Eating Disorders: An Illness or A Choice?
I remember reading that word for the very first time back when I was in grade 10. At that time, I was at my lowest possible weight, being manipulated by a voice in my mind that dictated every step I “should” or “shouldn’t” take. This overrode my ability to make any rational decisions, fearing food and weight gain, looking at my own image in the mirror with a constant feeling of not being “good enough”.
I felt attached to the scale, the numbers of which indicated my worth, my mood for the day, and how well I’ve been controlling my food plan and exercise routine. I was constantly avoiding social events where the food source was unknown to me, which made it difficult to track my calorie intake. I resorted to maladaptive eating behaviors so as to cope with negative feelings and thoughts… I just wanted to be thin, you know, but what I hadn’t realized back then is that I was forging myself into a deadly Eating Disorder: Anorexia Nervosa.
Maybe if I had heard about these serious mental “illnesses” earlier instead of surfing the web and ending up making painful discoveries; maybe if it wasn’t a sin to raise awareness around eating disorders; maybe if society had made it safe enough to talk about it without it being seen as “crazy” or “abnormal”; maybe if our community promoted health at every size instead of shrinking us to fit into XS sizes; maybe if people had more interesting things to say than “you’ve gained/lost weight”; maybe if the word “healthy” was conducted correctly instead of being erroneously defined by various industries; maybe if food was considered as fuel and nourishment to our bodies; maybe back then… I would have lived in a better place – mentally and physically.
But reality is far away from all these maybes. After all, who’s to blame?
For years, I felt like a prisoner to this torturous illness. I felt completely brainwashed and out of control, and yet I knew deep down that no one forced an eating disorder upon me…
Without any concrete understanding or evidence otherwise, I inevitably felt that the eating disorder was my fault, and somewhat a choice I was making. The self-blame, guilt, and confusion that surfaced from wanting to do what I needed to do, but yet feeling powerless to make the steps pushed me further into the grip of my eating disorder.
At the same time, I was furious about the stereotypical views of society and the discrimination regarding mental illness. I felt hopeless and helpless because I was afraid to reach out. I was afraid of external judgements and pointed fingers, even from my own family…
However, what treatment has taught me is that Eating disorders are multifaceted mental illnesses. They’re like a big complex snowball that depends on a variety of elements including genetic factors, unusual activity of brain neurotransmitters, hormones & other brain chemicals, our coping mechanisms when it comes to dealing with adversity and inadequacy, our childhood & developmental years, our personality, our beliefs, what we’re taught and what we are exposed to, what media images we are bombarded with, how beauty standards are defined and conveyed to us…
I have also learned that eating disorders are about more than the food. And unlike what many people think, Anorexia Nervosa is not limited to counting calories and severe restrictions, and it is definitely not as simple as “you just have to eat more”.
Food is only a part of it. The other part goes to deeper mental and emotional battles. While eating behaviors are common to people with an eating disorder, these deeper layers are more subjective and require considerable self-introspective work. To make it more relevant, anorexia nervosa is for example rooted in perfectionism, the need for control, an “all or nothing” mindset, lack of affection, low self-esteem, poor body-image…
So now I know, through increased knowledge and deep understanding of what has seemed senseless for many years, that I am not responsible for this illness. On the other hand, blaming the society and playing the victim sounded like dimming my chances to recover and fall even more into this downward spiral. And I was DONE with falling and ready to rise again! To rise to a place of consciousness about eating disorders, a place of mindfulness about all what was going on – externally and internally – in the NOW, a place of willingness to getting better and a place of prowess to fully recover.
And here I am today, looking in the mirror, and without any second thought, I see someone strong who has survived and thrived. I see someone who has claimed their life back. I see someone resilient who has learned A LOT from the bitter days. I see someone eager to gain more knowledge and expertise in this field. I see someone committed to make an impact and raise the needed awareness to reduce the shame and stigma around eating disorders. I see someone empowered to share their own vulnerable story to make it safe for others to speak out. I see someone passionate to help other people find their way to full recovery. I see Me!
“When you find yourself cocooned in isolation and you cannot find your way out of darkness…Remember, this is similar to the place where caterpillars go to grow their wings.” – Necole Stephens
BY, Joanna Jleilaty, Wellness Coach & Eating Disorder Counselor.
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