In observance of NEDA Awareness Week, this year’s theme being Let’s Talk, I wanted to do just that. I feel there is no better way to address this topic than to make it as straightforward as possible.
We have made so much progress on mental illness recognition. Depression and anxiety are becoming less taboo, a slow but steady process. However, other mental illnesses, some of which are even deadlier than depression or anxiety, are still stigmatized in assumptions and shame.
Eating disorders aren’t easy to talk about or face, but as we allow silence to take control, we not only lose control of ourselves in the midst of a hard fight, but also lose control in any sort of progress in making the topic more approachable and widely understood. We still see eating disorders as underweight, privileged white teenage girls staring at fashion magazines dying to be model thin. A choice. Just another diet fad.
While I fit a lot of that stereotype, I’m here to share that never once did I choose to spend my life struggling. Never did I plan to spend my high school and early college years mentally distant from actually enjoying my life.
On the rare occasion that school addressed eating disorders in a health class setting, never did I associate myself with that. I don’t throw up my food. I don’t starve myself, I eat at every meal. I don’t envy fashion models or actresses. Heck, I’m not even thin enough to have one.
So we have people of any gender, size or ethnicity left struggling without even realizing it or feeling validated enough to seek help. Even those who seek help may be turned away based on their arbitrary BMI number or personal background. People actively wanting to get better and never being able to because eating disorders are not easily fought alone. Isolation allows them to thrive. Silence is replaced with actual food as a disorder’s nourishment. Even those who go through treatment, we still judge their apparent healthy weight and assume everything is cured, disregarding that eating disorders are mental illnesses with physical ramifications, not the other way around.
Eating disorders are not a one-size-fits-all disease. Their symptoms manifest differently for everyone. Some turn to restriction, or over-exercise, or obsession with “health,” or a fragile cycle of restriction, binge, and/or purging.
Eating disorders don’t like runway models or artsy blog photos. They look like thinning, dry hair. They are aching, pounding heartbeats simply from climbing a flight of stairs. They are a stream of consciousness of strictly numbers and measurements and sizes. They are sobbing after spending hours staring in the mirror and seeing a reflection that’s “fat.” They are shivering in all temperatures and losing circulation just from crossing your legs. They are a need for perfection that will never be satisfied. They are drinking gross Ensure shakes usually meant for nursing homes. They are universal pain for every loved one trying to help you. They are fears of simply eating a rich dessert without taking hours to do so. They are the inability to exercise without it spiraling out of control of excessive calorie burning. They are panic attacks just eating with another person. They are losing any sense of hunger or satiation. They are blindness to the fact that your skinny jeans barely stay on your waist. They are a constant urge for self-destruction.
If you haven’t guessed it already, those are just a few of the experiences I’ve faced in my life, a years’ long battle with anorexia. I cannot even speak for those with other demons, but I would not wish it upon anybody. They are ugly. They are damaging. And while a lot of people only have one incident and recover back with little issues, others are genetically prone to always be on the edge. That’s me. I can always envision going back to those habits. I still constantly notice other people’s bodies and how they look. I still cannot step on a scale or stick to moderate exercise without getting antsy. I’m still working on my perfectionism, as well as my relationship with my body and food. It’s an everyday battle. It’s a conscious choice every morning to do the best I can, however that may look.
And while I still face my demons, I want to emphasize the need to bring light to them. If we truly want to combat eating disorders, we cannot make them cookie-cutter. They can affect anybody. They are mental illnesses with severe, deadly consequences.
If you’ve never had an eating disorder, they are very complicated and hard to really understand. But you can still be aware of them, allow an open dialogue to be discuss them, and use your words wisely regarding health and body image. A little act of kindness can make a huge impact.
And if you’re struggling right now, reach out. You don’t have to fight alone, no matter how isolating the disorder feels. I know I will always be an open heart ready to care for everybody I can. But most importantly, TALK.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie