Here is how the conversation usually goes: “You had an eating disorder? But, you look so… normal! I would have never known!” To this, I simply smile and nod. This is usually my go-to response when I can’t find my voice to match the words I want to say.
The phrase tumbles around in my brain over and over – You look normal. You look normal. You look normal. It was supposed to be reassuring, a compliment. It was supposed to mean I look healthy and functioning. What intrigues me about that statement is the enormous misconception that eating disorders only happen to people who look sick.
Over a year’s worth of recovery from bulimia has given me a new perspective, as I’ve begun to re-write the story I once was willing to blindly throw away. I’ve come to realize my personal journey is a very tiny piece of a much larger, much more severe epidemic: lack of awareness.
An eating disorder is a disease, a mental illness. Choosing to stop is as difficult as asking an alcoholic to put down a bottle of whiskey.
It’s a voice in your head that begins softly, in the distance. As it grows closer, it gets louder. You can try to cover your ears in denial, run away in avoidance, or curl up on the floor in defeat. Ruthlessly it gnaws at you, it’s hunger is insatiable. Like an abusive relationship, its promises but never delivers. You’re never sure what you’re going to get, what lengths you might have to go in desperation to satisfy it.
Binge. Purge. Run. Starve. Take laxatives. Get on the scale. Look in the mirror. Calculate calories. Wake up and do it again, again, and again. Until you lose yourself. Eating disorders love to disguise themselves, manifesting in countless different ways and usually co-occurring with drug and alcohol abuse. The common denominator of those afflicted: the false illusion of control over food intake and body size. It’s a sad irony to live amidst a culture that places so much emphasis on idealized beauty (40 billion dollars are spent on diet products each year), but refuses to acknowledge the negative repercussions.
I could no longer separate the voices in my head or differentiate the sane from the insane. I was unapproachable. I did a lot of lying. I built insurmountable walls around myself. I wasn’t going to let anyone in on my secret. Or rather, my eating disorder wasn’t. No one ever wakes up choosing to live a life enslaved to an obsession. It happens overtime, and as it worsens the feelings of shame, emptiness and compulsion are heightened.
I was never hooked up to a feeding tube in a hospital. My bones did not alarmingly protrude, my hair did not fall out. Blood tests came back stable. Doctors said I looked normal, normal, normal. I resented the word because I felt anything but.
If you want to get better, you have to get worse. This is why eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, because only one out of ten people will receive treatment, nine will die from health complications or suicide. Oftentimes, suicide comes first. Mental illness in our nation is rampant, misunderstood and severely underfunded (until recently in 2013 when Vice President Joe Biden announced the Administration’s plan to allocate 100 million dollars to mental health organizations). Every day I am unexplainably grateful to have been one of the few to receive professional help.
Eating disorders, disordered eating and body dysmorphia can affect anyone. The disease is non-discriminatory of age, ethnicity, or gender. We walk through our lives like we’re in a museum, examining people like paintings and wondering if our story could remotely align with theirs. How you have dealt with your secrets, your fears and your pain does not make you abnormal. It makes you human.
To those struggling, the greatest lie you will ever believe is that you are alone – you are not. To those in recovery – you are a survivor.
You have a voice. Use it to restore, empower and turn shame into a story. Your story specifically, is so worth sharing.
By Sara Dreier
Feature image by Josh Hedge
This article has been shared in honor of National Eating Disorder Awareness month.