NEDAwareness week thoughts - a Q+A on eating disorders & recovery

Today is the last day of NEDAwareness week.

I usually write a post on my recovery during this week, but I decided to switch up things up this year. Rather than writing a story or reflection, I did an eating disorder Q+A. I reached out to several friends who have walked through this with me & asked them to hit me with their best questions about eating disorders. This is not meant to be taken as medical advice or the end all be all of recovery, but I hope my perspective & my recovery reflections can help people understand eating disorders a little more.

What kinds of things trigger someone with an eating disorder?

  • The internet. Social media has definitely “upped the Annie” on body image issues. Fitspo/thinspo on Instagram is really triggering for a lot of people in recovery. For me, unfollowing a lot of people (friends & people who are “instafamous” alike) who only posted about working out or whatever new eating plan they were on was a step I had to take to preserve my sanity. 
  • Commenting on the size of someone’s body - i.e. skinny/fat - those words have a moral value to a lot of people in recovery. Hearing that someone thinks my skin is pretty or being told I have toned shoulders is much more effective in building me up than someone drawing attention to my physical size. I’ll touch on this more in a later question.
  • Feeling out of control in other areas of one’s life - Major life changes, i.e. a breakup, going to college, moving, can be really triggering. A need to feel in control is at the heart of struggling with an eating disorder, so when a person feels out of control in another area, he or she may be more likely to restrict.

This is obviously not an all-inclusive, exhaustive list but these are some themed triggers I’ve struggled with & had friends struggle with as well.

 

What kinds of things do you want people to understand that might not understand an eating disorder?

Recovery is a messy, ongoing process. If recovery looks like a road, then it’s a road smack in the middle of uptown New Orleans. (Warning: if you’re not familiar with the Big Easy, get familiar before you go, or your tires might get eaten.) One thing that comes up a lot is the assumption that I’ve had a miraculous transformation & no longer struggle with anorexic thoughts or tendencies. I regret to inform the audience that that is complete BS. As a person who’s been walking in recovery for almost 9 years, I wish someone had told me at the beginning of this road that success and perfection are not synonyms in the recovery community. If my relationship with food & exercise was FBO, I’d say it’s permanently marked as “It’s complicated.” I don’t think asking someone to understand why my brain has a fist fight with a cinnamon roll is fair at all, but having someone show a genuine effort to understand the complex nature of eating disorders without calling me a total nut job means the world to me. 

 

What would you consider the most important advice for someone entering a committed relationship (romantic or platonic) with someone who has history with an eating disorder?

Run. 

Lol. I kid I kid. 

I’m going to write this from the perspective of dating someone with an eating disorder history but most of this advice can be applied to a friendship as well. 

I have a few points on this - sorry guys, couldn’t pick just one.

  1. Learn about eating disorders. Ask your partner questions. Do your own research. One of the most meaningful things I’ve experienced recently was having a guy I was seeing do his own homework about eating disorders once he knew I was a recovering anorexic. His willingness to go beyond playing 20 questions with me made me feel like he genuinely wanted to understand where my head was at & opened the door for me to speak more freely about my past & present struggles. 
  2. There’s no subtle way to get this point across - tell your S/O that he or she is attractive. As a girl who has struggled with an eating disorder, I have no shame in admitting that I need to be reminded often that my partner finds me attractive.
  3. Some days are going to be rough. Like really rough. When your S/O is struggling, he or she may get distant. He or she may get temperamental. I tend to get really defensive towards the people closest to me when I am having a bad day, or I disappear all together. Letting your partner know you’re still present while he or she is struggling means the world, even when we don’t express that in the moment. 
  4. Ask your partner what his or her specific triggers are. Ask your partner what a relapse looks like in his or her journey. Ask him or her how involved he or she wants you to be in the recovery process. It’s a lot easier to have those conversations on the forefront rather than sifting through a sea of confusing emotions in the midst of a triggering situation or full-blown relapse.
  5. This one might seem a little sassy - and full disclosure, it kind of is. Even if your intentions are good, treating your partner like he or she is incapable of taking care of him or herself can be really debilitating. Being babied or coddled when I’m actually doing fine feels patronizing, at best. Sometimes when I get offered something to eat, I’m genuinely not hungry. Sometimes I really did eat before I came. When questions like, “Are you sure you don’t want anything?” get immediately followed with, “Kate, is everything ok,” I feel like my eating disorder is all people see when they see me. Is that true? Of course not. But that’s how it makes me feel in the moment. If your partner is showing signs of relapse, do something. If nothing beyond him or her not wanting a 3rd taco at taco night is going down, don’t ring the alarm. He or she is more likely to be secretive if he or she feels like every move is being tracked & analyzed. It’s hard enough to talk about having an eating disorder. Feeling like it tints every other area of one’s life, makes an ED survivor want to keep it a secret even more. Part of empowering your partner is trusting him or her to look after his or herself. Are there going to be days when he or she does stuff that is cause for concern? Most likely, yes. But that isn’t everyday. Being treated normal is one of the most empowering gifts the people closest to me have given me.

