Many people have a difficult time comprehending eating disorders and their true intensity and severity.
- Eating disorders are a choice. (They’re not, but you can choose to seek and commit to recovery.)
- You can tell someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them. (Individuals with eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes.)
- Eating disorders are about vanity. (These are serious psychiatric illnesses.)
- Eating disorders aren’t dangerous. (They have serious health consequences. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.)
Some people even wish to have anorexia.
In her book, Brave Girl Eating: A Family’s Struggle with Anorexia, Harriet Brown writes:
Anorexia is quite possibly the most misunderstood illness in America today. It’s the punch line of a mean joke, a throwaway plot device in TV shows and movies about spoiled rich girls. Or else it’s a fantasy weight-loss strategy; how many times have you heard (or said yourself) ‘Gee, I wouldn’t mind a little anorexia’?
Brave Girl Eating recounts how Brown’s family helped her then-14-year-old daughter, Kitty, recover from anorexia using family-based treatment.
One of the most difficult parts of recovery is quieting the eating disorder voice and hearing your own voice again.
Most of us can understand feeling anxious around food and not being good enough or thin enough (thanks to our society and its dangerous diet mentality). But the voice of an eating disorder is nastier, relentless and seems omnipotent. It hurls insults and uses fear tactics. Sometimes, every hour on the hour. People who suffer from eating disorders typically report hearing a cruel and demeaning voice — one that says they aren’t good enough, should stop eating, must lose weight and must engage in eating-disordered behaviors.
It’s very important to realize that a person is separate from their illness. For many people with eating disorders, it’s especially hard to separate their identity from the illness. In Brave Girl Eating, Brown distinguishes her daughter from the eating disorder voice, which she refers to as a demon and Not-Kitty.
The first time Brown heard the demon voice speak, she and her husband were terrified. Brown writes:
Then she [Kitty] opens her mouth, and her voice, too, is unrecognizable. She speaks in a singsongy, little-girl tone, high and strange and chillingly conversational, the creepy voice of the witch in a fairy tale. ‘I’m a pig,” she says, not to me, exactly; it’s almost like she’s talking to herself. ‘I’m a fat pig and I’m going to puke. I’m going to puke up everything because I’m such a pig.’ … Somehow I’m up and off the bed, calling for Jamie, and then the two of us listen in horror and incomprehension, as Not-Kitty spews a sickening litany of poisonous, despairing threats.
At the doctor’s office, after a nurse announces that Kitty has gained a quarter of a pound, her reaction is much the same. Brown writes:
I gained weight! Oh my God! cries Kitty. She folds over on herself and begins a kind of moaning chant: I’m a fat pig, I’m gross and disgusting and lazy. Look what you’re doing to me, you’re making me fat. I should never have listened to you.
In the beginning of another chapter, Brown features a quote from an “anonymous anorexia sufferer:”
It wasn’t simply that I chose not to eat; I was forbidden to. Even thinking about forbidden foods brought punishment. How dare you, this voice inside me would say. You greedy pig.
The voice is overwhelming and feels unstoppable. But people with eating disorders can — and do — take back the power. Not engaging in eating disorder symptoms, and nourishing one’s body with food forces the voice to dissipate.
And here’s another myth: People can’t fully recover from an eating disorder.
As expert Julie Holland from The Eating Recovery Center said:
“Recovery takes commitment, dedication, hard work and time. However, full recovery is absolutely possible through finding the appropriate treatment professionals and program.”
If you have an eating disorder, remember that you are not alone in your struggle and you have the strength to recover. You deserve to seek treatment and get better.
For inspiration, read these personal stories of recovery.