Before offering my advice, most loved of those in eating disorder recovery want to know how they can help, but understandably, people aren't always sure where to go for it. In this video, I talk about the one thing that well-meaning, but misguided, loved ones would do that has undercut my confidence in recovery.
Dating someone with an eating disorder can be challenging. I know every single one of my past relationships was affected by my eating disorder, and while there are undeniably things I could have done differently, there are also things I wish I'd been able to articulate to my exes to make the relationship easier.a
I understand it's a privilege to have a solid and committed eating disorder support network. I know that some people must fight the treacherous current of their eating disorders alone. But I am fortunate to pursue recovery with the relentless encouragement of so many loved ones around me, and I just feel compelled right now to share an open letter to those in my eating disorder support network who stuck with me throughout this entire ordeal.
It's been crucial for me to learn how to help others in eating disorder recovery without derailing my own since I both mentor young women with eating disorders and am vocal about my own healing from anorexia. I often find myself on the receiving end of phone calls, text messages, and coffee dates which tend to start with the conversation opener, "I don't know who else I can trust to share this with, but I have an issue with food and body image. Can we talk about it?"
The term "social distancing" has become part of our culture's mainstream lexicon over the past few months, but for the sake of those in eating disorder (ED) recovery (or any mental health issue, for that matter), can we please not call it social distancing anymore? The idea of creating barriers socially between ourselves and other people can exacerbate the sense of isolation or disconnection that many individuals who battle eating disorders are already too familiar with. In fact, experts within the field of public health agree the phrase is harmful and advocate that it be known as "physical distancing" instead.
There is a vicious, rampant correlation between eating disorders and bullying—the epidemic is real, and children of all ages can be vulnerable to the mental and physical ramifications. In the United States alone, 65 percent of those with eating disorders have reported that incidents of bullying caused their behaviors to manifest, and 40 percent of children or adolescents are mocked by their peers for weight-related issues.1 This data, compiled by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), also notes that when bullying occurs, a victimized person will often experience bouts of insecurity, poor self-esteem, body image distortion, and an urge to numb the painful emotions. So in order to protect children from these adverse effects, it's crucial to understand the epidemic scale of eating disorders and bullying.
Culturally, eating disorders are often associated with young teenagers who don't know exactly how to cope with their developing bodies or fluctuating dynamics in their families and peer groups. But as teens become older and transition from high school to the broader world of a university campus, they can be even more susceptible to disordered eating behaviors. The risk of eating disorders in college students has continued to escalate these past several years, and there are multiple reasons behind the persistence of this issue.
As if this illness was not destructive enough already, a harrowing trend has developed in recent years, whereby the presence of eating disorders in young children has become more and more rampant. In fact, the number of children under the age of 12 who exhibit symptoms of an eating disorder has risen to the extent that anorexia and bulimia are now more common pediatric illnesses than type-2 diabetes. This is an alarming data point and combined with the reality that eating disorders are often undiagnosed or inadequately treated, this leaves many children at an increased risk for complications in both their physical growth and mental health as they become older. For this reason, it is crucial to understand how to identify the presence of eating disorders in young children, then to seek prompt and thorough intervention for them.
In the midst of my recovery process from anorexia and all the associated behaviors that came with it, I have often asked myself this recurring question: is there a connection between puberty and eating disorders? While I cannot speak for every person who has suffered from an eating disorder, on the basis of my own narrative, these two experiences are linked, and there are several reasons for this.
I have a slew of insights about understanding eating disorders for family and friends, but I often don't have the language to communicate it all. I suspect that I'm not alone in this predicament. My hunch is most people with disordered eating issues struggle to attach words to their experience. Because eating disorders are complex illnesses that oppress the body, mind and spirit, they are painful to discuss. And their secretive, withdrawn nature can make people on the outside feel confused, wounded or even angered. They might perceive the eating disorder sufferer's actions as callous, apathetic, disingenuous and selfish. But while eating disorders do perpetuate this kind of behavior, it's not indicative of the person's true character. Underneath that hard, stony facade is someone desperate to feel accepted and validated. So I need understanding--understanding about eating disorders from family and friends—and if you can relate, I encourage you to use these talking points with your loved ones too.