It started with a whisper, that if that little extra fat disappeared from my body – from my stomach, from my thighs, from my arms, from my face – life might be just a little bit better.
Then the whisper got a little louder. What if I no longer had to cover my body in baggy clothes and shy away from bright lights?
Then it became a voice, at first a suggestive voice: maybe eat a little less at dinner? The suggestive voice was almost calling me to challenge it. What if I eat nothing at dinner?
It smirked at me. I knew I was getting the gist.
Things around me began mattering less because I was getting very good at keeping that smirk on the voice’s face. I had a new friend and we got along very well. Not like all my other friends who didn’t have the guts to avoid the extra slice of cake. I was disciplined enough to not eat. I was good at this. And my new friend praised me.
But then the friendly voice became a little angry. When my little inklings of self-care or any kind of protection kicked in, my voice was angry. It wanted to be my only protector. After all, my friend knew best. Whenever I tried to disobey, it would scream at me, and of course I would follow its guidance. It was, after all, my safety. My only certain safety.
At first I liked the control. I loved it. Any sense of self that I had, I could finally let go of and allow my new friend to guide my life. I knew I was safe in its hands because after all, it was there, in my head. It was me, only a better version of me, able to take control of any situations the old, weak me couldn’t handle and able to deal with them instantly. Most importantly, it kept me safe. I was always safe. When anything came my way and tried to hurt me, I just listened to my voice and it told me exactly what to do. At least, following it, it hurt less when all the bad things happened, because I knew that I had power over what went in and out of my body.
It only became a problem when I realized the power was never really my own, but belonged to a possessive part of myself that killed a small part of me one day at a time.
Is it not just about being thin?
Over the last couple of years, we’ve been bombarded with images of emaciated models as the definition of eating disorders. Even though they represent one very true side of eating disorders, this isn’t the full picture. Eating disorders actually have very little to do with food and weight in general. The disorder usually develops as a defense mechanism to protect the individual from the emotional impact of trauma, abusive relationships and other struggles.
For this reason, eating disorders are often comorbid with other mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression. Even though body image issues and one’s relationship with food are a main part of the disorder, a lot of the turmoil for the individual is in the constant obsessive and irrational thoughts, fear, disconnection from emotions and unhealthy relationships they form.
Fear is a very key component in the development of an eating disorder, and this fear is often tied with a lack of control over one’s life. Fear of the knowledge of where you stand, fear of not living up to the expectations others have of you, fear of not being good enough. The loss of control over any of these things can cause immense anxiety. It’s hard to function when dealing with such issues, creating a perfect space for an eating disorder to come in and serve as the part of the self that exercises the control. It allows you to control how much food goes into your body, how many calories you burn, or how much food you throw up, and thus also how much food remains in your body. And somehow, in this way, a brain ‘possessed’ by itself can find a form of control and temporary peace. The problem is that nothing is ever enough for the eating disorder so it will keep searching for more. More control, more perfection, more …
Diligence, discipline, perfectionism, “appearing to have your life together” – these are a lot of factors common to individuals struggling with eating disorders, and are very often exercised as a way to maintain control. Because these are characteristics that don’t come up as red flags, and are often even praised in society, individuals struggling with eating disorders often don’t recognize they are sick, and may also not be identified as being sick by others. In many cases, especially with bulimia and binge eating disorder, body weight is maintained at a normal level, so it can be very hard to understand when someone is struggling.
How should you approach a friend with an eating disorder?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of dieting and unhealthy eating at this time in our lives, so it can be hard to know whether a friend is eating in the way they are because they have disordered eating habits or because they genuinely don’t have/make time in their day. If you think they might be struggling with an eating disorder, look at the reasons your friend gives about their eating patterns. Do they seem to be using them as a coping mechanism when they are stressed? How much does not going to the gym on a day they had planned to impact their emotional well-being? Are they routinely avoiding food and giving you what seem to be excuses about why?
The crucial aspect here though is how you confront them. As contradictory as it might seem, the instinctive response to being confronted about such an issue is to sink deeper into it. If you tell someone that what they are and have been doing to maintain control over their life is wrong and unhealthy, and they feel watched, they will do anything in their power to keep their “safe space” safe from anyone trying to disrupt it, even if that someone is trying to help them.
What has helped me most is understanding the important role that fear plays. Fear of being alone, fear of not being deserving, fear of not being enough. Sometimes you don’t need to talk about the issue with someone. Sometimes it is enough to love them, to listen to them, to support them no matter what. And most of all, not to judge them, even if you don’t understand what they’re going through. Share with them your questions. Ask them, or someone else, about what you don’t understand. And finally, guide them, if they are open to it, to more resources.
Final thought, and something I struggle with a lot myself:
You can’t save someone, you can only love them.
Resources (on and off campus):
- Counseling and Psychological Services at Gannett (CAPS) “Confidential Counseling with professionals” – (607)-255-5208 (http://www.gannett.cornell.edu/services/counseling/caps/index.cfm)
- Let’s Talk at Gannett “Easy access to informal, confidential consultations with counselors from Gannett Health Services. Walk in Hours at sites around campus” (http://www.gannett.cornell.edu/services/counseling/caps/talk/index.cfm)
- Cornell Health Eating Program (CHEP) “Optimize health and performance through nutrition knowledge and practice. Nutrition, medical and psychological information and care. Professional resources for the treatment of eating disorders” (https://www.gannett.cornell.edu/topics/nutrition/program/)
- Empathy, Assistance, and Referral Service (EARS) “Ears counselors, fellow students, will confidentially help you explore aspects of your issue, your options and possible solutions” – (607)-255-EARS (http://ears.dos.cornell.edu)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) “Support and information around mental illness” (http://www.nami.org)
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) “Advocating for and support individuals and families affected by eating disorder. Information available for treatment and resources” (http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org)
Zoe is a sophomore in arts and sciences. She does Public Relations for Cornell Minds Matter and is really interested in mental health awareness around campus. Read My Mind appears alternate Fridays this semester. Feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or just to talk!