Open Talks about Eating Disorder Awareness

It’s pretty fitting that I sat to down to write for NEDA’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week and a fellow eating disorder therapist friend sent me a video of someone eating an apple and drinking water…. While smelling a burger, fries, and coke.

I didn’t have the sound on and I don’t know the ends and outs of the video’s purpose or message. I won’t attack the video because attacking others isn’t the appropriate reaction when we see injustice.

But I do think this video outlines the gross misconceptions we have around food, dieting and eating disorders.

I honestly believe most people are doing the best they can (thanks Brene Brown), but sometimes our best can be harmful to ourselves and others.

When I say that I specialize in eating disorders, people often become uncomfortable.

<Enter crass jokes or awkward subject changes.>

Mental health is a hard topic to discuss. The stigmas attached are deep and wide… and inaccurate. Making mental health a very emotional topic.

I’m not talking about the fact that it makes people cry or get angry. I’m talking about the way our reptilian brain gets triggered and we process following input from others as a threat.

This often leaves conversations surrounding mental health as incomplete, ineffective and hurtful. Which isn’t helpful to those that suffer from mental illness or their loved ones.

We’re all affected by mental health- whether we have a formal diagnosis or not- so it’s important we learn to work through the difficulty surrounding the topic of mental health.

An added layer of complication arises when food, nutrition, exercise, bodies, and health are involved.

In a world of too much information – and faulty information at that, but that’s another post for another day – many people believe they are experts about many things- food/nutrition/health included.

So, the conversation that arises when I say I specialize in treating those with an eating disorder is often extremely complicated and uncomfortable. For me AND the person I’m speaking with.

 Here are few quick truths about eating disorders and ways to challenge yourself when you notice discomfort arising.

Eating Disorders are no laughing matter.

            Eating disorders are extremely serious medical and mental illnesses. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness and require specialized treatment. The recovery process is a long hard-fought battle by the brave warriors that fight every day in a culture that is disordered around food, body and health. They deserve our utmost respect and support. They do not deserve to be the brunt of jokes.

On that note, no one CHOOSES to develop an eating disorder.  Eating disorders are layered and complicated and develop as a result of many biological, psychological, and social factors.  Most of these factors are outside of the control of the person suffering. This is often a fact that many people I see grapple with during treatment- they think the choice they made to restrict or binge or purge or over exercise is the cause of their eating disorder. There is no one cause for an eating disorder.

While eating disorders can be about food and body, they are much deeper and more complex. Body image distortion isn’t a part of every single eating disorder and the thoughts and emotions of each eating disorder isn’t the same.

You cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.

            In a world obsessed with bodies and “health”, we think we can look at someone and know their health status. This includes labels like “she looks anorexic”. That’s not a thing. Any eating disorder expert (therapist, dietitian, physician) will tell you that no matter their level of expertise, they cannot look at someone and just know if they have an eating disorder. If they can’t, neither can the rest of the world.

            We also tend to judge the “sickness” of someone with an eating disorder based on how they look, mostly- are they emaciated? While some people with eating disorders are emaciated from malnourishment, this does not factor into the severity of the eating disorder OR the medical complications involved. Any body type can be in a state of medical compromise due to the medical complications of an eating disorder. Body size and weight does not and should not determine concern or treatment.

ANYONE can develop an eating disorder.

            This point overlaps a little with the previous point that you can’t look at someone and tell if they have an eating disorder, but it’s a point that can’t be mentioned enough! ANYONE can suffer from an eating disorder. People tend to think of eating disorders as anorexia or bulimia through self-induced vomiting. And people think that only adolescent/young adult white girls from middle to upper class homes struggle with these very serious illnesses.

            In one of the first presentations I ever attended on eating disorders, the presenter, who had been treating people with eating disorders for 20 + years, discussed a client that was in their 80’s who had suffered for most of her adult life, but was just now seeking treatment. Eating disorders do not discriminate. No matter what body weight, age, health status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, relationship status, socio-economic status, vocation, level of education, religion, spirituality or background someone has, they could develop at eating disorder.

