I welcome you back to my second conversation about mental health struggles. This series aims to remove the stigma around mental health by having honest conversations with those who have experienced mental illnesses. This month’s conversation revolves around the topic of eating disorders. Eating disorders describe all disorders where an individual suffers with her or his eating behaviour or relationship with food. This can range from not eating (Anorexia Nervosa) to Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and bingeing and purging (Bulimia Nervosa) or a combination of the three. As well as an obsession with eating healthily to the point of compulsion (Orthorexie) or only chewing food without swallowing (Rumination Disorder), just to name a few.
Eating Disorders are on the rise, especially among the younger generation. They are most common in girls between the age 15-20, but slowly they are spreading to older age groups as well. Also within boys and men, the statistics show an increase in numbers. They are becoming more common due to social media, obsession with body images and the need to take control in a chaotic world where a lot of things seem to be spinning out of our control. Eating Disorders do not only take an extreme mental toll on its sufferers, but also pose an extreme threat to their physical health. Among all mental illnesses these disorders have the highest death rate. In fact, Anorexia Nervosa is responsible for the most deaths in females between 15-24 years old. This is exactly why we have to talk about this illness.
Conversation #2 about Eating Disorders
What would be the title of your autobiography?
“Finding my Place” or “Finding where I a belong”, or “Finding myself”. Something along those lines.
When did you realize that you struggle with something not everyone struggles with?
Pretty much from very young age on. I was about probably 7 or 8, when I realized I had family issues that weren’t normal. First time I really acknowledged the scale of the problem, especially my eating disorder, was in high school. It was when I realized that this behaviour was a) not normal and b) actively destructive to myself.
How does it affect your everyday life?
For me it really does affect my theatrical training. My face doesn’t like to participate with the rest of me. My dancing is fine, my technique is fine, but my face doesn’t like to do anything. And I think a lot of that comes from insecurity and having to guard my emotions for so many years. And that’s the one thing artistic wise that I still really struggle with. That is probably the biggest thing. I know that I have resting bitch face syndrome to the extreme.
How did your family & friends react when you told them? What impact did it have on you?
My friends and family know, and they are supportive. My dad sometimes doesn’t understand. He understands the words on the page, but he doesn’t necessarily connect the words and the feelings to it. And he doesn’t understand that its not only a matter of “Don’t eat those cookies!” but that I literally can’t stop myself. My sister, my boyfriend and my friends are all supportive. They do the best for me as I do for them by trying to reach out when I struggle, and we just try to be supportive and be there.
What was the most valuable advice anyone has given you?
I don’t know if I can pinpoint an exact piece of advice. Generally, what I found that helps me even though it is a cliché: be yourself and figure out what it is that you want to do. Try to find out what is it that you want, what is your passion and what makes you happy. Not what does your family think will make you happy but what makes you happy. That can be extremely difficult, especially if it is something that is different from the path that you are or were on. Being, like, “do I want to stay where I am now or do I actually want to go into that other direction that really pulls me”, and then having to make that decision. But if you have found something, you have to hold onto it with both of your hands and then never let go. Easy to say, but hard to do.
What did you discover to be a helpful coping strategy?
I’m still working on this one. It’s the one that I don’t have a satisfying answer to. At least for me right now. I have a support network, but I don’t yet feel like I have a good coping strategy. Because when I get bored, I get self-destructive very quickly. And I have not yet found a good way to derail that before it gets to the point where it gets. Especially on school breaks.
I try to just distract myself right now. Netflix, Youtube, Music or petting the cats, going for a walk.. I don’t have a great answer yet, but I have some suggestions.
How did it feel to reach out for help? Did anything make it easier for you to do so?
It can be hard. For me personally it is having other friends, who have or have had struggled with eating disorders and or depression/anxiety/mental illnesses. It makes it easier to reach out because I know they understand, and I know they are never ever going to judge me for feeling a certain way. I don’t know if it does get easier. It’s still tough to reach out to my boyfriend. Even though he understands but sometimes it’s just difficult to spit it out. Sometimes you really have to push yourself to even just say: “I’m not feeling great right now.” Sometimes that’s a very hard sentence to spit out. But if you can spit it out and the reaction is just okay, at least you’ve said it. Now its out there. Because what I don’t want to do is close myself off from my support network. Sometimes that is a really tempting thought because eating disorders are secretive in nature. The point is not to let anyone know what you are doing. I try really hard not to cut off my support network, and to specially say “I’m not feeling great today” or “I looked in the mirror today and everything was wrong, and I don’t feel beautiful.” But at least I said it and I’m not bottling it up. But it’s hard, it’s always hard.
Could you describe in one sentence what’s it like to live with an eating disorder?
Unwanted Thanksgiving dinners daily.
Is there anything that still bothers you about having to live with eating disorder, but you made your peace with it?
The treatment of my biological mother bothered me for years. Why does she have to be this way and as a result why did she have to make me this way. At some point I realised that I am an adult now and I have to take responsibility for my own actions regardless of how great or terrible my experiences in the past were. It’s up to me to get better. It’s up to me to continue my life. It’s up to me to build what I want my life to be and I can’t sit here and mope about the fact that I had a crappy childhood because I have other priorities now. I want to build a career; I want to build a life. At some point I just really had to close the book on that chapter.
What’s something you want people to know about your condition?
Eating disorders are not as simple as “Just eat something!” or “Just don’t eat something!” or “Just don’t throw up!” It’s not that simple, there is a compulsion behind it. There is a feeling of not being able to stop yourself. If curing anorexia would be as easy as “just eat a bag of chips!” no one would have it. If a binge eating disorder was as easy as “just have some willpower!”, we wouldn’t have it, but we do. Second thing is that eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes. You can be underweight or normal weight and have BED, you can be overweight and have anorexia or bulimia. There is no weight requirement. Just because someone looks fine, doesn’t mean that they are fine.
What’s a positive thing about your illness? How did it have a positive impact on the person you are today?
If I could go back and change my life and remove the trauma and all the other junk that I dealt with, then I wouldn’t because it’s made me the person I am today and I am not in love with her a 100% yet but we’re getting there. And the positive thing about my eating disorder is that it has really taught me that it’s okay to not be okay, and when you’re not okay, it’s good to reach out for help. To reach out to your partner, your family or your friends and say: “I am not okay right now, can we talk?”
It’s okay to have good days and bad days. Healing is not linear. You will have a lot of good days and then you will have a bad day. You will have to take it as it comes. It has taught me that I am a stronger person than I thought I was and that if I am really determined about something, eventually I will get there. As long as I don’t hold myself back, there is nothing I can’t do.
Thank you so much.
If you recognize yourself in this interview or know someone who might struggle with an eating disorder, do not hesitate to reach out for help. In Vienna you can reach out to sowhat or you can find a suiting therapist on psyonline.
Image credits to Alina Nikolaou.