Welcome to NEDA Week 2014. This is a week long observance, organized by the National Eating Disorders Association, aims to spread awareness, debunk myths, and create support around the issue of eating disorders. It’s a vital initiative, not only for those of us who have had eating disorders/disordered eating, but for anyone who wants to better understand these incredibly prevalent illnesses. One of the biggest misconceptions about eating disorders is that they only apply to a small and extreme number of cases. Nothing could be further from the truth. A couple of notable statistics:
- Nearly 20 million women and 10 million men will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their life
- The incidence of bulimia in women ages 10-39 tripled between 1988 and 1993
- Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness
- Nearly 3% of the American population suffers from Binge Eating Disorder (BED) at some point. Of them, approximately 60% are female and 40% are male
- 57% of people with BED never receive treatment, although BED is the most common type of eating disorder
For more facts and figures, you can check out NEDA’s collection of infographics here.
It’s easy to read statistics like these and feel discouraged, but NEDA week always gives me a renewed sense of hope. I see awareness building, creative efforts to combat the media factors that fuel disordered eating, and (this is really good news) more acknowledgment that there is no one particular size, shape, or experience that defines an ED. Only a decade ago, it seemed as though EDs were associated primarily with anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Today, I see tremendous efforts to enhance public understanding of BED and eating disorders not as specified (EDNOS). This more comprehensive viewpoint can only be to the good.
This week, as in years past, I’ll be taking a break from business as usual and focusing on EDs in my posts. If this isn’t your jam, please feel no pressure to read on. I realize that EDs aren’t a topic of interest to all of my readers, and that’s OK. In about five days, it’ll be back to business as usual with recipes, weekend reading, and some fun recaps of my trip to LA this week. For those readers who are interested, I hope that you’ll take something positive away from these posts, and perhaps even share your point of view in the comments. Everyone in this community is here to listen. If you’re struggling with an ED/recovery, but you’d rather not read on, that’s fine, too. It can be triggering to focus on these topics, and that’s the last thing I want.
NEDA week is devoted to creating awareness about the the experience of having an ED, but it’s also about celebrating recovery, and recovery is what I’d like to talk about tonight. I’m often asked by readers and clients where the motivation to recover comes from. When the patterns and rituals and rhythms of an ED feel so comfortable–when they seem, however deceptively, to give meaning and order to our lives–how do we find it in ourselves to sail into the uncharted waters of recovery? How do we venture someplace new, when it feels so tempting to stay where we are? I have some thoughts. Keep in mind that I’m not a treatment professional, nor can I speak for any experience but my own.
I’ve had three major ED bouts: one as a young teen, one during college, one in my early twenties. It was my final attempt at recovery that stuck; in the past, I’d always gone through the motions of recovery (embodied primarily in gaining weight) in order to deflect others’ alarm. Because I wasn’t approaching recovery with a genuine desire to heal, I still struggled with food in between the periods that I identify as “disordered”: I’d restrict, overeat when the exhaustion from restricting got to be too much, or find some way to obsess about food/exercise. My final relapse finally gave me the motivation I needed to commit to the recovery process. Here are some of the realizations that helped to push me forward. Perhaps they’ll be helpful to you, too.
1. Recovery can save your life.
I guess this is the most obvious reason to pursue recovery: eating disorders are life threatening. It’s true literally, and I think it’s also true on a figurative level, if we define “life” as a whole, rich, and robust existence, rather than the often narrow experience of an ED.
The problem is that it’s possible for us to rationalize, deny, or ignore how physically vulnerable EDs make us. I had hallmark symptoms of EDs (amenorrhea, frequent cold, hair loss) during two of my bouts, but I also had a certain image in my mind of what a really sick person looked like, and she wasn’t me. I was too energetic, I thought (ignoring how tired I often felt), too engaged in my life (ignoring the many nights I’d say no to friends because I didn’t want to have to eat in a restaurant, order a drink, skip a workout), and–most important–not thin enough. I was in denial about how underweight I was, but I also assumed, mistakenly, that only the most extreme kind of emaciation posed any physical risk. And because I was able to function, it was easy to ignore other signs that something was wrong: the fact that climbing a flight of stairs made me winded and left my heart pounding in my chest, the fact that I huddled on my dorm room radiator between classes to keep warm, the fact that hunger pains often kept me awake at night.
Some ED cases do cause immediate physical symptoms and/or health deterioration. But even if you don’t experience something urgent, it’s important to remember that, sooner or later, disordered eating is likely to have a significant impact on your health. Consequences of disordered eating can include digestive distress (IBS, constipation, heartburn), hormonal imbalances, osteopenia or osteoperosis, electrolyte imbalance, muscle loss, and metabolic disruption. It may take quite some time for these kinds of symptoms to emerge, but the risk is real. By choosing to seek treatment for your ED, you can help to protect your body from any further damage, and correct whatever impact the disorder has already had.
Yesterday, Heather mentioned in the comments section that there is a new book examining the relationship between nutrient adequacy and recovery. It’s worth mentioning, while we’re on that topic, that nearly all kinds of eating disorders leave one susceptible to significant nutrient gaps or deficiencies. Recovery, especially if it includes nutrient dense foods, gives us the chance to restore some of these losses. Anyone who has been through the process can attest to how good it feels to be truly nourished after any period of imbalanced or restrictive eating.