 

Is an eating disorder a physical symptom to a mental disorder?

I'm going to say no on this one. Eating disorders are mental disorders in, and of, themselves. For a lot of people, the mental side manifests long before & after physical symptoms have passed. For me, the need to restrict (this is an ED term that would coincide with using a substance for another addict) usually ebbs and flows with me feeling accepted or rejected in other areas of my life. For me, it’s always been a weird combination of feeling only lovable if I’m thin & needing to feel “in control” when other areas of my life are going haywire. Isolation & shame play a huge role in a persons recovery. Most of the time, when I’m in my head about why I still struggle with this, I’m really struggling with thoughts about how this one area of my life might make other people view me as “unlovable” or “too much to handle.” That feeling can lead me down the isolation rabbit trail if I’m not very careful. I often find myself thinking back to this one quote when I feel that way - “the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.” In a lot of ways, an eating disorder feels like an addiction. Restriction & food are “the fix.” At the heart of an eating disorder is the desire for certain feelings and bonds that aren’t being met through healthy avenues. Pulling oneself out of the brain and into community is a vital part of staying “clean.”

 

How do you tell someone with a history of eating disorders that he or she looks healthy or fit or skinny - in a way that isn’t offensive or triggering?

Commenting on the size of someone’s body can be dangerous territory from any angle. As someone who’s been on both sides of this coin, having attention drawn to my size usually puts me in unhealthy territory. In high school, I was picked on/bullied for being thicker when I played sports. Nowadays, people make comments about me being boney or skinny. Both of these situations are triggering in their own way. In our society, size has been assigned a moral value. When I hear “you look skinny,” I think someone is either trying to express concern or I feel like thinness makes me more desirable. 

Will getting a compliment about appearance brighten a survivors day? Duh. Just nix the comments about size. An example would be to tell someone you think their legs look toned rather than saying you look so skinny. Or telling someone a dress looks great on their shape rather than saying “You look so tiny.”

This is a bit of a side note, but it specifically addresses the word healthy:

Ok, this is messed up. I’ll own that. Most of the women who I have walked through recovery with have brought this up at least once. The H word - healthy - gets perceived as “you’ve gained weight,” more times than not. Is that normal? Nope, but it’s honest. Avoiding the H word, especially with someone who is new to recovery, is probably best. Once again.. this IS NOT normal, but it’s honest.

 

What are the most current, influential & informative sources on eating disorders in your opinion?

Check out the National Eating Disorders Association website. It has a plethora of resources and information.

Several other questions were thrown my way, and I hope to address them in a further blog. I hope this Q+A is able to shed some light on the complicated nature of eating disorder recovery. To the people who walk alongside someone in recovery, thank you. You are more valued than you know. Your love, patience & acceptance is vital to the successful recovery of your loved one. To everyone who has walked with me, thank you. I will never be able to fully repay your love & kindness.

If you know someone who is struggling, please encourage them to seek help. If you are struggling, you're not alone, and you don't have to walk through this alone. 

Have a blessed night friends,

- Kate