My eating disorder got in the way of attending college the first time, and I will NEVER let that happen again. With all the professional help, and support I received, I can say this with confidence. Recovering from an eating disorder will be the hardest thing I ever have to do. I will have lapses and I will make mistakes. But most importantly I will learn from each difficult experience and be able to cope with it, and come out stronger in the end. I’m working on building my strength emotionally, physically, and spiritually. From the greatest pains, come the greatest strengths.