It's amazing that once a year we use the power of social media and education to celebrate or bring awareness to a different topic relating to history or health. Just because we only talk about it once a year doesn't mean we forget about it once the week or month is over. Its purpose is to remind us and enlighten us on the facts we are unaware of or have forgotten. February is special because it honors three topics. February is Black History Month, a very important part of American history that highlights the lives of men and women who have changed the course of this country. We should all honor Black History Month because the Black community is still facing racial inequality (after years of unspeakable abuse, enslavement, murders, inadequate diet and education) and those of us who are not Black should be inspired to learn ways to eradicate any type of inequality as a means of humanity. February is also American Heart Month. On February 1st, we bring awareness to the less detectable heart disease that women face. Heart disease is the number one killer for people of all genders. This is a great way to remind and educate ourselves of healthier lifestyles to prevent heart disease and mortality.
February also dedicates a week (February 25-March 3) to National Eating Disorder Awareness. This article is dedicated to NEDA Week and it's importance in our world.
I want you to take a moment, before reading on, to answer the following question to yourself:
What is the definition of an eating disorder?
If you asked me before I became educated on the topic I would say the following: "An Eating Disorder is when a girl starves herself and looks really sick and skinny." Yuck. I cringe at that ignorant "definition" but if you don't know, you don't know. Many of us associate ED with anorexia nervosa, a mental health disease that causes a person to obsess over their weight. Yes, typically, these people have low body weight and may be seen as very skinny. But you don't have to be thin to be suffering from anorexia. And yes, we have seen the media portray women as the center of anorexia but people of all genders specific or nonspecific suffer from this.
Let's define an eating disorder according to the DSM-5. Please see photos below...
As you can see, the umbrella that is eating disorders shelters many. Now, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, fifth edition) is continually evolving to better suit the needs of professionals who work with clients/patients and to better understand the persons they are working with. The next edition may alter the definition to offer better categorization and methods of intervening for healing.
I bet when you first defined eating disorder, you had no idea how much the actual meaning of the mental illness entailed.
I can honestly say that I have had an unhealthy relationship with myself, appearance, and food in the past. I would sometimes starve myself, binge eat, starve again, binge drink, work out excessively, avoid all grains and survive on iceberg lettuce. My sister came to visit me at college and she just stared. Finally she said, "Gina, are you eating? Your head is too big for your body." I would often experience these episodes of psychoses that were almost impossible to resolve. I was unable to make rational decisions and I would behave impulsively. Moments of hysterics, rage, vulnerability would wash over me. In hindsight, I identify these episodes as results of extreme Vata imbalance. I was depleted of earth/structure and water. Now my relationship with my image has changed drastically. I'm most comfortable in my skin and health at my current weight, though I find myself falling into habits of unhealthy snacking and avoiding nutritious meals out of laziness or lack of time. Which isn't an excuse, by the way! And it's okay that I fall into these patterns, as long as I recognize them and make the changes necessary to benefit my health and longevity.
A dear friend of mine has shared her experience with ED. Please brace yourself for the raw truth of her experience and understand her bravery to share her obstacle with readers.
During an effort to collect as many experiential questionnaires of women who face various different health obstacles, my friend replied with the following:
1. How old were you when you were officially diagnosed with an eating disorder? What method was used for diagnosing?
"I had been struggling on and off for many years. I can remember various symptoms dating back to age 10. However, I was only officially diagnosed at age 23, in the spring of 2013. At that time I was in one of the darkest places with my eating disorder. I remember calling my Dad one morning after having a horrendous night of purging. There was a tiny sliver of “healthy” Erin left and it fortunately spoke louder that morning. I was so ashamed and I knew that there had to be more to my life than secrets, silence, and searching for the next bathroom. Shortly after, I began seeing a therapist who specialized in Eating Disorders. Despite journaling, weekly treatment, nutritional counseling and unconditional support, I could not escape my toxic mind that I had carefully crafted over the last decade of my life. After a few months, my symptom use continued to increase and my therapist and nutritionist admitted that I needed more care than they could provide. They suggested that I check myself into an Inpatient Treatment Facility that specialized in Eating Disorders."
2. How was it defined to you by your doctor?
"Throughout my years with my unhealthy relationship with eating I had always put food on a pedestal. It ruled my mind from the moment I opened my eyes, when I decided if the day was going to be made up of starvation or purging. When I started therapy, my therapist confidently ensured me that the eating disorder is not about the food. The eating disorder goes much deeper than any meal will travel. The eating disorder is a sick disease that manipulates your mind. It is demon that will attempt to control your life. In the midst of life’s ups and downs, that’s when the eating disorder is the most prevalent, because over the course of many, many years, that’s how I had learned to cope with stress, pain, sadness, and disappointment. When everything had failed, the eating disorder remained constant. It was what I clung onto. It was always at my disposal and I believed that I was in full control. I had never realized that this was an addiction and I had been dedicating my life to it for way to long."
3. Were you experiencing any symptoms? If so, what?
"I experienced mental and physical symptoms.
a. Mentally, there were days of craving to binge and purge and then days of absolutely wanting to eat nothing at all. Some days my appetite occupied my entire attention span and other times I would forget to eat. I had foods I knew were easy to purge and I knew how much water to drink in between each bite. Some days I would pre-plan my binges. I would look forward to it, because it gave me a sick and twisted satisfaction. It felt good to release everything that went in. If it was a low day, all those negative thoughts were released with the food and it made me calm knowing that there was a way to not “carry” those thoughts around inside anymore. The “heaviness” of all those thoughts was unbearable.
b. Physically, I noticed my body started getting hairier and my skin was dry and irritated. If I induced back to back purges, I noticed my lips colorless and flaky. I had experienced broken blood vessels underneath my eyes and pain in my chest from the stress I was putting on my body. I would often purge in the shower and be completely out of breath, resulting resting on the shower floor while the water ran over me. I was always exhausted, no matter how much sleep I got. Unfortunately, none of this scared me and it just meant I would “choose” to starve the next few days so my body could re-hydrate. The worst part though, was what I did not see. The first day of inpatient treatment called for blood-work and an EKG. My blood work came back slightly abnormal however my resting heart rate was 38 bpm. To put things into perspective a normal resting heart rate in adults ranges from 60 to 100 bpm. The doctor expressed to me that due to the state of my heart, I could have potentially gone to sleep one night and never woken up."
