I was settling in to my work station this morning when a co-worker, approximately my age and with the same job title as me, arrived. He went through his usual pre-work routine as I went through mine, and in a quick moment of camaraderie, I took my headphones out and asked him, quite out of the blue, what his favorite type of music was.
“Mostly hip-hop,” he said. He seemed to think for a minute, looking as though he was about to speak, but then remained silent. I pressed on.
“Who’s your favorite artist?” I asked, still curious (for I, too, love hip-hop.) “Whatever’s on at the moment, really.” He then asked me about my own musical preferences. I talked about pop punk and the Blink-182s; the punk rock and the Anti-Flags; the hip-hop and the Kanyes; and, most of all, my love of pop music and the Ke$has.
He chuckled, then stopped and commented, “Wasn’t there something in the news about her recently?” I thought back, and quickly said, “Oh yeah, I think she checked into treatment for an eating disorder.” He waved his hands in a sarcastic “ooh-poor-me-with-a-fake-disease” kind of way.
And therein lies the rub.
At the moment, I gave a half-hearted chuckle and turned away, but I spent the next 20 minutes thinking about my own experiences. See, I’m a Hispanic male working as a software developer (which already puts me in a very small minority); and even in my limited time in the industry, I’ve already noticed the profound sexism, chauvinism, racism, and elitism that seems so prevalent in the structures that hold the industry up. More to the point, however, I’m a Hispanic male who for years struggled with an eating disorder, and for as many years and afterwards fought tooth and nail to establish for myself and those around me the fact that not only is this a very real disorder, but one that goes beyond the Caucasian female demographic that so many textbooks (barring some of the more recent ones) seem to espouse.
Eating disorders are crippling. I took a year off my college studies so I could check myself into treatment (several times throughout the year) and get the help I needed, and I’m probably one of the “milder” cases. Because an eating disorder, or any sort of mental or emotional struggle, is never a choice; no more a choice than someone who struggles with depression and can barely get out of bed to face the day (something I’m also familiar with). For years I struggled with alternating periods of fasting, to the point of primal hunger, and bingeing and purging; vomiting, hours of exercise, and subsequent fasting. These aren’t pretty images, but I’m not a pretty person. I bear these scars and always will; I was so trapped in my own head and “my own” perceptions of beauty that I abandoned everything that a person needs to thrive: basic nutrition, interpersonal relationships, a fulfillment to one’s own well-being.
The criteria for establishing a mental disorder are varied, but in my opinion the most important one is the requisite that the sufferer’s daily life be negatively impacted by the symptoms. And we are all impacted. Whether it’s an obsession with appearance, a crippling fear of crowds, a fear-inducing sense that you’re inadequate, these are all legitimate issues, and a part of the human experience. Not everyone’s experience. But enough to make it worth exploring and accepting.
To deny that an eating disorder is a real disorder is to deny what it means to live with fear and self-doubt; any single insecurity, for all sorts of reasons (be they biological, socio-cultural, or, more likely, an indivisible combination of the two) is part of being alive, and it gets taken to an extreme by some more than others. I know from my own experience that I spent years agonizing over my body shape, my height, and body fat levels, seemingly for the sake of others and their view of me. And yet, I tried as much as I could to not be around others so that I might not be tempted into doing what it is that normal people are supposed to do: eat, drink, enjoy each other’s company. It’s unsustainable, life-endangering and, perhaps worst of all, isolating to the point of suicidal depression.
I’m not entirely sure what the quickest way to overcoming this barrier of society’s perception is. I suspect it’ll involve a long and pain-staking process of breaking down gender and racial barriers and rejecting this absurd notion that, regardless of your place on whatever spectrum you contemplate, we all need to “man up.” We have to get comfortable with the notion that each individual is just that: an individual, with a wide spectrum of sexual preferences, gender identity, political views and philosophies on just what the human condition is.
I wrote this brief essay not as validation of my own experiences, but as an acknowledgement of the fortune I had (and still have) of having such a vast and caring support system, the kind that allowed me to come to terms with my disorder and take the steps to overcome it. I know from both the literature and my own personal experience in an in-patient ward that there are millions more who were not as lucky as I was. I also write this because I feel appalled at the nonchalance with which people cast away those who aren’t the epitome of a functional, high achieving human being as defined by social norms, norms so restrictive and exclusive that most of us don’t even identify with.
The truth is, we all have a little of ugliness inside us, a by-product of too many deep thoughts and analyses of our social surroundings. But we also have that in common, and we know it; each individual’s specific brand of beauty and strength still manages to come through, and when we stop stigmatizing and ostracizing any “detriments” in mental health, we can begin to acknowledge this fact and appreciate each other for what we are: a fully-formed being with a unique mix of strengths and weaknesses who brings joy to others’ lives.