I recently watched a Louis Theroux documentary called ‘Talking to Anorexia’. If you’re not familiar with Louis Theroux then I highly recommend you watch as many of his documentaries as you can find (can you tell I’m a fan?!). He’s geeky looking and very gentle in his interviewing style, which I think helps people feel more comfortable in opening up to him.
In ‘Talking to Anorexia’ Louis went to an in-patient unit in London for people diagnosed with eating disorders, both males and females. The women he interviewed came from different walks of life. One woman was in her 60s having suffered with the condition since she was 18 years’ old, while another was in her early 20s had been bullied as a child and had refused an arranged marriage.
What is an eating disorder?
People often mistake it to be an issue someone has with their weight. The one thing I want to make clear is that eating disorders are a mental health condition.
To explain a bit more, whilst the external symptoms (i.e. what people see) may involve the person’s preoccupation with food (e.g., restricting/over-eating/bingeing and purging) and their physical appearance, the internal reasons are far more complex.
Close to home
I found the documentary difficult to watch in some ways because it reminded me of the anxieties and fears I experienced during my own eating disorder.
My eating disorder started in my early 20s and although the behaviours (i.e. restricting food/bingeing and purging) stopped by my mid-20s, my relationship with food didn’t really improve until my 30s.
I wouldn’t want to speak for everyone with an eating disorder, but some of the reasons I experienced it were:
- Wanting to be in control. I didn’t feel in control of my life and I’d had some early life experiences which left me feeling that bad things were always going to happen.
- Not feeling worthy or ‘good enough’. I’ve talked about this before. During my eating disorder I believed that if I was ‘thin enough’ that people would like me; I equated my value as a person to my weight.
- Having an intense fear of food. I thought even eating a small amount of food would make me fat. If I was put into a situation where I had to eat (e.g., family meal) then I would want to get the food ‘out of me’ as quickly as possible. There was huge guilt and shame around eating.
One of the young women in the documentary described one aspect exactly how I felt about it. She said she wanted to rip the skin and fat off her body and didn’t want to be in her own skin. It’s a horrible feeling and one which I knew well.
The hidden disorder
The documentary focused mainly on in-patients of a hospital. Most of the young women featured in the documentary were at an unhealthy weight, according to the Body Mass Index (BMI) calculation.
I understand why the documentary would focus on people who were often near to death when they were admitted to the hospital. However, it’s worth noting that there are plenty of people out there with eating disorders who have a healthy BMI. I was one of those people.
When I was in my 20s I remember being taken to the doctor by my mother, who was worried about me. The doctor asked me to step on the scales and when my weight measured as being within the healthy range the matter was dropped. This only served to annoy me more and reinforce the fact that eating disorders were not about weight. I was mentally unwell!
I felt as though I had to be a certain level of ‘unwell’ to get the help I needed. I managed to get an appointment to see a psychologist. After explaining everything I’d been through and how I felt I was referred to a stress management group. I didn’t need stress management; I wanted to talk to someone.
So, it’s worth remembering that even if someone doesn’t ‘look’ ill, it doesn’t mean that everything is okay. Remember, it’s a mental health condition.
Can you ‘get over’ an eating disorder?
Without wanting to sound as though there’s no hope for people with eating disorders, I’m not sure you ever ‘get over’ them as such. I think people perhaps become better at managing them so they impact less on their lives.
In my experience, and other people I’ve spoken to, the eating disorder leaves its ‘mark’ and I’m not talking about a physical mark.
Like I said before my relationship with food is much healthier now. However, there are still times where I may deny myself the ‘slice of cake’ because I worry about the long-term effects, or where I become preoccupied with calories if I’m stressed about other things in my life. I also still have difficulty in viewing my physical appearance objectively.
But, these are things which only affect me occasionally. I accept that I still have some remnants from the eating disorder and I accept that. I just make sure that I don’t become complacent. Eating disorders may have us think that we’re in control, when in actual fact they are in control of us. I won’t allow that to happen to me again.
If you’re concerned about yourself or someone else and want to find out more then the organisation Beat offers information and support to those affected by eating disorders.