February 26th through March 4th. National Eating Disorders Week. A little known week of awareness I’m sure, but one I could not let pass by without some acknowledgment.
20 million women and 10 million men of all ages suffer from an eating disorder. Eating disorders do not discriminate, and every 62 minutes, at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. As a result, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Why do I bring this up? Why do I care so much? Because I am an eating disorder survivor, but, like any addiction, every day is a step in recovery. And I’ll be the first to admit, every day is NOT perfect. Some days I take steps back and fall into the trap of my eating disorder, succumbing to the voice of negativity that exists in my head. Some days, I lose power to the sickness. An eating disorder is an especially tough addiction because you can’t go cold turkey. You cannot cut the trigger, food, out of your life. Well, you can, but that’s what makes this illness so deadly…
To the outside eye, I look every bit as normal as anyone else. I am not gaunt and weak. I maintain a full-time job. I pay my bills. I socialize on the weekends with friends and family. But on the inside, I work really hard every.single.day. to make choices to not let my eating disorder win. And, honestly, it’s really flipping hard and really flipping exhausting. But, it is worth it. I am worth it. I am worth the fight, and so are YOU.
Eating disorders, and addictions in general, hide, and that’s often what makes them so difficult. They are not easy to talk about candidly. They are taboo. Many people see an eating disorder as an act of vanity, a choice a person makes because they want to look a certain way. While some choices early on brought me to this journey, I would never choose to continue on this path. That, I believe, is a common misunderstanding. There’s a physiological and psychological wiring inside of me, and any person with an eating disorder or addiction, that makes it feel impossible to stray from this path. It is more than a choice.
What is a choice, though, is working towards recovery. Medication, regular therapy, journaling, self-care, exercise, family and friends, all of these things take work and effort, but they also make recovery possible.
I hope, that by sharing my story, I am putting a human face to eating disorders. They come with so much shame and hopelessness, but the reality is, we all likely know someone who has been affected by one. Someone who is hiding behind this thinly veiled mask, wishing they could come clean about their personal battle. And if that someone is you, you are never alone. If you don’t think you have anyone in your life to talk to about this, talk to me. I’ve been walking this path for 11 years, and will for the rest of my life. It is a badge, perhaps not of honor, but one that I wear proudly.
I am Katherine. I am a college graduate. I am a Financial Analyst. I am a daughter, sister, aunt, and friend. I am an avid Tar Heel and Panther fan. I am an Instagram fanatic. I am a volunteer. I love Trader Joe’s. I believe walking is a sport. I am so many things, and I wear so many hats.
I am Katherine, and I have an eating disorder. And every day that I am lucky enough to wake up and experience the world once more, I am working to not let my eating disorder overtake me. I am nowhere near perfect in this, but as long as I live, I will try.
It’s midnight on a Wednesday and I have to be up at 6am, but I can’t sleep. It’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week this week, and I feel compelled to write. So many thoughts swim in my head (daily) and this week seemed like the perfect time to put pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard) and let them out. Yes, I know I’ve already discussed my struggle, but one blog post doesn’t encapsulate a years long battle (that I’ve been fighting since 2007).
I’ll tell you straight up, just because I’m willing to talk about my eating disorder, doesn’t mean I’m “cured.” And, quite frankly, I’m tired of this notion that I will be “cured.” That’s not to say I feel that this battle is hopeless and I’ll never overcome, it’s just acknowledging that like any addict, once I reach “sober,” I’ll forever be in recovery. Some days will be harder than others. Some days I will want to slip back to bad habits, but my hope is that I’ll be able to use different coping mechanisms and techniques to get by.
So, like I said, I still struggle. A lot. Some of the most difficult aspects of this disease are that it is often unseen. Of course, when I was severely anorexic both in high school and college that was noticeable, which made people more sympathetic or understanding of my plight. As I sit here with this newly morphed eating disorder (manifesting itself as bulimia), I’m faced with the troubling reality that I look fine. Truly, I do. You’d never know by looking at me that I obsessively think about/panic over every morsel of food that I eat. You’d never know that it takes every ounce of my being not to try to count every calorie that enters and exits my body. You’d never know that I arbitrarily label foods as “good” and “bad,” and that the second I eat something “bad” I through all caution to the wind and eat everything “bad” in sight, just to get rid of it all later. I can’t even bring myself to say the word purge without feeling utterly ashamed and disgusted.
