No easy fix for people with eating disorders
To the editor:
Re: Feb. 5 to 11 is Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
I am a member of the Advocacy Group for Adults with Eating Disorders in B.C. I am not an expert in eating disorders (EDs);
I only know about my struggle. I am almost five years in recovery from anorexia after a seven-year battle. I am in my late 20s and began my struggle at 16.
As someone who was lucky enough to finally get proper treatment outside of Canada, I am grateful to be alive. It was a hard road to get where I am today. It took people believing in me and offering to help, wanting to live, relearning how to eat and take care of myself again, and realizing I had a reason to live and was worth it.
People with EDs come in all sizes and shapes, may be young, middle aged or old, male or female, underweight, normal weight, overweight or obese, any nationality or colour, and so forth.
There is increasing evidence that there is a genetic or biological predisposition to developing an ED.
They are serious psychological illnesses and include anorexia, bulimia, eating disorder not otherwise specified, and binge eating disorder to name a few. They are often a way to cope with trauma, fear, stress, anxiety, depression, etc., but result in even more emotional suffering. They can lead to medical complications and death. You cannot tell someone has an ED or is at risk of death based solely on their size.
The mortality rate for eating disorders is the highest of any mental illness at 10 to 20 per cent. About half of all deaths result from medical causes; the other half from suicide.
Weight restoration/stabilization or symptom interruption heightens the distress and fear in those with an eating disorder. As a result, they may engage in dangerous compensatory behaviours including compulsive over-exercise, laxatives, diuretics, ‘diet pills,’ and deliberate self-harm. These can lead to electrolyte imbalance, sudden heart failure, osteopenia, osteoporosis, loss of bowel function, kidney failure and death.
Weight stabilization is not a cure for EDs. Eating disorders are a mental illness, not a physical disease. We are often afraid of recovery partly because if we weight-stabilize, people will think we are cured and no one will help us anymore. Weight is not what EDs are truly about, even though they appear to be.
Eating disorders often occur with other disorders including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and personality disorders. They are difficult to treat, and relapse rates are high.
What I would like others to know is this: EDs are not something we want. They are also not something to make light of or joke about. They kill every day. They are not harmless. We are struggling to survive something that threatens to steal our life when it has already taken so much. It is a fight not everyone survives.
You may believe you are ‘different’ and it won’t happen to you because you’re not really “that skinny,” you don’t need as much food as others, you aren’t really “that sick,” or other people are “more sick and deserving.”
The disease is inside your head 24 hours a day; a voice constantly telling you that you are fat, you are not good enough, you are bad or deserve to suffer, other people are more needy and deserving, or everything bad in your life is your fault.
You live in constant fear. Even in those who achieve a stable period of recovery, lasting even years, it can still resurface in times of stress.
Signs that someone you know may be developing or suffering an ED include strange or rigid eating habits, restrictive eating, large amounts of food disappearing, dramatically increased exercise, disappearing after every meal, dramatic weight change accompanied by denial that there is a problem, isolation from friends, family and social events, and difficulties at school or work as a result of reduced cognition, concentration and short term memory.
What can you do?
If you are a parent of a young person, seek help. For services in your community, contact http://keltyeatingdisorders.ca/.
Whatever your relationship to a child or adult with an ED, express your love, support and concern, and open the door for us to talk about it.
Ask us what would help. Listen and respond without judgment. You cannot be our therapist, so please don’t try. Talking to us is full of pitfalls. Please don’t tell us that we look good or better. All we hear is “you look fat.” Please don’t try to force or guilt feed us.
Most of all, please be patient and forgive us. Forgive our bad decisions and seemingly irrational behaviours and reactions. They are made out of fear and anger at ourselves. Forgive us for isolating from you, for doing damaging things, and for our inability to hear your words. Thank you.