This week (22nd-28th of February) is Eating Disorders Awareness Week - an attempt to raise awareness and increase understanding of eating disorders, and also to address common misconceptions about them. Unfortunately, it is also a week where eating disorders are commonly portrayed as being about weight. It is impossible to search the EDAW tag on any social media site without coming across pictures of malnourished girls with NG tubes, transformation pictures and mentions of weight. It is as if the tag has become a competition ground for sufferers to prove how ill they "were" or "are". Eating disorders, by nature, are competitive - not in a narcissistic way (another misconception) but in a distorted, disordered way. Often these illnesses strive to make you become the "sickest". However, eating disorders are mental illnesses - and the sickness is in the mind. There is no "sickest", or an enlightened physical anorexic state only achieved by starving yourself down to the lowest weight imaginable. It doesn't exist. It is worth repeating again - the sickness is in the mind. I will not go into this as much, as a great article has already been written about this by Claire Greaves for the Huffington Post, and can be read here. To sum this point up briefly - EDAW should not trigger sufferers further or solidify the pre-existing misconceptions about eating disorders.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest misconceptions of eating disorders is that they are about weight, as sometimes health professionals can take this view too. In hospitals (although it is changing, I hope) the view is that they will just feed you up to a healthy weight and things will be fine, done and dusted, "corrected". Often this is when patients are deemed to be "fine", and discharged from services. This could not be further from the truth, as in many cases, patients need psychological input at this point more than any other. Relapse rates and suicide risk are very high for eating disorders perhaps for this very reason. For many, including myself, things are a lot more difficult now - having anorexia at a healthy weight - than they were when I was at a low weight.
When you are physically underweight, the thoughts and feelings are dulled down and numb. You drift along, in your safe routine, until someone or something stops you. The mental anguish that you are suffering can manifest through your appearance. This could mean someone appears to be a personification of skeletal death; but a more accurate way of assessing physical consequences of an eating disorder is to look at the loss of life in their eyes. When at a healthy weight, all of this pain and mental torture is prevented from expressing itself physically, and all of your repressed mental suffering is unleashed. What I am trying to say here is that an eating disorder is equally as distressing internally at a healthy weight as it is at a low weight externally. It must be emphasized and put across during this week that weight changes are only a symptom of these illnesses.
Having Anorexia at a healthy weight is like being a stranger in your own body. Other people are happy, but I am disorientated and confused. The body I am in moves when I move it, but it is not mine. I'm wearing a fat suit so that people don't worry about me. When really many do not realize that the torture goes on in my head... As much as my recent struggle with depression is a result of circumstances, it is also a result of being anorexic and trapped in this body. People used to tell me that things were easier once weight restored, and in some ways they are. For example, eating an adequate amount mechanically replaces not eating an adequate amount. But the mental torture that comes with anorexia - the taunts, the confusion, the agony and the loss of the self - that all remains.
Quote from personal blog - "I Cannot Stay in this Body Any Longer"
What is needed is societal change in perception, which can hopefully filter down to how services are run. And of course, we must remember this week that Anorexia Nervosa is not the only eating disorder. I dread to think how difficult it is for those to feel like they qualify for help in our current system who have other serious eating disorders such as BED, OFSED and Bulimia Nervosa. Often individuals who suffer from these equally distressing mental illnesses can be a normal weight, or even overweight; yet the system as it is at the moment usually only assesses for treatment by weight loss. This is not good for those with Anorexia (who see it as a goal to lose weight to "qualify" for treatment) or those with BED, OFSED or Bulimia, who might be so worried about asking for help about being turned down due to certain criteria, despite the fact that their eating disorder is just as torturous as anorexia can be.
It is approaching the end of this EDAW 2016, but I want you all to remember this one thing by the end of this week: Eating disorders are not physical illnesses but mental ones.