I would never wish an eating disorder on my worst enemy. Recovery is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had, but it is also one of the most painful, and I would never wish that on anyone. I would never wish for someone to understand what it means to have an eating disorder, to live through the anxiety, obsession, and fear, and come out on the other side of it, but I do wish to be understood. Mental illness is unfortunately common but is often not addressed to the extent it should be or treated with the same level of importance as physical health – whether that be by medical professionals, in school, in the work place, etc. Stigma and misconceptions around mental illness as a whole, but especially eating disorders (from what I have experienced), falsely communicate and can attempt to minimize the true dangers of this disease to society. These misconceptions lead people who are struggling to be reluctant to seek help or open up to others (which is often crucial in recovery), and make the world an incredibly difficult environment for recovery overall. My goal is to work to fight the stigma and correct misconceptions that perpetuate this unhealthy cycle in my community. The following are various comments that have been made to me throughout my recovery. They initially shocked me and elicited an emotional response of frustration and anxiety, but when I consider these comments now, they truthfully convey the false idea of mental illness that I am trying to work against. These comments do not reflect poorly on those who made them in my mind, but they do reflect on the failure of a system to provide adequate education about mental health.
“You were eleven? I didn’t even know that was possible; I thought anorexia was a teen thing.”
This comment was made to me when I first opened up about my eating disorder to this friend. I immediately regretted it. Though it was not her intention at all, and my internal reaction speaks more to my own triggers, I felt invalidated. I felt like she was insinuating that I was the “wrong” age to struggle with an eating disorder, and that meant I wasn’t actually sick… right? WRONG. Eating disorders do not have requirements. One does not have to be a certain age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, weight, etc. for their struggle to be valid and serious. All eating disorders are serious. All mental health struggles are valid.
“Sometimes I wish I had an eating disorder so I could lose some of this chub.”
I won’t deny it, this comment hurt. It not only hurt to hear a friend describe an eating disorder as a manner of losing weight or to say she wished for one, but it also hurt to hear someone I care about talk about their body so harmfully. First of all, eating disorders are not about weight. I can only speak to anorexia and orthorexia as that is what I have experienced, and though a side effect of these disorders is weight loss, that is not the root issue or the cause of the illness. Eating disorders are not a crash diet or a nutrition plan: they are a sickness. In fact, if I really look inward, my eating disorders barely had anything to do with weight or food at all. Every eating disorder can manifest itself differently among different people, but for me, when I felt out of control, which was usually characterized by extreme anxiety and being overwhelmed by my surroundings, I tried to control my intake, my weight, and my body to cope. Food/weight was the symptom, not the disease. The sense of control I found in numbers coupled with the body image troubles and lack of self confidence that often accompanies early adolescence, as well as the genetic piece as my mom went through a similar situation when she was in college, created the perfect storm. Funnily enough, the strategy I turned to to help me feel in control ended up making me spiral out of control. That’s another problem with this comment, saying one wants to “lose some chub” suggests they can control it, that they could get to a desired weight and just… stop. But it’s the eating disorder that takes control of the person, not the other way around. This comment also shows that available information about eating disorders focuses on the underweight aspect, rather than other symptoms or the complexity of the mentality of this disorder. This is so harmful because not everyone with an eating disorder loses weight, so this communicates the idea that there is a “weight standard” for their illness to be considered serious. There is no weight, size, appearance, shape, etc. requirement. I’ll say it again: THERE ARE NO REQUIREMENTS.
“I don’t understand how anxiety disorders are a thing. I mean, everyone gets nervous. I get a little scared when I go to take a test. What’s the big deal?”
This misconception is not related to eating disorders, but is still very relevant when discussing mental health. Stigma transcends all forms of mental illness. Generalized anxiety disorder is not getting a little nervous or scared when taking a test, it is, at least in my experience, a debilitating disorder that has significantly impacted every area of my life and the way I speak, think, and act. What separates anxiety from an anxiety disorder is the duration, reason/cause, and broader effect on one’s life. Someone without an anxiety disorder may feel anxious while they are on their way to a job interview, and this is reasonable, because job interviews are known to be nerve-wracking. But then they get the job interview over with and the anxiety fades and they move on with their life, no harm done. The anxiety in this case is fleeting and passes once the initial stressor is removed. However, for me, I tend to get overwhelming anxiety for no reason at all, or a reason that is relatively irrational, it lasts for a long time, before and after the stressor has been removed (it may even affect my entire day or week) and it has a significant effect on my life. I once had a panic attack about a bad test grade and I ended up leaving school for the day and missing a week of school because the thought of going back made me so anxious that I couldn’t leave my bed. I hope that distinction makes sense. Again, I can only speak to my experience and I would never want to invalidate anyone else’s anxiety, but minimizing the idea of mental illness is exacerbating the problem on a global scale, and I think its time we step up, speak up, make these distinctions, and empower others to take control of their own health, even if society may attempt to invalidate their personal battles.