The motto of this year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is “It’s Time to Talk About It.” In honor of that credo, Sovereign Health is sharing the stories of eating disorder patients in recovery. Their words provide invaluable insight into the mindset of a person with an eating disorder as well as serve as inspiration to overcome that mindset.
In this article, Anna L. reveals some of the factors that brought her into an eating disorder and how she confronts challenges now in recovery.
Question: People with an eating disorder (ED) often obsess over food in a love/hate interplay. Many will work in the food industry or play farming and food prep games. They may also cook in large quantities for friends and family without touching the food themselves. Has this ever been true for you? Describe your train of thought and mood when preparing food or playing food apps.
Answer: For people who have never dealt with an eating disorder first-hand, such behavior might come across as a paradox: an ED sufferer is assumed to have a troubled relationship with food, so, logically, should try to remove herself as far away from the troubling subject matter as possible. The reality, however, is not that simple.
An ED sufferer’s relationship with food is very similar to a relationship with an abusive partner: she loves it, but, in the meantime, she is afraid of it; she craves normalcy and comfort, but cannot achieve it; she tries to stay close and in control of the situation, but fails time after time. Working in the food industry, cooking for others, playing food apps – all of this helps to create an illusion of a “positive” attitude towards food, without actually changing the disordered nature of the relationship.
As an anorexic, I needed these positive feelings to counterweight the extreme negativity attached to food. I craved the comfort of food even though I was too afraid to eat it. Cooking for others and reading all the food blogs provided exactly the right level of satisfaction, without the need to change my behavior on a deeper level.
Q: If you’ve ever had a time when loved ones brought up ED treatment, or perhaps you awoke in the hospital after a medical emergency related to eating disorder, what were your first frantic thoughts? What were your fears with an outsider “stepping in to help?”
A: “They will never understand me and the role ED plays in my life.”
After going through the treatment, I would like to make two observations about this fear of mine. First, it is true that my loved ones will never understand me. Because to truly understand an ED, one has to experience it, and I would never wish this living hell on anyone I know, let alone my loved ones. It is acceptance, not understanding, that matters for the recovery.
Second, it is not my loved ones, but I myself who had to understand the role ED used to play in my life. I think that, as an anorexic, I equated myself with my ED, hence, wanted to protect my illness and wanted others to respect it. I feared that by eradicating my ED, the treatment would eradicate my persona as well. In reality, the opposite was true: by disassociating from my ED, I was able to achieve freedom needed to develop my true, authentic personhood.
Q: Looking back, what do you recall that instigated a disordered relationship between you and food?
A: I think that, in my case, it was not a single event or a statement, but rather the two continuous emotional themes that prevailed during my adolescence. First, my parents’ highly emotional relationship towards food. Every meal was planned in advance, discussed in great detail, shopped for by the whole family (often with emotional outbursts), and often confused for a display of true love and affection.
Food consumption at home acquired a ritualistic nature, and replaced almost every other form of interaction between me and my parents. No surprise, I was a chubby kid. Hence, the second theme of persistent bullying by my peers as well as teachers (I grew up in Russia in the 90s, where the concept of bullying was nonexistent, so everyone who could do it did it). Thus, I was trapped in the situation where I was continuously punished for receiving the only manifestation of love (i.e., food) my parents could give me.
I believe that when this continued emotional pressure finally broke me, I chose food as an object to express my frustration on, thereby saving my relationships with family and friends. Sadly, my disordered relationship with food continued way passed the moment the emotional pressures of my adolescence had ceased.
Q: When you had a harmful; relationship with food, what statements by friends or family would trigger you most?
A: “You do it to harm me/us.”
For the longest time, my loved ones believed that I was in control of my disordered behavior and that it was my voluntary choice to continue to kill myself, and to harm them. They used to share this with me, in attempt to “appeal to my senses.” What they did not know is that as an ED sufferer, you feel completely out of control when it comes to the disordered behavior and that you already blame yourself for that weakness to no end.
The external confirmation of the blame by my loved ones would often push me over the edge, to the place where I could not cope with being anymore. And that is where the ED used to hit me the hardest, because I saw no reason or desire to hold to reality. That is where the thoughts like “Maybe, if I die, you will finally take part of the blame?” used to come in. Those were not my thoughts; that was my illness manifesting itself at its worst.
Q: As a person recovering from an eating disorder, what statements by your loved ones, quotes or reminders lift you up and keep your mind centered on nourishing your body and wellness?
A: “It is not you; it is the remnants of your ED that make you doubt your success.”
It is true what they say: the recovery is not a linear process, but rather a succession of ups and downs, in which ups prevail at the end. That is why I think it is paramount for every person in any type of recovery to have a number of “life jackets” or “flotation devices” that will carry her through the lows unharmed. In my case, my husband was such a life saver. Every time I’d start to doubt my progress, he would remind me that doubts are only negative thoughts, and that negative thoughts are not who I am. And that it is OK to have doubts, as long as they don’t overpower the desire to persevere.
Follow this series
Sovereign Health is publishing one testimonial per weekend during National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. Check back tomorrow for another look inside the world’s deadliest eating disorder. In the meantime, read more about how cultural messages play a role in eating disorders.
About Sovereign Health
Sovereign Health provides behavioral health treatment for eating disorders as well as other mental health disorders, substance abuse. Trauma and chronic pain. Our residential treatment facility in Rancho San Diego, California, offers an eating disorder program for adolescent girls, while our facility in San Clemente, California, treats adult women with eating disorders. Both facilities are accredited by the Joint Commission, the most respected health care accreditation institution in the United States. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.