What does it mean to have an eating disorder? What does it mean to be in recovery? We are given a picture of anorexia, a girl in her adolescence with protruding bones and terror in her eyes. Or every now and again bulimia makes an appearance, talking about the desperate obsession with food and a visual of a fridge locked shut.
I am in recovery from anorexia nervosa and I feel myself hurry to tell the worst stories, to shock my audience to understand how completely I lost my mind. But an eating disorder is not the worst story, the lowest weight, the biggest binge. For me, an eating disorder is the daily anxiety faced with breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's the pain of shame that comes with being recovered in body but not in mind. It is an illness that becomes ingrained and a way of life. It begins with cutting back on ''bad'' food because it gives you a sense of control and confidence. And then you must say no to a spontaneous meal out, because it feels more like a lesson in torture than relaxation. You might walk for hours with pain in your bones but there is no choice when you live with an eating disorder. An eating disorder means no joy or choice or life.
I have always used food for comfort and company. As a result I was morbidly obese by age 19. Confronted by grief, loss and illness, I dieted to cope. Restriction was self-punishment and self-destruction. A diet turned into a drive that I could not stop. I continued to lose weight until I found myself in hospital, a patient in an eating disorder unit.
It's these stories people want to hear.
But now, almost three years later, I have a different experience of an eating disorder to share. I am a ''normal'' weight, I have a job and I live independently. And I wake up each day and am met with a question, ''Breakfast?'' I get up, have a shower, and decide what to wear. All the while I am mentally preparing to pour my cereal without weighing it. And then I get to the kitchen and I measure out my food because I fear pouring too much and overeating. Anxiety crawls up my throat and catches my breaths, making them short and sharp. I can't face the challenge today.
I don't look sick but I feel it. On a cold day I feel it deep in my bones and it hurts. Some days, I regret a biscuit so much that I claw at my thighs and wrists. I am swimming to the surface but I'm suffocating and I don't know if I'll make it.
There are moments that I can't sit up straight because my chest feels weak and hollow. I live with a question, some days stronger than others: what if I can't do this?
I chose to recover in 2011. I had dreams and hopes and suddenly I found a willingness to fight for them. I don't mean it to sound simple - it was only with patience and help from others that I was able to move in a positive direction when every part of my body was pulling away from eating what was in front of me. It was a slow, painful process to gain weight. And then I woke up and found I had a life. I met my first boyfriend, I enjoyed studying and I allowed myself to enjoy going to the cinema and eating a choc top. I grew into my body and into my life.
I tell this story because we expect someone suffering with an eating disorder to look scarily thin, to have blisters on their knuckles or to refuse to eat. I don't fit that description and yet I am not well. Some days I am consumed by the sensation that I am suffocating. I will never be able to adequately explain how frightened and vulnerable and angry I feel, because I ate breakfast or ordered something I wanted.
There are varying degrees; there is sick and defiant, there is sick and considering treatment, there is sick and accepting help, there is the journey into recovery and then, one day there is recovered. And I believe in recovery. I believe in treatment; when you don't want to go and you ''don't know what to say'' because ''it's pointless'' and ''I'm not that sick'' it is invaluable. But it's an illness and it only gets worse if you leave it alone.
I still need support, yet I know I'm nowhere near as ill as I once was. I beg you; don't dismiss someone because they look fine. Don't dismiss yourself. Don't wait to get help. I'm sorry that people are so judgmental. I'm sorry you think you're not sick enough - not thin enough - until someone forces you into treatment. I'm sorry that eating disorders are misunderstood.
Just know, it's not OK now but it will be.
* Name has been changed
Eating Disorders Assocation of NZ 0800 2 EDANZ or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit ed.org.nz
- Sydney Morning Herald
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