Quick! What do you think of when you think of eating disorders?
Bulimia? Anorexia? Women and girls? What do they look like? If it’s anything like the images and stories in the media and on the web, they’re rail thin young women barely hanging on to life. Now don’t get me wrong. These are accurate depictions of eating disorders, but they’re not the only ones. There are other shapes and characteristics to eating disorders – ones less well known, less stereotypical, perhaps more hidden but just as destructive. Read here about the diversity of eating disorders
I know. For over 10 years food ran my life. Starting at seventeen, I dealt with what I thought was ‘just a food problem’. My ‘pig-outs’ I called them. Lots of out of control binges riddled with shame, guilt and obsessiveness. Then panicked attempts to reverse the damage: half a sandwich with nothing but a lettuce leaf and diet Coke for lunch; gym workout where drops of sweat HAD to drip from my nose or it didn’t count. It was a cycle of hell. Then the cycle eventually became everything except the panicked attempts to compensate. But it was still hell. Read my previous PT post 'How to Mainline Sugar, Carbs and Fat: Bingeing and the Blues' about the connection between my mood disorder, disordered eating and my recovery. (Warning: some content could be triggering for some individuals).
I was a ‘regular’ kind of weight (neither thin nor fat). I appeared, at least from the outside, quite healthy. My eating behaviors didn’t match what I thought was ‘typical’ bulimic or anorexic behavior. I neither purged, nor used laxatives and my weight wasn’t plummeting. So I didn’t even think my disorder was a disorder. And worse, even if it was, I didn’t deserve the same care and attention as someone with what was most certainly the ‘more legitimate’, more life threatening illnesses.
What I did discover, thankfully, is that individuals with eating disorders come in all different shapes and sizes. A person with an eating disorder can be overweight, underweight, ‘normal’ weight; male, female, gay, straight, transgendered, young or old. And each and every one deserving good care and treatment.
Additionally, I learned eating disorders express themselves with a variety of behaviors centering on food. I know now that what I initially had was a less common but not less serious form of bulimia (non-purging bulimia) which then developed into binge eating disorder (or BED). And both of them wreaked extensive havoc in my life.
The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) explains “the issue is not whether the patterns can be labelled with a particular diagnosis, but the degree to which they are causing distress in a person's life or the lives of those around them”. Read more here.
As I reached out for help through support groups and counseling I discovered that those of us with eating disorders may look different on the outside, the struggle within is equally painful. The support groups I attended were a huge help because I recognized although the outer symptoms of my illness were different, my mind set, my thinking, my perfectionism, shame and low-esteem was identical to others struggling and recovering.
It took time, but as I delved deeper into therapy, learned cognitive behavioral skills and attended support groups I can say that my disorder (whatever label you want to give it) no longer runs my life. It’s barely perceptible to me. Though I remain vigilant of warning signs: restricting calories when my weight is stable; the urge to jump on the scale more than every couple months; the driven desire to escape into more than one chocolate bar. But even those red flags come infrequently. Click here for warning signs of an eating disorder.
So this post is for all of you who feel isolated because you’re a man, a young boy, an elderly woman. Maybe you don’t fall into the ‘traditional’ categories of anorexia or bulimia or match the common behaviors or images of eating disorders we so often see about in the news. This is for all of you who feel you don’t fit in, don’t deserve help, that what you’re going through isn’t serious enough or isn’t the same. This is what I know for sure. It is serious enough, you do fit in, and you do deserve support. Please reach out. You are not alone. And...it will get better.
Two excellent organizations that provides resources and support:
A US non-profit which provides help for “individuals and families affected by eating disorders, and serves as a catalyst for prevention, cures and access to quality care”.
- NEDA’s confidential Helpline offers information, support and referrals both for the United States and internationally. Call toll free 1-800-931-2237 (Mon-Thurs 9:00 am - 9:00 pm; Fri 9:00 am - 5:00 pm EST) or chat online with a Helpline volunteer.
- Take NEDA’s confidential online screening for eating disorders:
https://www.mentalhealthscreening.org/screening/NEDA (From the NEDA’s website: “This quiz, based on the work of D.M. Garner, M.P. Olmsted, Y. Bohr, and P.E. Garfinkel is designed to help you determine if it’s time to seek professional help. At the end you will have a chance to speak with a volunteer or visit our website for more information.”)