I’m going to talk about some hard things here, and hopefully no one will be upset or offended by it. It is important for me to write about, but I may not express myself as well as I would hope. Some of this may be triggering. I do discuss information about other people, but I haven’t included names, and I tweaked some details and merged some people.
Yesterday, I started thinking about eating disorders. At first, I was thinking about how I have somewhat overcome my own eating disorder. I was a compulsive eater for most of my teen years. I don’t know if people really understand what compulsive eating is. I think there is a belief that compulsive eaters just really enjoy food and don’t have any self-control. I don’t remember enjoying food- I remember using it to try to calm down my emotions, mostly unsuccessfully. I remember crying in front of the refrigerator, stuffing myself until I vomited, and then eating more. I remember trying to starve myself all day, and then gorging at night while I (again) cried and occasionally forced myself to vomit. And then I remember wishing that instead of a being a compulsive eater, I was anorexic. I’ve realized since then that anorexia is destructive and all-consuming, just like what I was dealing with, but back then, even though I knew that it was eventually deadly for many people, I would have given anything to be thin.
Eating Disorders are a kind of caste-system, I think. They are of course made fun of and reviled, because mental illnesses of any sort are seen as personal problems. But Anorexia is at the top of the Eating Disorder hierarchy in many minds. Bulimia is gross, over-eating makes you fat, but for Anorexia there is a sly, dangerous sort of respect. The kind of control one must have to eat nothing, or to do so much exercise that they may as well have eaten nothing, is something people actually envy while at the same time treating those who are anorexic, or who they suspect are anorexic, with disdain. Anorexia itself- the term- is used to shame very thin people, but the behavior (over exercising, skipping meals, drinking tons of water to fill up) is actually somewhat encouraged until it advances to the point where one is extremely unhealthy. I don’t think people actually know, or care, what eating disorders look like, or what they do to someone (beyond affecting their weight.)
When I was in my 20s, I was hospitalized in a mental ward that also had an eating disorder program. It was horrible for me, and I think the eating disorder patients (bulimic and anorexic) should have been in their own ward. I could not talk about being overweight in front of those patients in group, because it would trigger them, even though that was a main component of many of my own issues. I felt less important than them because of that, and because I was obsessed with my weight I subconsciously attributed being less important to the fact that I was overweight and thus ugly and unworthy. At lunch I would be ashamed to eat, even though the ED patients were over in a corner away from everyone else. My feelings of disgust towards myself intensified until if I even thought of food I’d feel like vomiting. After a few days, I was locked out of my room until I ate at least half of my food, the same as the ED patients. I had thought eating less would make me feel better, and for a day or two it did, but my head began full of thoughts of how many calories what I did eat contained and how I could get rid of the extra. I felt completely controlled by thoughts of not gaining weight in front of the ED patients, who, by the way, could not care less about what I weighed.
When I actually started thinking about what these people must be going through, I realized that their struggles were all-consuming and painful, and in some cases caused by the same issues as my own food problems. The patients, mostly with Anorexia but some with Bulimia, all had a variety of health problems. Some were losing their hair. Some were growing downy hair on their faces and bodies. Several had had heart attacks or strokes, and these were mostly young people. One looked like she was in her 80s when I first met her, and she was 19.
There is one incident that sticks in my brain. I was sitting in the visiting area drawing while another patient was talking with her mother. She had gained some weight lately, (she was under 100 pounds still) and what I noticed about her was that her dark circles were fading and her skin wasn’t looking dull anymore. But her mother, who had come to visit her, noticed that she was getting a slight pot belly. When she commented on this I felt my heart drop into my stomach, so how must her daughter have felt? The mother continued on to say she wanted her daughter to be happy and to get over Anorexia, but she also wanted her to be healthy. This was a girl who’d had a heart attack and who had, at one point, been so weak she couldn’t walk; pot belly or no, she was infinitely more healthy then she had been. But the mother just continued, and basically what she was saying was that she didn’t want her daughter to be anorexic, but she didn’t want her to be fat, either.
I think that sort of pressure- be perfect, but don’t show any weakness or do anything weird to get there, and if you do know when to stop- is just getting stronger lately. I have realized that many people who I think are beautiful and just generally amazing think that they are not enough. And I feel horrified and upset by it, but I don’t know what to do, besides trying to accept them as they are. Not that I’ve always been like that.
