Body Image,  Eating Disorder Recovery,  Support Your Loved One

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?

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