For those of us who have never had an eating disorder it can be hard to understand the grip that diseases such as anorexia and bulimia have on young women’s minds. This week I would like to share a piece of writing that brings clear insight. Written by a 20-year-old woman whose anorexia and bulimia have brought her to the brink many times, it takes us right to the heart of what it means to have an eating disorder. I first met this talented young Sydney woman through my work with Enlighten, and I feel fortunate to have developed a real connection with her since. She is soon to leave hospital after spending time in treatment, and everyone at Enlighten sends her love, health, hope and peace.
Welcome to the Wasteland
If you could read my mind you would know how we see ourselves. Pathetic. Stupid. Ugly. Disgusting. Worthless. Useless. Fat. Lazy. Gluttonous. I could go on.
Yet others, when asked, will describe us with words we never imagined to be synonymous with ourselves. Witty. Intelligent. Together. In control. Hard working. High achieving. Compassionate. Energetic. Creative. Enthusiastic. Happy.
Welcome to the wasteland of eating disorders – contradictory in almost every way, and the epitome of self loathing. It is a world where nothing makes sense, basic requirements for human life are marked with a scarlet “DENIED” stamp and having nothing means everything. Where going down means you go up, and going up means you go down – low. It’s a place where frightened children fall into a mirror which shatters before they can escape. And where “leave me alone” actually means “please help me.”
It’s a reality carefully denied by those in its grips, and carelessly denied by those without the knowledge, experience or desire to understand. It’s an illness which affects not only those it physically hurts but almost every single person who comes into contact with that person. It’s a parasite which infects our minds and reprograms them, before we can possibly comprehend what a monster we’ve unleashed.
It’s a place where you have to watch someone fall. And fall. And fall. And fall. And often, there’s very little you can do to help them. Watching someone collapse doesn’t guarantee they’ve had their fall yet and “looking well” is merely a sign that someone is hiding their disease well. Running on empty doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve run out of fuel.
Welcome to our show – stage makeup, false smiles and all – where you’ll hold your breath and be gripping the edge of your seat as you watch us teeter on the tightrope, playing chicken. However, it’s a disease where all too often we lose our footing and we do make our spectacular final descent to earth, ending up 6 feet under. It’s up to those left behind to wonder if they could have done anything different to catch us. It leaves those of us in the grips of this illness wondering if we’re going next, or completely denying that we’re even on the tightrope.
Our community is unlike any other. We band together in mateship, each strongly denying our own illness, only to turn around and engage in exactly what we are most afraid of our friends doing. We accuse others of being irrational, frustrating and even psychotic – yet simultaneously we delude ourselves into believing that “one more time won’t hurt,” when we are in fact swiftly killing our spirits, and ourselves, and it’s only by the grace of Someone who is watching over us – or sheer fortune – that we’re still here today. We bitch about how awful our friends’ treatment teams are, but silently pray they will save them. We inadvertently collude with a friend’s disease before realising that we don’t want anyone else to be up to their necks in our hot water. No doubt our disease has also asked, even expected, others to collude with us in our scheming, planning and plotting.
We have moments of clarity, followed by moments of despair, quickly followed by denial. In that order. We would sell our mothers, our children, our lovers, for there to be silence in our heads. We dream of food, think of food, are obsessed with and possessed by food, and at the same time wave plates away with our hands and hold our breath walking past McDonalds. We eat carrot sticks in public, spending our nights eating everything in the pantry then acting out gut-wrenching, throat-shredding compensatory behaviours, which rip our bodies and minds apart. Or we’ve got the “normal eating” in public down pat yet eat nothing but soy sauce and vegemite at home, or spit out our food when no one is watching.
In recovery we take baby steps, chastising ourselves for never being the “best” at recovery. We swing between believing we need help, not wanting help, denying we need help and not feeling as though we deserve help. And back. We get up and run, crash headlong into an obstacle and lie on the ground crying. If we pick ourselves back up, we crawl, tentative, scared, knowing that it’s safe but anxious to stand up lest we crash back down to earth. We give up. We stand up and fight again. We leave treatment centres and psychologists on a whim – and regret our decision the minute we’re out the door. We take a few adult steps. We crawl again. Then we learn that things need to be taken slowly and consistently, and that even if we fall, we have the practice and, after years of doing this, the muscle tone in our knobbly, wobbly legs to actually support us.
We get frustrated. We scream. We take our unrepentant rage out on ourselves. We temporarily forget all we know about the damage we so easily inflict on ourselves and, desperate for a moment of control, fall back to our own ways. We come to terms with the damage that we’ve done – with psychologists, doctors, psychiatrists, dietitians, dentists, friends, family – and then turn around and point blank deny it. Or the truth hits us square in the eyes, and we regret everything. We swear we’ll never do it again, that we won’t make it any worse. We think “I seriously didn’t expect that to happen” even though we can recite the complications of eating disorders backwards. We end up close to dying, with all evidence before us, and repeatedly deny that we are so much as ill.
We say sorry over and over. Sorry for taking up so much space. Sorry for getting in your way. Sorry for voicing an opinion. Sorry for saying no. Sorry for saying yes. Sorry for thinking. Sorry for eating. Sorry for breathing. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Yet we can change to our eating disordered selves and back without so much as a breath.
We cling to childish ideas of recovery, of finding a cure, of fairytale “and they lived happily ever after” endings. We acknowledge that we will have to work hard to achieve our idealised state of recovery, but when the going gets tough we baulk. We begin once again to listen to the voice in our heads that convinces us that we’re not sick, or, in times of negotiation, that we’re simply “not sick enough”. We pin up fairy wands in our hospital rooms and pretend to be positive when in reality we don’t feel like we will ever escape the chokehold of this disease alive.
We can remember every minute detail of our week’s food intake and the calorie content of food we’d never so much as touch, and can recite our meal plans in our sleep. Yet sometimes we can’t remember what day it is. We live in a world where intelligence is measured by how many people we can deceive, rather than what we achieve.
Welcome to the wasteland of anorexia and bulimia.
Early intervention is key to treating an eating disorder. If you are concerned that your daughter or a girl close to you may be at risk, a good starting point is your GP, who can refer her to a relevant specialist. For older teens especially, it may be easier said than done to seek professional help. If she does not accept treatment, try to keep the lines of communication open; let her know that you are there to offer support and help her get treatment if she changes her mind.
You may find it helpful to know some of the signs that can point towards an eating disorder:
• Extreme dieting, such as cutting out entire food groups or skipping meals
• Weight loss or gain
• Obsession with appearance or weight
• Loss of menstrual periods or disrupted menstrual cycle
• Sensitivity to the cold
• Faintness, dizziness, fatigue
• Anxiety, depression, irritability or an increase in mood swings
• Withdrawing from friends and family
• An increased interest in preparing food for other people
• Food rituals such as eating certain foods on certain days
• Wearing baggier clothes
• Exercising to an excessive degree
• Frequent excuses for not eating
• Eating slowly, rearranging food on the plate or using other strategies to eat less, such as eating with a teaspoon
• Eating quickly
• Stockpiling food in her bedroom
• Food disappearing from the pantry
• Frequent trips to the bathroom after meals
For more information on eating disorders visit:
The Butterfly Foundation: http://www.thebutterflyfoundation.org.au/
Eating Disorders Victoria: http://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/
or US site Something Fishy: http://www.something-fishy.org/