And that’s just it, eating disorders breed so much shame because they’re so wildly misunderstood. We see them depicted on TV as a mere choice a person makes, as if an eating disorder is like a light switch I can turn off and on as I please. Dare I quote Cher Horowitz and say “as if!”
What person would ever choose to live a life such as this?! That’s not to say eating disorders don’t sometimes begin with a choice to lose weight, but what person would really choose to try to lose weight by completely starving themselves or by binging just to purge? That’s just not how it works.
Now, I’m going to sound cocky here, but bear with me. Why would I choose to have an eating disorder? I grew up in a middle class family, living in the suburbs with my married parents, two sisters and a dog. I went to Catholic school. I got a great education, graduated top 10 in my high school class and went on to study at the best university in the country (in my eyes at least – #GDTBATH). I had a post-grad job before I even began my senior year of college. I have amazing friends and have been enriched by many life experiences. Why would I choose the kind of pain that an eating disorder causes? WHY?
Answer: I wouldn’t. Every person is wired differently, and you know what, I was wired in such a way that I have a mental illness. I suffer with gripping anxiety, and it manifests itself through this eating disorder, this need to control something and to be “perfect.”
Let’s quickly pause for a minute here. Can I ask, who the hell decided how we as a society define “perfect?” Because I’d like to have a word with said person. I’m sick of this notion that you’re only perfect if you look and act a certain way. Newsflash: there’s over 7 billion people on this earth. Do you really expect 7 billion people to look like the celebrities we see in magazines? Do we expect every girl & woman to have a thigh gap, big boobs and a flat stomach? Do we expect every boy & man to have a chiseled jaw line and a six-pack? We must be out of our GD minds. But, reality is, it’s everywhere around us. We are perpetuating these toxic beliefs. And every day, women and men are belittled and bullied to believe that unless they look and act a certain way, they are not good enough. I mention men here, too, because newsflash part two, men can (and do!) have eating disorders. There’s no gender discrimination here.
So, I’m wired in such a way that I have an eating disorder. Many people are like me, and often, just like me, you can’t tell just by looking at them. Doesn’t make their problems any less real just because they’re not visible. It’s almost scarier because it makes us easy to hide, easy to get away with not getting help. “Certainly I don’t need to seek treatment if no one even notices I’ve lost weight or have abnormal behavior.” << that is an eating disorder thought, and it’s pure danger.
Another dangerous belief? Thinking this is all about will-power. People think that if you have enough “will-power” to starve yourself or to binge and purge, then certainly all it takes is will-power to stop doing these things. Ha! If only it were that easy. Many addicts know they have problems yet can’t stop on their own. We know the behavior is damaging, yet we continue to do it. It’s not that we lack will-power it’s just that we are sick. We are sick and we need help.
I struggle knowing that my addiction to food is a bit different than an addiction to alcohol or drugs. See, I’m addicted to something my body needs to survive. I can’t just cut food out of my life. That’s not to say my struggle is harder than other addicts (not at all!), it just requires different treatment to tackle. I’ll never be able to go without food, but my god, I long for a day where every my other thought isn’t about the dang stuff and how I look as a result of that dang stuff!
I know this is an overwhelming amount of text. For some people, not only is it too long to read, but the content is too touchy or too personal, and it’s something they can’t relate to. And for those of you who can’t related, I think that’s great because it likely means you yourself don’t have an eating disorder. But, this isn’t something that you can turn a blind eye to just because you’re not personally affected. So many people struggle and never get the help they need and deserve. Some cases are more extreme than others. But most often, people struggle in the darkness, afraid to let go of this control they’ve long sought after. Afraid that getting healthy means admitting defeat and getting fat. For someone with an eating disorder, getting help can be just as scary as dealing with the disease every day.
Most people don’t want to (and won’t) touch mental illnesses with a ten foot pole. We prefer to ignore mental illnesses, because they’re “not that big of a deal” and “just a bunch of crazy people who make their own problems.” Trust me, I’ve heard it all. But mental illnesses, and eating disorders in particular, are no joke. This is not some BS to get attention. This is a disease with a laundry list of health complications and long-term damage (which I’m having to come to terms with myself).
So, I beg of you, don’t pretend that mental illnesses don’t exist. Don’t pretend that eating disorders don’t exist. These are real illnesses and they deserve real attention.
