A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Disorders
A little while ago, I wrote an article on self-harm; it’s one I’d been thinking about for a while, in terms of some mild myth-busting on common thought patterns and cultural stereotypes that surround people who deal with self-injurous behaviour. But truly, the further I get into my eating disorder recovery, the more clear it becomes to me that the amount of bullshit rotating around the idea of what an eating disorder is and what people who have them look, sound, and act like is so catastrophically high that someone needs to do something about it. And, in the absence of anyone else in my immediate household (apart from my exceptionally talented cat, a respected journaliste and authoress who I would be LUCKY to host on this here humble blog, if her rates were not so prohibitively yet justifiably high), I figured I would do that. Let’s get to it! (trigger warn for discussion of eating disordered behaviour)
- Eating Disorders Revolve Around Weight Loss
Would you like to hear something that legitimately blew my mind when I found it out? Most people in recovery from bulimia actually lose weight compared to when they were disordered. I think that, culturally, there’s this idea that to be eating disordered is to be consistently losing weight – which, frankly, is just wrong in so many ways. Not only does that notion assume that anorexia and other restriction-centric EDs are the only ones that exist, but it basically sidelines anyone who is struggling with disordered eating until they can lose “enough” weight to “qualify” as sick. If there was one misconception about eating disorders that I could wipe from the face of the Earth for good, it would be this one. People at any weight can have an eating disorder which is having serious repurcussions for their health, both long and short term, and limiting our acknowledgement of these deadly illnesses to a specific size or body shape is a catastrophically bad idea.
2. Eating Disorders are Driven By a Need to Lose Weight/Look Better
Okay, this might just sound like the same thing as above phrased in a different sentence, but hear me out. There’s no doubt that a culture that venerates thinness as much as the one that I live in has some impact on the development of eating disorders, but if eating disorders were truly powered by the engine of weight loss. “improved” physical appearance, and nothing more, they’d be a hell of a lot easier to handle. My eating disorder was about control and de-feminizing myself after being victimized by a sex crime; when I find myself triggered into old, bad habits, it’s not because I have suddenly decided I’m fat and need to lose weight, but because I feel like I am out of control and this is my go-to way to regain it. Trauma and eating disorders have shown close clinical ties, and to suggest that EDs spring from an urge to alter the external alone is just missing so much of the suffering that really comes with these illnesses. If it was about vanity, I would have stopped around the point my hair started falling out and my fingernails were peeling off.
3. Weight Gain is Synonymous to Recovery
Oh, I wish this was the case. One of the hardest things about recovery is that it is equated to simply gaining weight. And don’t get me wrong, weight restoration can be an important part of recovery for some people, but it’s not indicative that the fight is over. Eating disorders are a mental illness with physical symptoms, and that means that recovery doesn’t actually take place until the mental side of things has been dealt with.
4. Underweight People Are the Only “Really” Sick Ones
For a start, let’s kick this out of the way – telling people that they have to reach a certain weight to be considered properly ill is just begging people with eating disorders to continue in their behaviour until they get to that weight, and that is just so stupidly irresponsible that I don’t know where to start. Oh, okay, actually, I do – let’s look at some statistics, shall we? People with Binge Eating Disorder or bulimia are one and a half times more likely to die than their non-disordered peers. People with bulimia who use vomiting as a means of purging are at risk for serious heart problems (including heart attacks, including fatal ones) due to electrolyte imbalances, as well as losing their teeth and puncturing their esophagus due to erosion caused by stomach acid. People with anorexic behaviours can suffer malnutrition, organ damage, and permanent weakening of the bones even without reaching an underweight size. Eating disorders don’t give a shit what size you are – the health problems are going to kick your ass anyway, and you can still drop dead from an eating disorder regardless of the size of your waist.
5. Eating Disordered People Only Have One Disorder
Oh my God, is this one so wrong. Almost everyone I know whose had an eating disorder has bounced around diagnoses over the years. From months of starving to months of bingeing to months of purging to try and burn it all off again, eating disorders morph and change over the course of a lifetime, often serving as a coping mechanism that shifts in service as the sufferer shifts along with it. And it’s one of the reasons that eating disordered people usually spend such a significant time in recovery; even if a hospital stay or other acute medical treatment might be just a few weeks, EDs can warp into something different that requires a whole different plan of attack to handle.
If you’re dealing with an eating disorder, or have lived with one before, what are some other myths you’d like to see busted? Let me know in the comments. Oh, and also, please take care of yourselves as best you can – my inbox is always open if you want to talk, and I am always here to listen if you need to vent to someone who’s been there.