Sunday, 7 September 2014

"But you don't look like you have an eating disorder...?"

Eating disorders exist. Eating disorders exist all around you. Just because you haven't met someone who 'screams' eating disorder doesn't mean that you have never met someone struggling with one. In fact, I know very few (if any) people who I would think 'eating disorder' as soon as I saw them. For one, why should that define them and for another, what makes you think that they give a damn about what they weigh anyway? In thinking that you can identify who does and who does not have an eating disorder, you are actually saying that you think there is something wrong in what a person looks like or what they eat. Stop. Any issue is so much more complex than what goes on at surface level.

So many men and women are on a 'diet' of some kind, whether this is to bulk up or slim down or something else entirely. Only a handful of people seem to be happy in themselves and what they look like and I wonder why this is? Why is it that, in an economy which is supposed to be so 'advanced', is no one happy? Perhaps we're scared we can't moderate ourselves, perhaps things are too available, perhaps we're worried that everyone around us is judging us and we're too afraid of making a mistake that, we fear, will ruin everything.

I don't even think that slightly covers the thoughts that go around our heads when we're trying to sleep at night or alone in ourselves during the day. Even writing that, I felt my heart flutter a little and my chest tighten. Fear does seem to be a very real, very existing factor in society and I'm not sure why.

When you say 'eating disorder', the common response is to wonder about anorexia, followed by bulimia, which doesn't even touch upon the plethora of eating disorders - not to mention disordered eating and thoughts - that exist in the world today and, contrary to what is popular belief, eating disorders are not 'first world prolems'. They exist in every economy. While people with lighter skin might want to make themselves darker, well, this happens both ways around. This isn't just a superficial, silly teenage problem. This is a big deal and it is affecting both boys and girls who are older and getting younger and younger, while they are still growing, and it can leave damage that exists beyond the naked eye, and they'll have to live with that damage forever. And if that doesn't scare you, I don't know what will.

For a long time I was told that I was 'too fat' to have an eating disorder. I wasn't told those words exactly but I could tell by the looks, and by the fact that, when, five years into having issues with food, I lost quite a bit of weight, and that was the first time that anybody listened to the fact I had a very real struggle with food. Apparently making yourself sick all the time, away from the gaze of others and in a hidden toilet block, is, and I quote, 'attention-seeking' and being 'manipulative'. If everyone got the same response that I did, I very much worry for the world.

I had bulimia for four years. After four years, the behaviours of this changed into an undefined label, that of EDNOS - which usually sounds like a fumbled cough, I think, when you say it, as no one has heard of EDNOS, even though it is the category of eating disorders which has one of the highest death rates. It's not easy to categorise. EDNOS can encompass all kinds of eating disordered behaviours - you can be restricting your intake but still have your periods (I'm not sure if this has now been taken out of the DSM) or still be in a normal or overweight weight range, you could engage in bingeing and purging less than twice a week, you could purge without bingeing, you could eat random things (pica), you could have an obsession with health food; orthorexia, or an obsession with being muscular; bigarexia... I hope I've got all these facts right - if I haven't please let me know - but even accepting this, EDNOS seems like a pretty big category, does it not?

For a second, let me tell you about my experience with an eating disorder... and let me start by telling you how hard it is to admit I have an eating disorder, or disordered eating, even now, and it's been many years. It's a lot better now than it has been but the thoughts are still there and sometimes, you do wonder if they will ever go away. However, I do now have better support around me and more self-awareness. Bar about six slip-ups, I have not made myself sick for around two years. I have not taken laxatives for a few months, I have stopped weighing and looking at the calories of everything I eat and writing them down in a book. I can go out for meals with friends and order the 'scary' thing on the menu or have a dessert without panicking too much or having to purge it afterwards.

That said, I am still picking up the pieces of a very real problem that affected my life and, though it is more complicated because of other forms of self-destruction and things like depression, the eating was definitely an issue in itself. I had to have an endoscopy because I tore my stomach lining and am on omeprazole a lot of the time because I have thin stomach lining due to acid erosion. I have lost two teeth and have experienced chronic toothache that people passed off as 'stress' because of purging (and because people pass off your problems as stress if you have had mental health problems, but this is another entry entirely). I still binge sometimes and I still can over-exercise. I have to see a physio about the fact I've overdone it on my knees with exercise. I am constantly anaemic due to my periods messing about. I continue to nurse a caffeine and diet drink addiction that I feel scared of stopping. I do choose exercise over seeing friends quite a lot and sometimes am overwhelmed by the food I have occassionally and can end up purging. At the height, my pupils were continually dilating and constricting, my electrolytes were completely out of balance, my breath was appalling, my tongue was furry, I had to have a sit-down or a break on a 10 minute walk to a lecture. I was never underweight. I never had a straightforward eating disorder - whatever the hell that means. I never had any of these things but I still have effects that continue to this day and I never thought it would happen to me. I thought that maybe it wasn't real, I wasn't damaging my body in this way, I'd somehow miss being affected. I don't know, maybe I thought I was untouchable in a weird sense. I don't think that now.

I just want to ask you, please, not to judge someone who has any type of issue with food, whether it's behaviours, thoughts and no behaviours... whatever it is, to listen to them. Support them. Believe them. Don't think anyone's attention-seeking or manipulative and if they do want attention - why? Why can't they get it in any other way? Why is food such a crutch? Just knowing that someone is there, unfailingly there for you, means the world. If you are struggling reach out. Even if you get knocked down by someone who doesn't [want to] understand, there will be someone else out there who will try to. It's okay to admit that you have a problem, just as it is okay to be okay. It is okay to be whatever you are, which is usually a mix of both. Just don't do yourself down because someone else says that how you are is not okay. Don't judge someone according to what you see, don't assume someone is 'lazy'. Believe in them because they might not believe in themselves very much. And never be afraid of speaking out or coming forward, because you might empower someone else to, or you might get the support you deserve. To round this off, take care, okay?

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