One of the most damaging perceptions about eating disorders is that they are something that can be seen, that their severity is based on physical presentation and that only extremely thin individuals are ill. One of the big barriers to treatment is a feeling of ‘not being sick enough’ or ‘I shouldn’t have a problem’. These stereotypes are reinforced by myths surrounding eating disorders such as that they ‘only affect young girls’, that they are a ‘side effect of vanity’ and that they are a ‘choice’ or ‘lifestyle’.
Through treatment I’ve met many other patients of different ages, backgrounds, body shapes; girls, women, men and boys. I have met sisters, mothers, brothers, fathers, doctors, students, teachers, carers: – people. Genuine people battling a genuine mental illness who are all very ill although to the outside world they present as “looking fine” and being “highly successful”.
Never once have I met someone suffering with an eating disorder that has been vain or selfish; only genuine people being tortured with an inner turmoil that has the potential to kill them if left untreated. Recovery is very difficult. I don’t doubt it will be one of the hardest and most influential experiences of my life yet it’s something I feel is necessary to hide, something to be ashamed of and this is reinforced by the risk of being judged by the misconceptions surrounding the illness.
Shame and secrecy are a huge part of eating disorders: shame in which you are; shame in what you are doing to cope and the shame of feeling weak. It is not unusual to meet people struggling through this, one of the hardest battles of their lives completely alone, too afraid to ask for support, too ashamed of their situation. When you have an eating disorder it completely consumes you. You live in a web of lies, broken promises, shame, guilt and pain. It’s a very difficult place to be and those struggling need compassion and understanding not judgement. However, that is always difficult for everyone involved because usually the sufferer doesn’t even understand what’s happening themselves.
Many go years without letting in any of their loved ones for fear of rejection, shame and ultimately letting go of the thing that has helped them survive for so long. One of the hardest parts of recovery is that you have to choose it every day, multiple times a day! You have to choose to fight against almost every part of you that’s crippling you with anxiety, you have to understand that it’s your brain’s way of trying to protect you but you need to persevere knowing that unhealthy behaviours will only hurt you more. A greater understanding of this illness is vital to save lives. It has been proven that with early intervention recovery rates are high, but with ongoing illness that percentage drops to much lower levels.
Recovery is not only about learning to eat again, although that is the base and hugely necessary step in recovery. An eating disorder has always served a purpose and the sufferer will need to find a whole new range of healthy coping mechanisms. Recovery is long, recovery is hard, but recovery is possible. I’m not there yet but I’ve seen others succeed and we all have to keep focused on the end goal.
Eating disorders are a mental illness, not solely about food but an eating disorder develops as a coping strategy for a huge variety of reasons. No two reasons are the same, no two disorders are the same and Eating Disorders don’t come in a size, they just come miserable.
Our Support and Information Line at St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services can be contacted at (01) 249 3333 or by emailing email@example.com
Our Helpline for 18-25 year olds can be reached at (01) 249 3555 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org