Perhaps it’s easier to look away from eating disorders because they are quiet. They are solitary, shameful struggles, raging internal wars that don’t necessarily radiate outwards. And we anorexics, bulimics, over-exercisers and bingers have perfected the art of pretending like everything is fine, just fine. We make it easy to turn the other cheek to our sickness. In fact, we want you to. We assure our friends and family with a smile; “Don’t worry, I already ate dinner earlier.” “Oh no, I’m just feeling kind of sick today. No appetite.” “I’ve only been on the elliptical for 20 minutes, not 3 hours, this timer must be wrong.”
More often than not, the concerned party leave us alone. It would be intrusive to keep pestering, and if someone says they’re fine, you should take their word for it. Right?
Mental health and well-being in general are uncomfortable topics of discussion. When we say someone is mentally ill or has a mental illness, our minds go to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, strait jackets and lobotomies, even though that’s no longer our reality. No one wants to talk about mental illness because it’s terrifying to us. Sadness, depression, weakness, vulnerability; it’s all too much.
Yet, our silence and inability to talk about suffering and the dark parts of the human condition only makes us sicker.
Eating disorders are mental illnesses. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, in fact. They are not a choice, they are not a lifestyle, they don’t only affect vain white girls who want to fit into skinny jeans. They don’t have to look a certain way. They’re not always about control. And men have eating disorders too.
I’m not sure what it is about eating disorders that makes them so taboo. Perhaps it’s the stigma surrounding them, perhaps it’s the lack of education about them, perhaps it’s the feeling of helplessness from the confidante when a victim seeks their help. Either way, the stigma is there and it’s incredibly tangible.
I have struggled with anorexia for four years now. When I first developed my eating disorder, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I knew something was very wrong, but I couldn’t vocalize it. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t feed myself, that I was constantly obsessing about the size of my thighs and about the calories I had or hadn’t consumed that day. I was so ashamed to admit that I felt an incomparable rush from losing weight and that it was the first time in my life I felt powerful and confident. I was even more ashamed to admit that this was no longer something I could control and that it had consumed me.
I found myself in the ACUTE Center for Eating Disorders at Denver Hospital only 5 months after I started my destructive behaviors, hooked up to an IV and a heart monitor because my pulse was dangerously slow and I was at risk of having a heart attack.
My anorexia spiraled so quickly that only now, four years later, am I starting to chip away at it—exploring the reasons behind it, and wondering if I can truly live without it. Only now am I really starting to heal, because only now am I talking.
So please. If you are worried about someone, tell them. If you are worried about yourself, tell someone. When you ask someone how they are, really listen. When asked how you are, try to respond authentically. Let’s make eye contact and try to keep it. Let’s do the harder, more uncomfortable, beautifully vulnerable thing. Let’s start the conversation.