My advice? Seek help. Offer help. Pray for those struggling. Change the conversation about body image. Hell, stop talking about looks altogether! Start the conversation about mental illness and eating disorders. And, most importantly, work hard every day to love yourself because gosh darn it you are WORTH IT.
No one can fight this battle for you, but by no means does that imply that you have to fight it alone. Let this National Eating Disorders Awareness Week be the start to taking back your health and your happiness. Rally for yourself and others knowing that you are never alone.
It always upsets me that there’s such a stigma around mental illnesses, especially as they are so common. Despite the fact that I am upset by this, I still refuse to openly talk about my own battle with mental health, simply because I’m embarrassed and afraid to be judged. Quite the contradiction – I hate the stigma, yet I clearly let it live on by not talking about my own battles.
In the spring of my freshman year of high school (2007), I decided to give up sweets for Lent. Innocent, right? Well one thing led to another and I was no longer avoiding sweets, I was avoiding anything I deemed “unhealthy” and overly restricting my calorie intake. I was exercising excessively and dropping weight extremely quickly.
My poor, sweet friends confronted me with their concerns, and I agreed, I had a problem and told them I would stop. Inside, though, their comments only fueled my fire. I accepted their concerns about my weight as a compliment, and used this to drive me to more weight loss.
As school let out for the summer, I had more or less removed myself from any relationships I had with people. I spent my days working out, restricting food and being utterly miserable. I can still picture the meals I ate. 3/4 of a cup of Special K (no milk of course). A can of tuna (no mayo) with pepper and a sliced tomato. Minimal intake of whatever my mom cooked for dinner. Writing that brings me to tears, because I feel the misery and hopelessness I felt back then. And it’s suffocating.
I vividly remember getting up from a chair by the pool, and blacking out and falling to the ground, because my blood pressure was so low. At my worst, my heart rate was 44 and I weighed 88 pounds. Keep in mind I’m 5 foot 5 inches. Terrifying.
After being told if I didn’t get better (by the 3 doctors I saw each week) that I would be sent to treatment, I had hit rock bottom. And I was able to heal and move forward, with the help of my family and friends and a great team of doctors.
Fast forward to junior year of college (2012-2013). My life felt like it was falling apart. My dad was undergoing chemo, my grandmother was dying of ovarian cancer and I was utterly devastated. I turned back to the control of the eating disorder to avoid the hurt.
I would wake up at 6 am to workout before class. I would barely eat at (delicious!) sorority meals. I blacked out at parties. I removed myself from friends, and I know I scared people. Some sorority sisters of mine reached out to my parents, who once again came to help.
I sought treatment at school and seemed to be getting better. Better enough, in fact, that I moved to LA to complete an internship.
I was doing well, but I missed my parents and sisters. I worried about my body, because I didn’t belong to a gym. I felt out of control, and that’s when the anorexia morphed to bulimia (as it often does). After one particular episode that summer, I ended up in the hospital. You’d think that would be rock bottom, like when a drug addict OD’s, but even that didn’t stop my behavior.
And, to be frank, it still hasn’t. I still struggle. To this day. It has been 8 years, and I know it will be a lifelong struggle. Which scares the bah-jesus out of me.
I’m writing this today, after 8 years in this battle, because I am determined to do something. While I’m still figuring out what that something is, I’m calling on you all for help. Help to remove the stigma around mental health. Help and support as I make my decision for what’s next. Prayers for recovery.
I want to show that I have accepted my problem, and I’m ready to raise awareness and start a dialogue that needs to be started. We as a society have to change, have to stop putting pressure on people to look and act a certain way. We have to stop perpetuating the belief that there is norm we need to prescribe to. There are over 7 billion people on this planet, and I’m damn sure there’s not just one best way for us to look and act.
Yet, while I’m damn sure, I’ve still fallen victim to this belief and I fight a daily battle as a result. And I know I’m not the only one, despite often feeling so alone. So please consider giving in some way, even if it’s just saying a prayer. It all matters. Not just for me, but for the millions of people who suffer.
This is the scariest, most honest piece I’ve ever written. I’m fearful of the judgment I will receive for being so open. But I know, the stigma won’t end without the conversation and, let’s be honest, when do I ever pass up the chance to start a conversation.