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Talking about eating disorders: Part III

Recovery from eating disorders involves more than returning to a healthy diet. It requires reflection of other emotional, mental or physical issues.

Finding a comfortable dialogue with friends and family is one of the most important parts of healing. This is undeniably easier said than done.

In my journey to recovery, finding the courage to open up to my parents was one of the most difficult parts.

For a long time, I pursed perfection like it was my job; admitting that I was vulnerable was scary.

I was afraid to disappoint and I was embarrassed to acknowledge weakness.
Fortunately, my nutritionist helped me realize that I needed to reconcile with my fears. This required opening up to my family.

My nutritionist advised me to explain the situation to my parents, tell them about what I was doing to get back on track and then keep the conversation going.

I knew my parents would be concerned for my health and would have a lot of questions, especially since I was living a few hours away.

With the help of my nutritionist, I became knowledgeable about common characteristics of my disorder, so that I could respond to my parents questions. She also walked me through a sample dialogue with my parents.
This helped me feel more comfortable about filling my parents in, asking for their support and reassuring them that it was committed to recovery.

Even still, the initial call to my parents was difficult. They had been aware of my weight loss, but they didn’t know the extent to which I was restricting. As expected, they were concerned and had a lot of questions.

I explained the situation to them as best as I could. I also gave my nutritionist permission to talk with them.

Seeking the support of my family wasn’t an instant cure to my eating disorder. In some ways, it opened up problems of its own. For example, I had fears that I would be constantly monitored.

However, in retrospect, I believe that getting the support of my family was the major turning point in my recovery.

My family's willingness to listen, reserve judgment and be patient was an important part of my recovery.

After talking with my parents, I gradually gained confidence to open up to a few close friends.

My friends supported my recovery in a different, but equally important, way. With them, not every thing revolved around my eating disorder. We still enjoyed the same activities and interests. It helped me to take to focus away from myself and away from my struggles.

The most difficult person to open up to, even more so than my parents, was my boyfriend. We had only known each other since I had lost weight, so he hadn’t seen my progression. I was scared that he would feel like it was his responsibility to “fix” me. I was also worried that he would be overwhelmed.

I made the decision not to talk to my boyfriend until I felt like things were under control. When I finally opened up to him, I explained my history and told him about the help I had received. Naturally, he had a few questions. But, I was impressed by how supportive he was.

Now, I wouldn’t deny my history with an eating disorder if it came up in conversation. At the same time, I believe it is a personal issue, and that I shouldn’t bombard just any person on the street. I am content with the support I have.

I owe a great deal of credit to my nutritionist, family and friends for helping me with my recovery. Talking openly about my struggles, both with eating and with emotions, wasn’t easy—but it was necessary. I am now in a better place because of it.

For more information, refer to Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (FEAST).

This is the final installment of a three part series. Look back to parts one and two.

Note: I am not a professional and cannot offer any medical advice. My words are only influenced by my own experiences with overcoming an eating disorder.

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Talking about eating disorders: Part II

Founded on revolutionary thought and a willingness to attain liberty, America has always been a nation of independent thinkers.

So, why are modern women so attached to a single, virtually impossible standard of beauty?

According to The National Eating Disorders Association, 80 percent of women are dissatisfied with their appearance. That means that eight in ten mothers, sisters and daughters wake up every morning, only to find disappointment when they look in the mirror.

This isn’t acceptable.

Even more shockingly, seven million American women suffer from eating disorders. An additional one million men have eating disorders.

This totals just more than the population of Virginia—the 12th largest state.

These numbers are particularly shocking, considering that many of the eight million suffers go unacknowledged.

People with eating disorders are often thought of as gaunt, weak and resistant to food. Although this can be accurate, even people who seem otherwise healthy can be experiencing the mental anguish of eating disorders.

To overview, The National Eating Disorders Association recognizes three different types of eating disorders.
•    Anorexia Nervosa is “characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss.”
•    Bulimia is “characterized by a cycle of bingeing and compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting designed to undo or compensate for the effects of binge eating.”
•    Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is characterized by “recurrent binge eating without the regular use of compensatory measures to counter the binge eating.”
•    Orthorexia, which is compulsive healthy eating, and Dibulima, which is a manipulation of insulin levels to control weight, aren’t yet recognized as official eating disorders, but still may have serious consequences to health.

When I was dealing with an eating disorder, there was a period during which I suffered in self-imposed silence. Even when I knew I was on a dangerous path, I didn’t know how to reach out to others for help.

At the same time, I recognize it was equally difficult for my friends and family to know how to reach out to me.

Weight is an undeniably sensitive issue. We learn at young ages that talk about weight is taboo. It doesn’t matter if a woman is skinny or larger; never do you ask about her weight.

This fear about talking about weight can pose a challenge when a friend or family member has entered the territory of a true risk to his or her health.