Eating disorders require specialized treatment and care.

            Eating disorders don’t just “go away”. This can be a hard one to hear because many people will say “I had an eating disorder when I was ______”, implying that they overcame this really complicated medical and mental illness on their own will. When I hear this statement, one of two things come up: you didn’t have a clinical eating disorder OR you are not recovered, but live in the world of “acceptable” disordered eating patterns and behaviors. I don’t mean to be dismissive of anyone’s journey and I’m not saying recovery isn’t possible outside of specialized care. I am saying it is HIGHLY unlikely.

I’ve sat with many people as they have walked through recovery and it is a hard process. I mentioned these people are warriors and that is the best description I can think of to describe the depth of character I see of those in my office. Truly participating in therapy is HARD WORK but add in medical and dietetic appointments and the work is even harder. It’s worth every second. But it’s hard and requires people that truly understand eating disorders, from your providers (therapist, dietitian, doctor, psychiatrist), and those around you.

Need help in determining whether a mental health or medical provider truly understands eating disorders? Check out this post by Certified Eating Disorder Registered Dietitian Sara Upson.

Full Recovery is possible.

            Some people view eating disorders through the lens of addiction and believe that once you have an eating disorder, you always struggle. I don’t believe this to be true. We live in a disordered world, which makes detection of and recovery from eating disorders difficult, BUT full recovery and freedom is possible. I believe the reality of living without an eating disorder is possible for anyone, no matter how severe the eating disorder is. Once again, it takes a lot of effort, time and energy, but it is possible.

            Eating disorders aren’t a choice, but recovery is made up of many daily choices to find freedom from that eating disorder voice living within. People actively engaged in eating disorder treatment and the recovery process must make a multitude of decisions throughout each day. It’s a tiring process and often you’ll never know the inner battle they are having in order to choose recovery throughout each day.

            Recovery is long and tiring, but recovery is worth it and possible, no matter where you (or your loved one) are today.

How can you help?

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you either suffer from an eating disorder, have a loved one that suffers, or are genuinely a caring person that wants to help those around you. And no matter where you are, you can help yourself and those around you!

If you’re suffering from an eating disorder…

  • If you haven’t yet, start treatment today with trained professionals… I encourage you to be diligent in finding a treatment team (therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, doctor) that truly understands and has specialized training. Starting treatment is a big first step and the hardest is making and keeping that first appointment. You can do it!
  • Use this week to find new resources on social media… search #NEDAwareness and #ComeAsYouAre on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook to find eating disorder recovery resources. Also, unfollow anyone you know in real life or virtually that promotes dieting, which complicates your recovery.
  • IF you feel you are in the right place in treatment and recovery, speak up about your experience. This could be through face to face conversation with safe people, a blog, or a post on social media. You decide what feels right for you.
  • Although many people mean well during this week, make sure to be aware of any comments, posts or articles that are triggering. If you notice your eating disorder is being triggered, lean into self-care and your treatment team or safe people around you.

If you are the loved one of someone with an eating disorder…

  • Invest in your own education, no matter how long your loved one has been battling or how much you know. We can always learn more ways to support the ones we love. This may mean reading a new book about eating disorders or re-visiting a conversation with your loved one on how to best support them.
  • Know that this week can be difficult as your loved one’s eating disorder LOVES to twist anything and everything it can to confuse them and keep them trapped in this cycle. Don’t be afraid to lovingly ask how they are doing.
  • Take care of yourself. As you walk with your loved one through their eating disorder, it can take a toll on you. It’s important to balance the care you give to them with how to care well for yourself. We can’t pour into someone from an empty vase.

If you are someone (a lay person or professional) who is interested in helping those with eating disorders…

  • Educate yourself! Be wary of where you gather information on nutrition, food, health, mental health, and eating disorders. I’ve been writing online for a little over a year and I know from experience that ANYONE can literally post ANYTHING. Know where the source is getting their information, know their education, professional background, etc. I’m not saying only people with certain letters behind their name have legitimate information, but just be mindful of what you read. If you need a list of resources, visit my resource page.
  • Seek to extend compassion first. Sometimes in our efforts to help, we want to “understand” logical first, but as humans we primarily need emotional connection first. Whether you are an expert in eating disorders, a student interested in eating disorder treatment, another helping professional, or someone who simply wants to love others well, remind yourself to come from a place of compassion as the journey through eating disorder treatment and recovery is more difficult than we could ever truly know.