4. Are there any cures? Is yes, what? If not, how were you guided to cope with the condition?
“"Cure” is a strong word. I believe a portion of the eating disorder is always be a part of you, however the trick is to learn how to make your healthy voice louder than the eating disorder’s voice. It is making the choice to continue to make positive, healthy decisions for yourself. It is working on a relationship with yourself and knowing what works and does not work within your recovery. It is figuring out what your triggers are and how to steer clear of them to the bext of your ability. It is coping by continuing therapy, speaking out when you have low days, knowing who your support team is and firmly relying on them. Coping is being honest with yourself and recognizing how the eating disorder can quickly poison your mind. It is knowing that your secrets will keep you sick. It is choosing the exact opposite that the manipulative disorder is trying to control. It is wanting more for yourself because what you’ve been doing is not working. It is taking advantage of those “little” healthy moments, because you know that you deserve that FREEDOM. The more I sided with MY voice, the quieter the eating disorder’s got. This took many, many months, even years of practice and learning to take back control of MY mind was harder than stepping into that first day of inpatient treatment. Over time though you will start to recognize the situations in your life that tended to “drive” ED and how you can avoid them."
5. In your own words, how did this affect your life physically? Socially? Emotionally?
"Physically (also refer to my answer within question #3b)- The majority of the time my eating disorder was severe, I went to the gym religiously. I was committed to get up at 4:30 am before work so I would be able to burn my 1000 calorie treadmill minimum. I lifted weights, ran and yet I never saw any progression. The more I worked out, the less I ate.
Socially – I would often commit to plans than cancel day of. If I was having a “fat” day I was embarrassed that people would see how “big” I had gotten. When I did not cancel, I always felt I was powerless when it came to food at any event and it would often end in purging. My time was never enjoyed during these events because my only focus was keeping my “secret” concealed in the bathroom. Looking back now I realize how many birthdays, dinners, parties, I missed both physically and mentally because of the eating disorder. Weddings were by far the worst and up until the beginning of last year, all weddings were unsuccessful. I cannot expressed how liberating it is to attend a wedding and be able to focus on the celebration and love instead trying to dodge the bride, a bridesmaids, a friend or family member in the women’s restroom.
Emotionally – I was volatile and my moods were always inconsistent. My boyfriend often described me as “emotionally unstable” since neither of us never knew which Erin was going to be present on any given day. If it was a purge day, I would cry while getting dressed in the dark but if it was a starvation day, I was joyful as I embraced the feeling of “tiny.”"
6. Any additional information you think would benefit readers?
"For many years I allowed myself to be denied many gifts that life so freely shares. I chose the eating disorder over family, friends, relationships, and most of all myself. One of the scariest thoughts while working towards this seemingly unattainable freedom was “Who am I without my Eating Disorder?” I had spent years being molded by sick and twisted rules. I wasn’t allowed to eat donuts, but if I did, I’d eat all twelve. Bread was a strict NO and I tried my best to avoid all carbs. In treatment I would cry over mashed potatoes, not necessarily because I did not like them, I just wasn’t allowed to eat them. I couldn’t comprehend having that “blob” sit in my stomach and I was convinced in the morning that one cup of mash potatoes would add on ten pounds. I was not allowed to ride the subway in Manhattan because the eating disorder needed to make sure I met my minimum of 20,000 steps per day. I enjoyed my secrets and can confidently say I should have a received a medal in the department of manipulation and deceit. I was terrified that if I lost my eating disorder, I would lose control, however those moments proved that that is when I had entirely lost myself. In my unhealthiest moments, I finally realized that I deserved more out of life than my secrets and repetitively included “lose weight” as part of my New Year’s resolutions. Through years of hard work, unconditional support, determination, and the will to LIVE, I managed to slowly turn my life in a new direction.
Our lives are not meant to be consumed inside a shadow. We are not here to follow footsteps; we are meant to make them. We are all specially chosen, but not for lies and deceit. We are chosen to expose our stories of ups and downs, so that others can relate. We are chosen to be imperfect, humble, and recognize our flaws. We are chosen to walk together so when we’re suffering, leaning on our relationships will help us heal. We are chosen to speak up because none of us have been chosen to suffer in silence. We were chosen to be a mother, a father, a sister, a brother, a friend, and loved one. We cannot fulfill that though if we choose to hold onto a false facade of our lives. Reach out; ask for help. We are in this together. We can learn from each other’s broken pieces. We will not be defined by our flaws, our imperfections, our secrets, or our sufferings. Let’s us CHOOSE to be defined by our honest eyes, our liberated minds, and our humble hearts. Let us all choose to be the best versions of ourselves and truly discover WHO WE ARE WITHOUT OUR EATING DISORDERS."
I've written this article as a reminder to myself to continue learning and understanding others. This isn't written to shame anyone who was unaware or judged others suffering from ED in the past. The sole reason for all of these blogs is to enlighten and spread awareness. If you have any questions, concerns, or advice, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Health & Love,