Eating disorder awareness is finally beginning to emerge from the dark ages. But we still have a long way to go before fatphobia and societal idealization of appearance and thinness become things of the past.
This is, in part, thanks to the most decorated Olympic USA cross-country skier in history, Jessie Diggins. She won the first female gold medal with teammate Kikkan Randall in the Olympics in Pyeongchang in 2018.
Jessie speaks openly about her struggles with bulimia from when she was 19 years old. She graciously thanks her family, the USA ski team, and the Emily Program for saving her life, and helping her recover so that she could come back and win gold. My skin gets goosebumps all over when I think about this, knowing I could have been in her shoes had I gotten treatment earlier for my anorexia.
I developed anorexia when I was 20 years-old. This was after a childhood of severe OCD and over-exercising, which were keeping the memories of sexual abuse at bay.
At 20, when my health declined rapidly and I lost my ability to digest food and exercise, I lost my coping skill (numbing out through exercise), and I reached for another (food restriction). The Mayo Clinic dismissed me, and I was told that my 30lb unintentional weight-loss, as an already small person, was not significant enough to be concerned about. However, I had just lost my only way to stay sane, so it did concern me!
I spent another 10 years trying to eat food, ultimately ending in getting very sick to my stomach. I slowly gave up fighting to be well because it seemed like a losing battle. Eventually the restriction gained its own OCD flavor, and I developed food rules that I couldn’t disobey.
The number one thing I want my family and friends to know about eating disorders is that they are not a choice.
It may seem as simple as “just eating,” or “just not throwing up.” But deeply ingrained beliefs and fears are behind those behaviors. These fears are survival skills that once kept us alive in the face of adversary.
Restricting food, binging and purging, over-exercising, clean eating, and abusing diuretics and laxatives are all seen as choices someone with an eating disorder is making. But in reality, most people struggling with an eating disorder don’t have a choice in how these behaviors play out in everyday life.
These behaviors can become rules that the person must obey, or else something terrible could happen. Sometimes that “terrible thing that might happen” is weight gain. But again, fear of being fat usually hides something deeper. This includes fear of abandonment, loss of love and connection, unworthiness, loss of control, and of being powerless.
I haven’t chosen to struggle with anorexia for 12 ½ years, losing my career as a cross-country skier, losing my dream of competing in the Olympics, losing friends and a family member to fatal eating disorders, lying to people I care most about, and damaging my body that I once held with such reverence.
Not everyone’s eating disorder stems from insecurities and lack of self-confidence. Mine, as well as many others’, stems from a traumatic childhood and poor health.
I was abused starting at age four and continuing throughout childhood. I finally freed myself from my last abuser in 2013 with the help of my service dog.
The eating disorders that are responses to trauma are the most difficult to recover from.
This is because usually the behavior has become twisted in the mind as a safety mechanism, when really it is killing the person.
This is really hard to understand for someone not living with an eating disorder. Starving oneself looks like an act of destruction from the outside. But on the inside it feels like it is the only thing keeping me afloat.
Please be kind to people struggling with eating disorders. Please do not comment on their weight, shape, size, how they look, their health status, what they are eating, or not eating. Whatever you say could be twisted against the person with the disorder.
A kind-hearted “wow you look better!” could be twisted to sound like you’re saying “you look fatter.” It’s a tricky dance to say the right thing. Even if your heart is in the right place, you’re gonna slip up, and that is okay.
It’s safer to comment on your experience of the person instead of their appearance. For instance, saying things like, “you are so much more present now,” or “you are more alive,” and “I am enjoying being with you right now,” get the message across that the person is more fun when healthy, without triggering the fears of the disorder.
I have been to many treatment centers, and what I’ve learned from them is that oftentimes Treatment centers butt heads with people’s eating disorders. Far too often, the center assumes that the patient’s eating disorder is trying to get away with something. Sometimes the person is actually suffering and not being tended to appropriately.
I have had many experiences at treatment when I wasn’t listened to regarding medical concerns, and I wound up hospitalized upon discharging from the center because the staff didn’t listen.
Listen to the person who is actively struggling.
If their behaviors seem to be “attention-seeking,” consider the notion that this human is longing for connection, love, support, and help. If you step back from judging the person for their behaviors, it becomes clear that the act is a white flag of surrender, a shout for help, a cry in the dark. Maybe someone will hear.
If looking for higher levels of care, learn from my mistakes and DO YOUR RESEARCH before you send your loved one to a program. Once admitted, everything about your life is in their hands. Treatment centers save so many lives, and so many people do recover. There definitely is hope, and the sooner the person gets help, the better the chances of a full recovery.
Me saying eating disorders are not choices doesn’t mean I’m excusing my behaviors and saying it’s okay.
What I am saying is there is a reason behind these seemingly nonsensical behaviors that cut deeper than simply appearance. I work every day to recover, to wait longer before I binge at night, to restrict less than the day before, and to avoid triggers. And yet, I still struggle every day of my life.
There is nothing more I want in life than to recover. I gave up my dream of being an Olympian long ago. And I gave up my dream of being a nurse, a mom, a wife, a successful human. I might do these things some day, assuming I survive.
But today, I’m grateful that my family and friends know that despite what I may look like on the outside, I am working my butt off to survive. I enjoy being with them, laughing, and having enough energy to be fully present.
Recovery is hard work, and takes every ounce of energy. Whether it looks like what you thought recovery would look like or not, isn’t what matters. Your life matters though, and your happiness matters too.
So please be patient with those struggling with eating disorders.
Step back from your fears, judgements, anger, and defense mechanisms. And ask your loved one who is struggling what they need from you. Do they need you to call a treatment center, or do they need you to simply listen while they talk, or cry?
And remember, the sooner you treat the disorder, the better the chances of recovery.