The National Eating Disorder Association has dedicated February 25 – March 3 as Eating Disorder Awareness Week Come As You Are. I encourage you to take some time browsing the NEDA website and looking for #NEDAwareness and #ComeAsYouAre on social media.

If you are struggling or have questions today, feel free to shoot me an email or comment on this post!

What else would you want others to know during NEDA’s Eating Disorder Awareness Week?

The Power of Body Shame

I’m struck by the power of body shame when I talk about body/fat acceptance, size dignity, or weight neutrality.

I’ve had conversations recently with loved ones and listened to a reflection on Isaiah 61 by size dignity activist Amanda Martinez Beck that has made me reflect on the power of body shame in our culture.

My loved ones, clients, and the general population are pretty defensive of body shame.

Meaning, they defend that they NEED to feel shame about their body.

It often leaves me feeling frustrated and sad. Because when has shame ever been a good thing?

Most people can verbalize that shame is not productive. They can recognize that shame does not produce positive change or desirable qualities. But when it comes to body shame, most people seem accepting of the shame they feel.

And then it hits me… that’s the essence of shame….

Shame is about the things in our life that we believe make us unworthy. Unworthy of love, of belonging, of connection.

A distinguishing characteristic of shame is that we believe we deserve the shame we feel.

So if we believe we DESERVE the shame, of course we’d feel defensive of the idea that we can put our shame down. If we believe our body is the reason we are unworthy, why in the world would we think we have the right not to experience body shame?

Where does body shame come from?

Once we realize that we feel defensive at the idea of releasing ourselves from body shame and why we feel defensive of that shame, we can begin to explore where that sense of shame is coming from.

And we have to look at the culture around us to understand where body shame originates from, how normalized and even promoted it is.

I talk with people of all different body types and weights and backgrounds and life situations.

And every one of them really struggles to believe that being anything other than thin is a good thing.

From a young age, diet culture has taught us that thin equals healthy and healthy equals acceptable, lovable, worthy.

Diet culture has infiltrated our medical community, mental health community, faith community, schools, homes, and our minds and hearts so that the message of earning worth and value through physical health is everywhere.

If you look at it from this lens, our sense of body shame as a culture makes sense. It feels right. It is justified.

But, there are some pretty big problems with using our physical health, especially our weight, as a marker for our worth and value, but here are a few that stick out to me.

It’s largely out of our control.

Despite what we’ve been taught, our overall physical health is largely out of our control and determined by factors such as genetics, environment, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity.

Yes, we can engage in healthful behaviors, such as getting adequate sleep, moving our bodies, nutrition, self-care, engaging in meaningful relationships, and spirituality, BUT those behaviors do not predict physical health.

As I’m sure we can all think of examples: the thin woman with “superb” health behaviors that develops cancer or the fat man that has no thought of health behaviors that never gets sick and lives into old age.

These examples may seem like the exception rather than rule- and maybe they are- but they are still examples that much of our physical health is out of our control.

It is not linear.

It excludes SO many people.

If a society focuses on physical health as the determining factor for someone’s worthiness, that misses the vast majority of people. Not only people with physical disabilities, but also people with less obvious health issues.

From illnesses like diabetes to irritable bowel syndrome to asthma to miscarriage to infertility to cancer to sleep apnea. If we use physical health based on the thin ideal to judge worth, most of us don’t make the cut.

And that’s a sad world to live in, right?

Where most of the people around us, ourselves included, aren’t worthy of the love and belonging and connection we were designed for.

It demeans us down to one aspect of who we are.

When I talk with people about living anti-diet culture, they often think that I’m saying we shouldn’t care about our bodies or our health doesn’t matter.

