“I can’t think of any better representation of beauty than someone who is unafraid to be herself.” - Anonymous
What is it like to have an eating disorder?
At its core, this is what it like to have an eating disorder – you are trapped in an endless, ceaseless, terrifying obsession about how you look and your perceived ability (or lack of ability) to control it.
But, what does that mean? Really, day to day.
For one, it means you’re always thinking about food. How to get it, how to avoid it, how to make it look like you're not always thinking of it, what is safe to eat, what is not. Your mind churns with calorie calculations, all the time. Those you’re saving by not eating or, those you might consume when you know you’ll eventually become hungry, those you consumed when you last lost control and “gave in” to a binge, then thoughts of desperation to get rid of the food you over-ate during a binge. Thoughts of how many calories you may have regained because you vomited. Thoughts of how many calories might still be left in your stomach when you aren’t sure if you adequately vomited up enough. And, once that all calms down again, your thoughts return to how all that might effect your weight and shape, and so you come back to calories. Your thoughts return to how many calories are burned standing versus sitting or walking versus sitting or doing crunches versus sleeping. And the cycle continues. And at the end of each day what it comes down to is how many calories you either “successfully” resisted adding on for the day or how many you “failed” to resist, its sum dictating whether you decide the day was “good” or “bad”.
This constant, ongoing tracking, the thoughts about calories | food | weight- it does. not. stop.
When you’re not eating you’re thinking about the calories you’re saving, or ruminating about the one’s you just ate, or worrying about the one’s that might be coming.
When you are eating, you’re calculating how to cut just a little more (or… if you’re being honest with yourself, lots more if you think you could get away with it). Or you’re guilting yourself for eating. Or you’re angry that the food you love so much comes at such a high price… shame. pain. self-hatred. despair.
In. Out. Up. Down. Debit. Credit. All. The. Time.
Although… that’s not entirely true. There are times you’re not thinking about calories. And in those times, you’re often obsessing about your weight… which is really what you’re obsessing about when you’re worrying about calories in the first place.
People with eating disorders are constantly checking their weight. Even off the scale. In fact, this checking becomes so second-nature that, most of the time, even they don’t even realize they’re doing it.
You rub your collar bone… which seems innocent enough, but once your fingers brush against it familiarly you soon find you’re either chastising yourself for its lack of protrusion or you’re brimming with pride because it pokes through… you think… just a little more than yesterday.
Every storefront… in fact, any reflective surface, you walk by is an opportunity to ever-so-subtly glance from the corner of your eye and see how you look. If you like what you see – elation. If not – despair. You don’t consider that the glass may be distorting your perspective. Or you do consider it, but you can’t risk relying on that. You decide to re-commit. To do better. To be better. No matter how hard it is – you have to try harder, push more. You have to be perfect. You have to be thin.
And I mean, you have to. Not want to. Have to. At least, according to the eating disorder. The consequences, for whatever reason, feel too dire. NOT rising above. Not being able to overcome yourself. Your need. Your humanity. Not becoming super-human, it means being vulnerable. Trapped. Alone. It means different things to different people – and yet they are often so similar too. It means you might as well not be. This goal, it doesn’t feel like a choice. It doesn’t feel like a “want” – it is a need.
And it is that need that sucks you in. When you manage the need “well”, at first you feel good. The “better” you do, the more your body fights back… and so you fail (or at least, that’s what it looks like to you). But failing makes you desperate to do better. And so you try harder. You try more. You push harder. And your body fights back again, proportionate to your resistance. Directly in line with the degree of restriction. And so you fail again… maybe even harder, and become even more desperate. Even more scared. Back and forth. Up and down. Always, sinking deeper.
Eventually you are so deep, so obsessed that you can’t live for anything else. You can’t focus on anything else – you’re too busy thinking about food, weight, what next. Plus, you’re so hungry you can’t think straight, you can’t concentrate. Your work suffers, your grades suffer, your performance suffers. You suffer.
You isolate yourself from your friends, terrified they will notice what’s going on with you, worried that you won’t be able to hide your shame and struggle from them. Or, you’re simply petrified that they’ll expect you to eat with them – something you cannot face. You’re also so hungry or so busy beating yourself up for not being hungry, that you’re also snappy, irritable, distracted… you’re not really a great friend. Not anymore. And so you become more and more alone… lonely.
Those who stick with you, worry. They fight you. And you’re so desperate you fight them. Trust is lost. Compassion. Compromise. You just fight. Your relationships are filled with pain, struggle, lies.
On top of all that, your health may suffer. It might start by losing your period, if you’re a girl, but maybe you never really liked your period anyway. Maybe you get sick, just a little more intensely or more often. But then comes shortness of breath, dizziness, maybe even fainting, or a racing heart. Maybe it even scares you – but you just try to keep the symptoms at bay. It so often still is not enough to motivate you to change. You don’t really believe it can be that bad. It is. But you don’t really believe it.
And for some… you might, honestly, rather die than gain weight. The thought is just too much. Too scary. The consequences seem too dreadful. Disastrous. Unacceptable. Unliveable.
That said, it’s also not all bad. If it were, you wouldn’t do it.
So what does go well?
Well, you might be thin. Maybe. People may comment on your looks. Praise you for your figure. Or maybe for losing a few pounds. They might even envy you… or at least your frame. You feel like you’ve done it. You’ve gotten to that place that everyone seems to long for. You won. You made it. Until you eat… and then become terrified that it will all go away.
You might have that… but, many don’t even get there. Most people with eating disorders are not particularly thin. They just struggle. They just keep hoping to get there. Or they get there for a few weeks, a month, maybe even a year. But you start to slip. Or the praise, the envy starts to slip away… and then you really become desperate. Afraid.
But even if you don’t get to be thin, when you’re engaging this way you do often get the feeling that you get to chose. That you have power – of some sort. That you’re in the driver’s seat. You feel super-human sometimes. Better, for not giving in. If you can resist. You feel less vulnerable… to others. To the world. To being human.
Or, for some, giving in to a binge can feel good… at least at first… There is a release. A letting go. You’re so often, worried, in control, stopping yourself, saying no… it can feel so GOOD to say yes. The contrast of control versus complete surrender, feels big. It feels real. It makes you feel. Those extremes, sometimes they feel good. Even if lot’s of times they don’t. Not afterward. Not when you realize the consequences… your weight. Then, you feel worse than ever.
But it is the idea of conquering. This addiction to being more than yourself. The potential of escaping the limits that most “mere mortals” are weak to. Feeling special. This is often close to the core of what drives the experience. It is the potential of being… somehow… more, than the person we fear is hidden within that hooks people. It makes them feel like they can be more than the ugly, worthless thing they often truly see their real selves to be… that drives the feeling like they have to hold on. They have to… in order to make it, to be acceptable enough, to be OK.
When you have an eating disorder… you can’t see that the whole thing, is a myth. You can’t see your inherrant worth as a human being. You can’t believe you’re OK. You can’t trust life.
But, like I said. Eating disorders are experienced very differently, by different people. Male. Female. Young. Old. Thick. Thin. And everything in between.
But I do hope that, perhaps, this account gives just you one glimpse, from one perspective, of what it can be like to have an eating disorder.