A blog by Lucy, in support of national Eating Disorders Awareness Week and the ‘Time To Change’ Campaign against mental health discrimination.
What does someone with an eating disorder look like?
Could you spot them in a line-up?
What would you look for?
Well, I expect you’d probably be looking for someone who fits the stereotypes we’re presented with by some sections of the media; the images of emaciated, skeletal frames, the pictures chosen for the maximum shock-factor.
But is that what all people with eating disorders really look like?
Well, some do, but in reality most don’t. In fact you probably already know someone with an eating disorder, but they most likely don’t talk about it. That’s how it is for most sufferers, a quiet, daily struggle.
Eating disorders are, sadly, increasingly common and, like people, they come in all shapes and sizes. Eating problems range from compulsive overeating to binging and purging, obsessions with certain food types, and the severe restriction of food intake; in fact there is such a range and variety, that as well as the commonly known types with clear medical criteria (such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa) there is a vast group of sufferers who will be diagnosed with the ‘catch-all’ term EDNOS, or ‘Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified’.
Contrary to popular belief eating disorders are not restricted to young, middle-classed women, but are prevalent across gender, age, ethnic and socio-economic groups, and sufferers do not choose to develop an eating disorder in order to look a certain way.
So, people with eating disorders are not easy to spot in a crowd, but what they do have in common is that they are all suffering from a dangerous and debilitating mental illness.
In reality, the eating disorder itself is usually just the outward manifestation of a deeper problem for most sufferers. The truth is that eating disorders are mental illnesses first and physical illnesses second. In fact, in terms of mortality rates they are considered the most dangerous of all mental illnesses, with around 20% of sufferers dying prematurely as a result of the disease.
The chances are you already know someone with an eating disorder. If you know me, then you certainly do, because I’ve lived with an eating disorder for around 15 years now. It shifts its shape, comes and goes, but is stubbornly difficult to shake off. Sometimes it’s better than others, but it’s always there. So, when I hear former alcoholics say they’ll always be alcoholics but they just don’t drink any more, I get it. For alcoholics, however, it is at least possible to stay away from your nemesis – for the eating disordered there’s no such opportunity. We have to eat every day for the rest of our lives.
I describe myself as a ‘managing anorexic’, in that I have learned to stay on top of it, recognise the warning signs and take action before I become too ill to fight. Like me, most eating disordered people are perfectly aware that their behaviour is irrational, but still find that they can’t break out of it.
It’s a paradox. I call it my ‘spaghetti head’, because it tangles my thinking and makes me behave in ways I can’t control.
What’s it like? Well it’s far better now, but sometimes it still feels a bit like a life sentence. For me, ‘managing’ means organising my life in such a way that I avoid the situations I find difficult, and keeping my eating and exercising (I was an obsessive exerciser) at levels with which I can be comfortable. Every day is still a mental battle ground for me, and even the most basic of everyday activities (like having a meal with family or friends) can be extremely difficult.
It’s not ideal, but there are plenty of people out there who deal with far worse. I’m just thankful that it no longer prevents me from achieving things and living a reasonably normal life – and this is largely due to the amazing support network I have around me and the many years of treatment which helped me get to this point.
So, this eating disorders awareness week, for once, I wanted to speak out about my eating disorder instead of hiding it, and say these five things:
Yes I have an eating disorder, but it does not define me.
Yes I have an eating disorder, but it does not stop me from contributing to society.
Yes I have an eating disorder, but I am not a freak or a wannabe.
Yes I have an eating disorder, but it’s not about how I look.
Yes I have an eating disorder, but I am still a Human Being.
If we want to prevent others from having to go through the worst an eating disorder can offer, we need to stop treating these diseases as though they’re something to be ashamed of, scoffed at (excuse the pun), or whispered about.
We need to talk about eating problems, acknowledge them, and get sufferers the help they need to make a full recovery before they become just another ‘lifer’ like me…
It’s eating disorders awareness week in the UK – find out how you can break the silence and participate by visiting BEAT, the eating disorders charity, or, if you think you may know someone who needs help with an eating problem, I’ve put some personal thoughts below on what to look out for and how to help.
Does someone you know have an eating disorder?*
If you think you might know someone who has an eating disorder, these are some of the warning signs to watch out for:
Changes in attitude to food – fixed routines, eating less or more, ritualistic behaviour.
Cutting out certain food groups or restricting the kinds of foods they will eat.
Heavy consumption of diet drinks/caffeine.
Dizziness or fainting episodes.
Checking food labels when shopping, carefully weighing out portions.
Buying large quantities of foods, hoarding/hiding food.
Discomfort and anxiety when eating with others, or eating out.
Weighing themselves regularly.
Evidence that they are buying quantities of laxatives, diet pills, or metabolism increasing drugs.
Excessive and/or obsessive exercising.
Significant weight loss or gain.
Spending lots of time in the bathroom – particularly after eating.
Tooth decay, general lack of self-care.
What to do*
The person you are concerned about may already be receiving treatment, and if this is the case, just offering them your support is something they will probably be very grateful for. However, if the person you are concerned about has not admitted they have a problem this can be really difficult, no matter how close you are to them.
Many people with eating disorders will try to protect themselves from having to deal with their behaviour by trying to hide it or denying it. They can become very clever at covering it up, and may become angry, upset, or try to laugh it off if you question them about it.
So what can you do to help someone if you think they may have an eating disorder and need help?
Be gentle but firm in first discussing the issue with them.
Talk to them and be persistent, even if they get upset or angry.
Show that you are worried about them and want them to get help.
Help them take the first steps to getting better by seeking help from a doctor or contacting ‘BEAT’, the eating disorders charity.
*PLEASE NOTE: I’m not a doctor or a mental health professional…so this is my own advice, from a sufferer’s perspective. Always seek professional advice if you’re unsure.