What I’m saying is that we are more than our physical makeup and health AND our bodies are beautiful part of who we are as a person.

But it’s just one part.

We’ve been taught to demean our whole selves down to one aspect of who we are. And there’s a part of that I can totally understand. If I believe physical health is the utmost important thing in life and I believe I can control my health through nutrition or exercise, it makes my life a little safer.

Life is messy and unpredictable and uncomfortable.

It’s natural that we look for ways to make it a little less so. But when we attempt to make life safer through “securing” our worth by achieving “optimal” physical health, we are missing the beauty in the messiness and we are missing beautiful pieces of who we are as a people.

It negates emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health.

Our bodies were created in the most beautiful, intricately connected ways by God. Our physical health is one beautiful aspect of our body. But when we glorify our physical health over our emotional, mental, social, and spiritual health, we’re missing big and we’re setting ourselves up for heartache.

Our health is not just one aspect, but an intricately connected and designed orchestration of different systems in our lives. We do ourselves, and our neighbors, a large injustice when we accept such a narrow definition of health and wholeness.

In addition, when we put physical health as superior to our other forms of health, those other forms suffer.

In the name of physical health, I have found that emotional, mental, social, and even spiritual health suffer as we pursue blindly towards an arbitrary standard of physical health.

It is not congruent with the Gospel message.

The idea that our worth is based on anything in this physical world isn’t congruent with the Gospel. This is a hard one for me to swallow. Because I know I’m a sinner. I know I’m flawed beyond comprehension.

But what I know to be true and cannot argue with is that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 NIV

The Gospel tells me that even though I am flawed and sinner, Jesus came and died for me. He would not have died for me if I wasn’t worthy of that kind of love.

Because I was made in HIS image, there is a divine piece of me in the midst of my fallen human nature that made me worthy enough in His eyes to die that terrible, cruel death.

The Gospel tells me that this is true for ALL people.

The Gospel tells US all that we are worthy because we are made in the image of God- even when we sin and fall short.

Taking back the power from body shame

As Brene Brown says, you cannot become resistant to shame. We do not “arrive” and no longer feel shame, but we can become resilient and learn how to live through our shame well.

We can learn to name our shame and respond to it in a way in which we don’t grab onto it and allow it to overwhelm us and drive our lives.

We can learn to see it, name it, reach out to loved ones, and engage in self care so we can better love ourselves and better love our neighbors.

We can learn to see our whole health as more than the things we get right or the things we get wrong.

We can learn to see our worth as more than our physical health.

If you are on this journey and you find that others around you defend their own need (or someone’s else need) to feel body shame…

If you find yourself wanting to defend your own sense of body shame for how your body or physical health is….

respond with grace,

respond with compassion,

respond with love.

Because that, my friend, is the message of the Gospel.

The Light of Sunday

The light of Sunday breaks across the day.

Sunday is here. We can take a deep breath.

2,000 years later we wake on Sunday and we KNOW what this day means… we know that this is the morning where Jesus waltzed out of hell, with the key swinging at his side.

We know that this is the morning that his apparent defeat became the greatest victory of all time.

But they didn’t know. His mother, his disciples, his loved ones, his family, his followers… they didn’t know.

They woke to another day without him.

They woke to another day of confusion and grief and sorrow and fear. They woke to a day full of so much emotion.

The women went to the tomb in preparation to anoint Jesus’ dead body. They went to grieve and pay respects.

Instead, they heard the most glorious words that have ever been spoken, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” Matthew 28:5 NIV

Imagine the rush of conflicting emotion the women must have felt!

The dawn and light of Sunday morning

With the dawn of Sunday morning came a newness that we won’t know again until Jesus comes.

With the dawn of Sunday morning came the answer to the events of that darkest dark Friday.

With the dawn of Sunday morning came the sweetest shift in the fabric of the world.

Jesus is risen.

He suffered the darkest dark of Friday, so the light of Sunday could break across the day and change the course of all mankind.

Because of that Sunday, the victory that feels like is never coming is already here.

No matter how you feel this morning- whether you bask in the good news or feel complacent or feel downright sad/angry/confused, the victory is here. HE is here.

