Why I Starved Myself and Other Eating Disorder Facts
It started out with a runner's magazine the summer before my senior year in high school.
I was an avid cross-country runner and determined to make my last season propel me on a collegiate scholarship. I’ll never forget an article I read by an accomplished Olympian runner that outlined her success, which she attributed to dedication to her training regiment, a strict diet, and maintaining a lower weight for her frame.
Just like that, the seed was planted.
Though it could have been anything that triggered the onset of my anorexia. It was more like the cumulation of multiple factors that led to development of my eating disorder, like the perfect storm.
Suddenly, intensive training and rigid eating habits in the name of athleticism became the perfect justification for the rapid weight loss I would endure in just a short few months.
A Downward Spiral
Contrarily to how it may have appeared on the outside, I was not striving to fit a certain pant size or fixated on losing a particular number of pounds.
Being at my lowest weight brought both a sense of victory and fear at the self-destruction I had become aware of - like watching a house of cards dissipate into thin air.
Sadly, this is one of the most common misconceptions about eating disorders; that these illnesses are "diseases of vanity". While many individuals with eating disorders may be triggered by dieting, this is not usually the only preceding factor.
My self-destructing eating disorder wasn’t a ploy or attempt to hurt someone, a means of getting attention, or an attempt to achieve a certain “look” or appeal. I craved a systematic means of establishing a sense of control in my own chaotic environment, a way to gain acceptance and approval. Meticulously counting calories and maintaining control over how much I weighed was artificially fulfilling, a maladapted coping mechanism.
Misleading Myths and Stereotypes About Eating Disorders
Eating disorders are stigmatized falsely by weight, size and shape, though these factors tell little about what a person may be struggling with.
I saw my weight fluctuate between lows and highs throughout the years I had an active eating disorder, though I carefully tried to disguise my calamity. Most people would not know by looking at me that I battled a raging eating disorder, one beset by chaos around food, body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, and more.
During the National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, it is important to me to continue challenging these myths, stereotypes, and stigmas about eating disorders in order to shed greater light and understanding on these deadly mental illnesses. There are too many individuals who struggle in silence, yet are needing help and connection.
So what are the facts?
Fact #1: Eating Disorders Are Biologically Based Illnesses, NOT a Choice or a Fad
I didn’t choose to have anorexia anymore than anyone else chooses to have cancer, heart disease or diabetes. Eating disorders are not illnesses that can be switched on and off at a will; nor are they fads, or even phases - they are real diseases that can be potentially fatal if left untreated.
Anorexia alone has the highest mortality of all psychiatric illnesses. Anorexia, like other eating disorders, is not caused by one single factor, like the media, nor can it be blamed on anyone or anything.
Research has shown that eating disorders are heavily influenced by biological factors, like genetics and neurobiology. The analogy that is often used is that biology loads the gun and environment pulls the trigger.
In my own case, I think I had certain biological factors that made me susceptible to developing an eating disorder, such as personality traits/characteristics.
Participating in a sport that emphasized heavy training and competitiveness could have served as an environmental trigger, as did other normal stressors that were difficult for me to cope with, like transitioning to college and so forth. Other environmental triggers might include the submersion and exposure to diet culture, experience of trauma, and more.
Fact #2: “Just Eat More” Is Not a Cure
On the surface, eating disorders seem like a food problem, and well-meaning and concerned loved ones are desperate to help “fix” the issue. “If only you could eat more”, or “Just try to eat more of that”, are commonly expressed; unfortunately, with little impact.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses; therefore, treatment approaches must also be comprehensive.
Sadly, in a malnourished state resulting from an eating disorder, cognitive abilities are severely hindered; meaning, a person with an eating disorder does not have the mental capacity to make choices that are going to benefit their health and well-being, INCLUDING something as basic as eating.
Trying to reason with or persuade a person with anorexia to “just eat”, is sadly, wasted and futile effort. While eating is as intuitive for others as breathing, for a person with an eating disorder, this inherent ability to eat is malfunctioned and compromised.
If left to their own accord, a person with anorexia WOULD starve themselves to death, not because they “don’t know any better”, but because they physically and mentally cannot bring themselves to do otherwise. Professional intervention is needed to reverse these damaging behaviors, including re-nourishment to heal body, mind and spirit.
Fact #3: Eating Disorder Recovery IS Possible
When in the throes of a battle with an eating disorder, it seems like things will never change or get better.
I am thankful to say that I have maintained recovery from anorexia for almost ten years now, and there is not one day that goes by that I take my health and recovery for granted.
There are decisions I need to make everyday to help me sustain active and long-term recovery, including eating consistently, practicing self care and healthier coping skills. While I may experience triggers in different forms and through transitional life changes, making the decision to commit to recovery has become easier over time.
Many of the adverse effects resulting from eating disorders can also be reversed with proper nutrition, treatment and interventions.
The difficult thing about eating disorders is that these illnesses do not necessarily completely go away. Unlike other illnesses that one might recover from, those with eating disorders will always be susceptible to relapsing back into behaviors that are not conducive to long term recovery.
So while recovery is in fact possible, sustaining recovery requires proactive diligence, support, treatment, and staying connected to loved ones who care. Relapse is also part of the journey, so having adequate support can help you get back on track should this occur.
My Encouragement For Others
I understand firsthand the excruciating struggle with an eating disorder, the pain and hurt that is caused, not just individually, but to those that were closest to me. I also have found the beauty that is experienced in recovery, and while the process is strenuous, grueling, and often exhausting, it leads to a life reclaimed from all that has been lost.
Eating disorders are isolating and devastating, but it does not need to end here. If you or a loved one has been dealing with an eating disorder, please reach out to someone for help. There are a wealth of resources available throughout the country and world , and you do not have to go through this alone.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder but unsure where to get help, consider calling the toll-free helpline at the National Eating Disorder Association at 1-800-931-2237. Helpline volunteers are trained to help you find the support and information you might need to begin your recovery journey. You can also use the NEDA Screening tool to help you determine if it’s time to find professional help.
What Other Facts About Eating Disorders Would You Like to Know More About?
National Eating Disorder Association, “What Are Eating Disorders?”, https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eating-disorders
Kaye, W.; et al. Neurobiology of eating disorders; clinical implications. Psychiatric Times. 2016