February 23 through March 1, 2014 is Eating Disorder Awareness Week. This being the middle of that week, I thought it was an appropriate time to write a little bit about a topic that is very near to my heart and worthy of attention. I cannot speak for anyone else, and nothing I say should be considered expertise. I can only speak from personal experience and from what I have learned from my own struggles and those of people I have struggled with.
One of the main issues I have with the usual attention brought up when discussing eating disorders is the role of society and the media. Yes, the images young girls are fed from an early age of what a beautiful woman should look like do play a role, but they are just a small piece of the pie. I know for a fact that all eating disorders are about control. Control over one's life, surroundings, experiences and of course, one's body. When everything else in life seems to be spinning out of control, it is easy to focus on the one thing that we do have control over: our physical shape and more specifically, what we choose to put into our bodies. It is a way of deflecting a bigger problem, whether consciously or not, into a seemingly more manageable issue.
The problem is, once an eating disorder begins and the sufferer becomes malnourished, whether from starvation, frequent purging, or binging on nutrient poor foods, the brain becomes less able to process information. A vicious cycle then ensues in which the sufferer cannot focus on anything, so they feel more out of control and perpetuate the disorder. When someone is in the throes of a severe eating disorder it is also impossible to see themselves clearly in the mirror so even though someone may look unhealthy to an outside observer, they themselves truly do see a different image. One interesting trick that I have found helpful, even to this day, is to look at a photo, or even a mirror image of yourself from the neck down. We are much less critical of others and if you think of the body as belonging to someone else, chances are you can view yourself as others would, and hopefully treat yourself and your body more kindly.
While any number of factors may cause an eating disorder, the first step in treatment is always the same. Although it is hard to admit when you are in the depths of disordered thinking, the most important thing is to repair the physical body. I hated this fact and fought it tooth and nail, but until I started to eat again during my many attempts at treatment, it was impossible to even begin to tackle the emotional underpinnings of my disorder. It wasn't until many years later, years of normal eating and recovery, that I began to understand what started me down that painful road in the first place. And I know for me, someone who was thin to begin with, it had very little to do with wanting to look like some perfect image of myself. It had to do with my soul, and searching for my place in the world. Luckily I got the help I needed so that I can now fulfill that desire.
Chances are you or someone you know and care deeply about has suffered or is currently struggling with an eating disorder. The majority of eating disorders in this country go completely untreated and that is truly a shame. They can destroy lives, and in severe cases, even end them. So take the time this week especially to educate yourself and those you care about. Here are a few helpful links to get you started:
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