If you suspect that a loved one is suffering of an eating disorder, proceed with caution before immediately making accusations.

However, many eating disorders stretch on far too long without any help for the sufferer—and, as with many illnesses, the sooner recovery begins, the sooner the eating disorder can be overcome.

Here are some tips on how to help some one with an eating disorder:
•    Continue on with life: Do normal activities, such as playing board games, going to the movies or volunteering.
•    Know there is more to the disorder than eating: Eating disorders are frequently an outlet for other stressors in life. This means that recovery is about more than returning to normal eating habits. Spend time with the person reflecting on their worries, concerns and fears.
•    Respect the individual case: Try and do background research to know what all eating disorders entail, but also be aware that each case is different.
•    Recover together: Overcoming the pain of an eating disorder isn’t just for the individual, but for all people involved. It doesn’t do any good to blame or harbor resentment.
•    Continue to live your life: Set an example by pursuing healthfulness.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help and guidance of my friends, family and counselors. It took a lot of courage for someone to speak up and tell me they were concerned. It took a lot of strength to stand by me through my ups and downs. It took a lot of love, patience and compassion… But, I hope they know it was worth it.

For more information, refer to Families Empowered and Supporting Treatment of Eating Disorders (FEAST).

This is the second part of a three part series. Look back to part one, and come back tomorrow for “how to talk with friends and family if you are suffering from an eating disorder.”

Note: I am not a professional and cannot offer any medical advice. My words are only influenced by my own experiences with overcoming an eating disorder.


Talking about eating disorders: Part I

In the 2000 movie “Cast Away,” Tom Hanks’ character becomes stranded on an island after he is the sole survivor of a plane crash.

Hanks’ character was without food, shelter and medical relief. Still, the greatest challenge he faced was dealing with utter solitude.

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Hanks strove for personal connections. With none to be found, he turned to a volleyball named “Wilson” for some degree of solace.

Although this case is extreme, it represents a common, worldwide characteristic of humans: We cling to the support of loved ones even when all else seems to slip away.

I’ve never been on a deserted island. Even still, I can relate to Hanks’ loneliness.

Not so coincidentally, my eating disorder hit its peak at the same time I felt isolated.

Last year, I moved into an off-campus apartment. I was glad to be out of the dorms, but I hadn’t realized my dependence on the built-in social scene of my residence hall.

I had roommates in my new apartment, but we each had our own interests and activities.

Suddenly, I was left to fend for myself in the intimidating world of a large college campus.

I felt as though I was starting all over again. I kept up with a few friends from freshman year, but most of them still lived on campus and had more opportunity to get together.

Instead of meeting for dinner in the dining hall each night, I prepared and ate dinner by myself. Instead of going to the recreation center with friends for a fun game of racquetball, I obsessively used the treadmill in my apartment’s gym. Instead of recapping the day with friends, I looked up new recipes and health information.

There was no one to blame for my actions but myself. Even as the walls moved in around me, the only way I felt I found relief was by restricting. That I could control.

To some extent, my eating disorder began as a subconscious cry for help. Some part of me reasoned that if I were helpless to control my own actions, then someone else would have to help me…

Obviously, my behaviors were really good for no one and good for nothing.

I believed that my eating habits were personal decisions. This wasn’t true.

I controlled what I put in my mouth, but my overall diet affected my friends and family. My parents were worried. My sister was confused. My friends were scared on how to approach me.

I was suffering. They were suffering. But, the voice of the eating disorder said, “At least they are paying attention to you.”

I didn’t know how to explain my actions. What began as an attempt to gain control on my life devolved into a painful, consuming battle for my health.

Like Hanks, I needed help.

Fortunately, I was given the guidance of professionals. They helped me talk with my family about the mental battle I was waging. They also helped my family support my recovery.

The professionals I talked with also helped me recognize that my eating disorder was more about feelings of loneliness than about food.

In hindsight, I see my isolation was self-imposed. I was stressed to be alone in making social connections. So, instead of trying to reach out to new friends, I simply retreated from interaction.

My eating disorder became my only confidant… but it certainly wasn’t a healthy relationship.

I probably did get more attention because of my eating disorder, but it was an unnecessary, painful and anxious kind of attention.

I have grown as a result of my experience. I am now more in touch with my emotions and more communicative with my friends and family.

Even still, I didn’t come to these terms over night. Recovery involved a lot of reflection, discussion and open-mindedness—not only from me, but also from my friends and family.

Getting the conversation going was the one of the most difficult parts of overcoming my eating disorder.

In my next two posts, I will offer advice, based on my experiences, about what is the best way for people with an ED to talk with loved ones. I will also talk about the best way for loved ones to talk with someone they suspect or know has an ED.

Note: I am not a professional and cannot offer any medical advice. My words are only influenced by my own experiences with overcoming an eating disorder.