by Adrienne Rennie
Note: This post originally appeared on Crossing Over The Line and has been cross-posted with permission.
I didn’t recover from my eating disorder in the “traditional” sense. And, by traditional, I simply mean in a hospital setting. I recovered alone and without medical help, purely for the fact I was not unwell enough and, because of the nature of all eating disorders, my secretiveness worked “fantastically” for me especially with my body shape during my time with the illness. In other words, I didn’t look I had an eating disorder.
Around a year and half after recovery, I became an ambassador for Beat; the charity you love to hear me go on about. When I joined, I couldn’t quite say what my eating disorder was. Because I had received no help, I couldn’t categorise myself. I knew I had starved myself but I knew I had binged and purged too. Was I a victim of anorexia? Was it bulimia? I really wasn’t certain. So, I told people I had anorexia with a tendency for bulimia. It wasn’t until I had learned about the term EDNOS, or as its now called OSFED, as well as orthorexia, that I really learned about what I suffered from as a teenager.
And, thank God for Beat. What a comfort and relief to finally be able to put a name to an illness.
But, that didn’t end the doubt.
It was quite funny, and not funny ha-ha but funny “I can’t believe I am feeling this way again”, that once I realised what my diagnosis was the doubt really began to manifest itself in me.
Working within an eating disorder charity, I was exposed to all sorts of cases: binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, EDNOS etc. I was with a group of strong and wonderful people. But something that stuck out to me was I was one of the only ones who hadn’t been admitted to hospital at any point. While I was certainly not envious, I had a strange feeling of not being taken seriously for my illness because of how I had recovered. People within Beat as always are supportive, but it was when I was compared against those that I have worked with in the charity that I begin to doubt myself. The more open I was with my illness, the more I felt people didn’t believe me.
This creates a sense of falsehood and, often, makes me worry that I exaggerated my illness or question if I was really ill at all. This is something a majority of eating disorder sufferers go through especially when trying to seek treatment. We spend countless hours convincing ourselves we are not ill as we are not as thin as the stereotypical idea of an eating disorder. Or, we do not perceive ourselves as matching this image. What’s worse is sometimes the health care system denies us treatment because we are not sick enough looking. I mean, imagine finally breaking through that wall of ‘ignorance’ to the illness your eating disorder builds and seeking help only to be told by a professional: “you don’t look anorexic.”
My problem was I hadn’t even made it to the GP as I knew myself I didn’t look sick enough and not many around me knew the signs and symptoms to look for. Purely because, in my teens, there was a lot of glorification of eating disorders. Social media was still quite a niche thing. Twitter was still growing. Instagram had only been around a little while. Facebook wasn’t quite what it is today. Tumblr was a minefield for Pro Ana and Pro Mia blogs as the website hadn’t quite gotten to blacklisting certain tags. The only evidence of eating disorders was on shows like Skins, Supersize vs Superskinny, and the occasional Channel 4 shockumentary. What was available was the most extreme versions of eating disorders. A lot of air time was given to bones and extreme starvation. Therefore, people, parents in particular, would watch these shows and this is where they would learn the signs and symptoms. Except these were at one end of the scale only. A lot of disordered eating behaviours went unnoticed as they didn’t fit this extreme criteria. It was still seen as this odd little physical disorder, not a mental disorder that manifests itself in physical reactions. As a consequence, I suppose my family couldn’t see my disorder because it was not as extreme. Behaviours like withdrawal, secretiveness, fatigue, or just a general uncomfortable shift in behaviour that wasn’t quite their daughter. And that wasn’t their fault. Of course, it wasn’t their fault. There was not enough appropriate education out there for them to notice; just like there wasn’t enough information for me when it came to figuring out what branch of an eating disorder I had.
So, what does that mean for me in recovery?
Generally, I am positive and a strong advocate for eating disorder. I know I was ill. 7 times out of ten I don’t doubt my experience. However, I still feel like I am being fraudulent when I was explain my eating disorders to others. When I am not doing opportunities, and am relatively free to talk explicitly about my eating disorder with trusted people, I sometimes find myself reaching for the darkest things I did in my eating disorder. That brings up a lot of shame and, sometimes, I feel embarrassed as I know it makes others uncomfortable. But, I feel the need to do this because, otherwise, I may not be believed or others do not see my disorder as really that serious.
Not being a stereotypical eating disorder patient can work against you in the worst way. But, in the best way for the eating disorder itself. Because there is a feeling of not being believed or taken seriously enough, I felt, in a bizarre way, like a failure. An eating disorder manifests these negative core beliefs that you are already a failure and need to better; you have to be perfect, and that includes being perfect at the eating disorder. An eating disorder makes you think that the more you binge, purge, restrict etc., the better you are, and that shows itself, in reality, as being hospitalised and looking sick (so the stereotype suggests). So, the old eating disorder thoughts pop up every so often and make me, personally, think about the stereotype and how far from the stereotype I was. And the eating disorder seems to laugh in the shadows as it thinks I failed. It’s a horrible belief to fight against as you went through the eating disorder with the illness forcing you to think you were a failure, and then because you are surrounded by all these stereotypes perpetrated by the media you are made to feel like you failed in actually suffering in the eating disorder.
As if it’s something to be successful at.
Each eating disorder is different. Each eating disorder is difficult. Each eating disorder is serious. Each eating disorder should be believed.
It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t super skinny. It doesn’t matter if I wasn’t hospitalised. It doesn’t matter how sick I was. I was sick.
What matters is that I was in a very bad frame of mind and nobody could see or nobody noticed. However, it’s not exactly their fault as I said. Even nowadays, we should see an increase in education focused on eating disorder behaviours and cognitions. We, and that includes those who have suffered from eating disorders, need to learn about the thought processes eating disorder victims have. It’ll help others to learn about the way we think and why we feel forced to perform these dangerous behaviours. It’s not just about the physical symptoms. It’s about understanding the reasons why. It’s seeing the hidden symptoms that aid the eating disorder to worsen and become more secretive. Symptoms like insecurities in body image, withdrawn/isolation, both looking exhausted and being exhausted, mood swings, wearing baggier clothes, pinching skin…
Don’t treat an eating disorder victim like they don’t matter because they don’t fit the media’s criteria. It makes us feel like we aren’t worth the help. It makes us submit the cruel thoughts our eating disorders put in our heads; the ones that tell us we’re not trying hard enough with the eating disorder. It traps us in this dangerous cycle of the intensification of an eating disorder and not seeking help because we are so plagued with this idea that we are sick enough for it.
I personally believe that, while we may not be admitted to an inpatient clinic or mental health ward, mental health help should be made available or, at least, advertised to those who need it. Yes, treating an eating disorder does rely on bringing the sufferer back to healthy eating. But, if you don’t visit the thought processes surrounding these dangerous and self-harming behaviours then you are going to see the sufferer fall back into their eating disorder’s grip again and again and again. Look at the vulnerable and triggering areas. Help us deal with the negative feelings in a better way, because when we were sick, those eating behaviours were the only way. Learn about all eating disorders. Teach those around you of the different types of eating disorders that the media misses.
If you don’t listen and learn, we get overlooked. If you don’t take us seriously, neither do we. No matter it’s name or what it looks like on the person, no eating disorder is alike, but we all want to be given a helping hand to stand on our own two feet again. Don’t give our eating disorders a chance to plant doubts in our head about our illness and the recovery. We don’t want them to come back, and we fight everyday to make sure they don’t. Help us fight too.