The gift of this victory lives with us daily, whether or not we feel or see or experience him.

The Gift

He left us with the Holy Spirit- a wonderful, majestic, mysterious piece of himself.

We may know that Jesus left us the Holy Spirit, but do we really know what a gift he really is?

I didn’t, but I’m learning. I’m learning that the breath of the Holy Spirit is active and all around me. I’m learning the power of the Holy Spirit to move my soul and shake the fabric of my world.

I don’t always see him, though. I don’t always open myself to him. It’s risky, to open my awareness, my heart, my soul to him. I never know what he’ll say or do. I never know what he’ll show me.

It’s always deep, rich, raw.

And sometimes I get stuck in the darkness of Friday. Sometimes I stay stuck in the space after the Cross. But the truth is that I live in the dawn of Sunday morning.

We all do.

We all live awash in the reality of the gift that Jesus loved us so much that he suffered Friday- so he could conquer Friday and show us his scars on Sunday.

Living in the light of Sunday

What does it actually mean to experience the Holy Spirit? To live in Sunday?

The misnomer that it means we are happy all the time and experience no difficulty- no questions, no uncertainty, no pain, no fear is a severe distortion from Satan.

I like to look at Peter for an example of what it looks like to allow the Holy Spirit into your heart and soul.

One of the most tender, compassionate, grace filled moments comes when the angel tells the women to “Go tell the disciples and Peter”. Mark 16:7

Can you IMAGINE how dark Friday has been for Peter? Can you imagine the depth of shame and sorrow and regret and torment he is experiencing?

He loved Jesus so fiercely he literally cut off someone’s ear- while facing an army, mind you. But then hours later, he denied not only this fierce love, but he denied even remotely knowing Jesus- THREE TIMES.

The shame that he felt must have been crushing.

But the angel, at the request of Jesus, makes sure to point out “go tell Peter”. I think he needed that good news more than any of them. And I think Jesus was giving us an example of his tender mercy.

Our darkness can feel like it’s snatching us away from him, but it can’t. He truly is bigger and stronger.

His love, his grace is bigger and stronger and deeper than our darkness. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that. And that’s okay.

He’s there to gently remind you, just like he did with Peter.

Your darkness is not bigger than his light.

He still has the key to hell. He still conquered Satan. His gift is STILL good.

Don’t pretend your darkness doesn’t exist- that’s not what he wants.

What he does want is for you to look at the light of his face.

Because you will the see the blinding light of love that is overwhelming.

Let’s follow Peter so we see an example how to live. Most people love Peter because we all identify with him. His life after the gift of Jesus’ resurrection didn’t mean he no longer struggled.

It changed him. Later in Scripture, we see him, boldly speaking hard truth to the same men that crucified Jesus. We see him performing miracles. We see him boldly living life for God.

It doesn’t mean that Peter became perfect, sinless, or perpetually happy.

It means that he allowed Jesus to lead him into places that he wouldn’t naturally go on his own. Not only physical places, but emotional, mental, spiritual places.

Places that must have been scary and shame inducing.

The places Peter went aren’t the places you will go. That’s okay and it doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t truly living in you. It doesn’t mean you aren’t living in Sunday. The truth is, no matter your location, your emotion, your experience, your circumstance, your behavior- you are living in Sunday.

Because He is Risen. And the Holy Spirit is here.

So, when you’re overwhelmed, remember him.

When you’re stuck in your darkness, remember him.

When you’re rejoicing, remember him.

Whatever emotion or experience you are in, remember him.

Living in the light of Sunday means we make space to see him, to focus on him despite the war that is raging around us. Despite the darkness, living in Sunday means he’s here, in spite of sin and shame and death, he’s here.

No matter what your darkness, He won. The light of his victory is brighter than your darkness could ever begin to be.

Today and for all eternity.

Happy Easter, my friend. No matter what emotion you wake with today, know that the victory has been won and the gift is here so that he can stand beside you and say;

“In this world, you will have trouble, but take heart!

I have overcome the world!”

John 16:33 NIV