2. Recovery can give you freedom.
Don’t get me wrong: recovery demands a lot of work. But my worst day of recovery was still less of a struggle than the best day of my eating disorder. Looking back on those days now, I’m amazed at the sheer effort it all demanded: the obsessive planning, the calorie counting, the macronutrient pie charts, the kitchen scale. All those hours I spent on the elliptical machine. It was such an undertaking, this highly disciplined existence.
Recovery gave me a break from the energy expenditure. It wasn’t immediate, and at the beginning the challenges of recovery eclipsed the advantages. As the process moved forward, though, I started to notice that my life had become so much more…spacious. Suddenly there was room for entertainment, for hobbies, for friends. I didn’t have to devote free evenings to meal planning, or give every lunch break to exercise, or lose entire days to the dismay I’d feel if I hadn’t liked the number on my scale that morning.
When you’re first presented with the recovery process, it’s easy to see it all as a tremendous sacrifice: you’re being asked to give up habits and customs that have become desperately important, whether they deserve to be or not. But what feels like a loss at first is really a tremendous gain in time, energy, and freedom.
3. Recovery can turn your relationship with food into something beautiful.
If you’d told me a decade ago that I’d ever define myself as someone who loves food–a “foodie,” even–I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t have wanted to have believed you; at the time, I associated enthusiasm for eating with loss of self control, with a messiness that terrified me. I’d loved food tremendously as a kid and had an enormous appetite for which I was often teased. I knew this, deep down–that I’m a person with big appetites–and part of me always feared that if I gave into my hunger at all, I’d go crashing headlong into a pit of abandon from which I’d never emerge.
To cope with this fear, I went about stripping food of its meaning and beauty. I embraced the idea that food was fuel alone, and I ate foods that were as plain as possible as if to prove my point. I looked at food and tried to see protein, carb, and fat, rather than a pleasing sensory experience. I rejected the notion that food could have cultural or social meaning. (Sidenote: remnants of this mentality crept into early blog posts, and my reader/friend Elizabeth very gently helped me to identify it and change it–thanks, Elizabeth.)
One of the most wonderful parts of my recovery has been the opportunity to invest food with meaning once again. Eating is not merely an act of fueling or survival: it is emotional, it is conscious, and it is really important to me. I’m not a dispassionate eater, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Veganism has played a pivotal role in this transformation because it places my food choices in a broader context that includes ethical and environmental concerns, and it gives me an avenue to contribute to the world around me.
4. Recovery can be a gift to the people you love.
I hesitated about this one, since I believe that recovery is first and foremost an act of self-care and self-preservation. Part of the reason I think that my early recovery attempts weren’t lasting was that I was driven primarily by the desire to assuage others’ worries. But if we can accept that recovery has to come from within, I think it’s also OK to say that your loved ones are likely to share joyously in your recovery, and that it’s a beautiful part of the process.
My friends have always handled my food struggles gracefully. They made their concern clear without backing me into a corner or making me feel confronted. For all of their subtlety, however, I know that my behaviors were often a source of frustration or concern. It makes me happy to know that I no longer cause them distress, and I take pleasure in the pride they’ve expressed (also with subtlety) in my progress.
5. Recovery will allow you to enrich the world around you.
One of the most destructive consequences of disordered eating is an ever more diminished sense of self. When my ED was at its worst, I became divorced from the passions that had always sustained me in the past: music, art, friendship, books. During that period and for quite a while after, it was so hard for me to accept that my true worth might reside in something other than numbers, goals, or rituals.
This has proven to be the most sustained challenge of ongoing recovery for me (I’ve written about it here and here). But with each year that goes by, it feels more intuitive for me to wrap my identity around my character, my intentions, and my passions, rather than my former capacity for self-denial. The great thing about this shift is that it compels me to channel my effort into new pursuits. I’m more excited than I ever have been about activism, volunteer work, and exploring new relationships. I could never have directed that energy outward when I was unwell; what energy I had was funneled into the rituals of the disorder.
No matter who you are or what phase of recovery you’re in, remember that you have countless gifts to offer the world around you. Know that recovery will create space for you to move your energy around in exhilarating ways. I know it’s a hard concept to accept at the start of the recovery process. But it’s true.
Before I wrap this up, I should make a very important point: most people cannot simply talk themselves into recovery. I’ve listed some of the things that have motivated me along the way, but I couldn’t have recovered without therapy, as well as the support of loved ones. If you’re struggling right now, know that it’s normal to feel that you need outside resources in order to recover. If you need some ideas, you can check out the NEDA website. You don’t have to experience this process alone. You can think about the points I’ve just made as a source of ongoing inspiration, but they aren’t a substitute for other kinds of care.
Recovery, to quote a dedicated and insightful CR reader, is “anything but a linear process.” No matter what phase you find yourself in, there are always challenges and detours and bumps in the road. But in the end, the things that recovery will give you are so much more abundant than the challenges it will ask you to face. Not a single day goes by that I don’t feel grateful for recovery and indebted to the people who have encouraged me along the way. As this week begins, I wish you all the faith, strength, and support you need to consider or continue the process.
I’d love to hear from readers what other realizations or ideas or developments have served as meaningful sources of motivation. Happy Sunday/Monday, everyone.