Seeing as it is the final day of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, it's quite fitting that the Guardian is currently running a piece about 17-year-old Constance and her recovery from the illness. Her story is all too familiar:
Reading Constance's recollection of her struggle with anorexia, and her family's struggle to understand what was happening to her, was a bit like reading my own story, as I went through similar experiences during my seven-year battle with the illness, which I wrote about for the site in 2008. What stuck out the most was a passage wherein Constance's mother declares how surprised she is to discover that her daughter is, in fact, an anorexic: "I remember her friends saying 'Constance is so pretty, clever, popular – why is she doing this to herself?'"
It's very tricky to explain the illness to those who have never been through it, though the notion that anorexics simply choose these behaviors seems to be a common one: "Why don't you just eat?" and the ever-popular and really fucking annoying "Eat a sandwich!" being tossed around at mentally ill people as some kind of brilliant psych-up technique to cure us of our wacky-eating ways. It's akin to walking up to a schizophrenic and yelling: "Hey! Stop having hallucinations, jerk-face!" and expecting your oh-so-clever advice to replace an anti-psychotic. You dig?
Whenever I write about anorexia for the site, I try to give an insider's perspective; like Constance, I unfortunately became an expert on the illness, and not by choice. Yes, there are behavioral patterns that anyone in recovery from an eating disorder has to pay special attention to, but we don't get to the worst of the illness voluntarily: that kind of sickness comes from the psychological takeover of the eating disorder voice, which retrains our brains to think of nothing but calories, and weight loss, and food. The more weight we lose, the stronger and more brutal that voice becomes, as we lack the nutrition to think properly (in the hospital, we referred to this as "mush brains") or fight back against really skewed and disordered thinking. At my lowest weight, even as I was placed in a wheelchair for fear that I'd have a heart attack simply by moving, thanks to an extremely weakened heart rate, I couldn't think of anything but losing more weight: my family, my writing, my friends, my everything was pushed aside in favor of a monster that controlled every single one of my thoughts.
Let me attempt to explain it this way: let's say two best friends decide to lose weight together. One of these women can diet sensibly, hit a goal weight, and move on to maintenance. The other starts dieting and can. not. stop. That's the ED brain; like an alcoholic who takes one sip of a drink and can't stop drinking, the anorexic doesn't have a dieting endpoint, which leads to serious mental and physical consequences. It's not as simple as "eat a sandwich" or "why are you doing this to yourself?" It's a serious mental illness that pushes you to extreme limits with disastrous results. It's not glamorous, it's not a sign of "self-discipline," though the ED voice will try to convince you as much, and it's not just some flippant choice women make to match the "thinspiration" they see in magazines. It's much darker and deeper than that. Of course, it's also important to recognize that everyone's ED is different, so I can't speak for the complications everyone faces, though from my time with fellow sufferers in the hospital, I can tell you it's very layered and complex for everyone.
So as ED Awareness week closes out, I just wanted to briefly touch upon my own struggles with the illness and to remind everyone out there who is currently struggling that recovery is both a possible and beautiful thing. It's not easy, but the best things in life never really are, and as someone who has been at the lowest, darkest, most hopeless points in the disease, I can honestly tell you that recovery, as impossible as it seems, is truly possible and absolutely worth it. Stories like mine, and like Constance's, are not rare: there is help out there, and there is hope out there. Your life is worth more than numbers, and your voice is stronger than the one currently pushing you around in your head, and I wish from the bottom of my heart that everyone seeking help will find it. As Constance notes: "I have such painful memories of what being ill with anorexia is. My life is so much more fun and free without it."
I Was A "Good" Anorexic [The Guardian]
[Image via Operation Beautiful]