A few years ago, I found out my mother was anorexic and bulimic when I was a kid. In retrospect, I’m surprised I didn’t realize it earlier. Or rather, my sister and I both knew my mother had a problem, but we never really put it into words. And because we were young, it was a problem for us. We didn’t really think about her. I thought she looked like a skeleton with skin, and it embarrassed me. I thought her hair was thin and stringy, and I wanted her to fix it. I thought her teeth were gross, and I wanted her to keep her mouth shut. They way she ate, and what she ate, also bugged me. My mom was basically 6 feet when I was a kid (she’s shrunk some now) but she had an idea of how much a person should weigh that did not take her height into account. I just wanted her to look “normal,” and act normal, and stop being all weird. But the worse thing is, when she gained weight, that also embarrassed me. I just wanted her to fit what I thought women should look like, and what I thought mothers should look like, and I applied the same sense of shame to her appearance as I did to my own. I never knew that my mother’s teeth had rotted out because of how much she made herself throw up. I never knew that from when she was 18- and 6 feet- she religiously kept her weight at 99 pounds, whatever it took. I never knew the trouble she had in social interactions, the stress she felt in normal, day-to-day life, that she coped with by starving herself. And I didn’t realize until later how much it hurt her to see me struggling with food.
Her response to my overeating was not always the best, truthfully. She would comment on how much I ate, storm in to my room and ask me if I’d eaten something she’d been saving, tell me how many calories were in my lunch. She understood that I was struggling, and she wanted to help, but the only way she could think of to help was to get me to stop. And when I think of that, though I know it wasn’t the right response, I understand it. I thought that my mother was ashamed of my weight, but she’s never thought I was anything less than beautiful. She was just afraid of food ruling my life. My mother has come to accept herself, and me, and I am so sorry I didn’t understand her.
This has been a bit of a rambling post, because I had so many thoughts and feelings. But I think what I wanted to say was that eating disorders don’t boil down to wanting to be thin or having no control. They don’t come from one source and they can’t be solved by willing someone not to have them. And most of all, that whatever the result, they are hurtful things that take control of one’s life to the point where there is nothing else. But they can also be gotten over.
I still weigh significantly more than I want to, and I am still upset by it. But I’m learning more and more to separate my self-worth from my weight. I’m learning how to look at myself in the mirror and find things to admire, and I’m learning how to value my talents and my personality as much as I value physical appearance. It is hard and I haven’t made it yet, but at least I have a goal.
Why am I still so sad, when I am trying so hard?
Why am I still so unsure of myself?
Why do I still hate myself?
Why do I look at every opportunity and immediately think I can’t do it?
Why are my emotions looked down upon so much?
Why are all jobs in fast paced environments which basically mean little structure and guidance?
Why do all work places search for people who can handle a horrible work environment? Why don’t those places endeavor to fix the work environment instead?
Why am I deficient?
Why do I think so much?
Why can’t I stop the voice in my head?
Why am I stuck here, without any dreams or hopes or prospects? When I stopped hoping, that was when it became the worst…
Why am I so lonely? What is it about it me?
Why do I isolate myself from my friends and loved ones?
Why do I alienate people?
Why do they keep going and I can’t?
Why is it like this?
There’s being aware of your emotions, and then there’s not being able to escape from your emotions. My feelings are sometimes physically painful, and I often feel like I just want them to stop so I can move on. Occasionally I don’t even know what they are caused by. I can think about it objectively when I am not upset, but when I am upset it overwhelms me. I know friends who don’t express these emotions, but turn them inward and either harm themselves, or go into a deep depression, or both. If you have a similar problem, you might constantly hear others say you get upset about nothing, or you get offended by everything, or you get all worked up and sad over things that are not that important.
The problem with these statements is that they assume that you are deliberately going overboard. Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, is a disorder that you might get diagnosed with if you have this issue. A Borderline diagnoses comes with a lot of stigma, even from medical care professionals, and especially from people who have experience with friends or family members with it but don’t understand a lot about it. I read a comment the other day suggesting that “People with Borderline Personality disorder know that they’re going overboard and being reactionary, and they’re doing it on purpose to hurt others. With treatment, they can stop.”
I agree with the last statement, but not the rest. I will be honest and say that I have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder in the past, but my diagnoses has now been amended to Bipolar II, ADD, and OCD. Truthfully, Borderline Personality Disorder is basically a description of behaviors that may come from a combination of other disorders, and I do fit some of the symptoms. But I am glad I have escaped from the diagnosis, because under the umbrella of the Borderline diagnosis, I experienced doctors telling me things like “This is why I hate treating Borderlines. They can’t be helped” or “This is why I hate treating cutters.” When I was emotional, my feelings would be dismissed as manipulation or as trying to get attention, or I was told I enjoyed being miserable. I felt very confused, and hurt, because my emotions were very real and pressing and I felt like I was being told they weren’t valid or important. My self-esteem suffered, and I started to believe that anytime anyone hurt me, even situations where someone was actually doing something horrible to me, I was just supposed to be quiet and take it.