“I had no idea,” a radio host said to me after I’d explained my experiences with an eating disorder. “I had no idea,” the physician said as I was educating her on symptoms to look for in patients who may suffer from eating disorders. “I had no idea,” my grandmother wrote in a recent letter to me after reading a copy of my book.
Eating disorders are secretive, and when I was in my illness, I was secretive too. I fiercely protected my illness at any cost. I knew the demands of my illness were dangerous and even possibly fatal, but to be or feel “fat” felt more petrifying. So I went to any lengths to hide it. Those of us who have suffered through an eating disorder become as secretive as our illness. I left the dinner table early, and outright lied — telling my parents that I’d either eaten when out, or had homework and would eat downstairs. I binged in any place or any time I felt I could be alone. I purged the same way. I would make excuses to my friends, telling them that I was either allergic to the food in question or had already eaten, or I would overeat in front of them, telling them that I had not eaten in days due to a stomach flu. When exercising with friends, I was unable to connect with them. I was constantly occupied by the speed at which I “must” exercise in order to lose weight or shed the binge. To my loved ones I appeared unavailable and disconnected. Truth be told, like many who suffer from eating disorders, I didn’t want anyone to know that I was sick. If they knew, I might have been forced to stop.
Eating disorders carry an overwhelming emotional and physical burden due to malnutrition, predisposed genes, environmental stresses, and the constant demands and consequences of the eating disorder. Near fifty percent of those suffering from an eating disorder also meet the criteria for depression, and many others will meet the criteria for other mood disorders, such as anxiety. This was definitely my story. I felt tortured by the daily demoralization of my illness and the feeling that I was never enough — no matter what I did! Due to a deep fear of the unknown, I was unwilling to let go of the need to control my body. It was this fear that made it impossible for me to disclose my vulnerabilities to others. I believed that my illness would save me from myself, from the world in which I lived, and when it got to the point where I realized it wouldn’t, I felt trapped in the cycle of self-destruction and truly believed there was no way out. One of the ways I hid my emotions was by isolating. I sought comfort in my room and withdrew from activities. I slept more frequently than before my illness, and my mood changed dramatically — my negativity permeated all those around me.
Individuals with eating disorders are not necessarily underweight: In a world where being obsessed with body weight is wildly accepted and even promoted by the media and societal norms, it is difficult to spot an eating disorder. The misconception that only people who look overly thin and “sickly” or “obese” have an eating disorder can make it almost impossible to spot, unless you are the actual sufferer. My weight fluctuated on any given week when I was in the throes of my eating disorder. With yo-yo dieting comes yo-yo body size. Although my weight fluctuation was extreme, I often landed in the “just above average” weight range or body mass index (BMI), according to medical charts. Yet my eating disorder was severe enough to kill me. Statistics show that Eating Disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
Stigma kills. I wish with all my heart that eating disorders were viewed in the same way as a broken arm or a red, splotchy skin allergy. I wish that the shame and guilt surrounding illnesses based in our brains would disappear, that these illnesses were as outwardly discussed and supported as physical illnesses. I am hopeful that one day they will be. They should be. This is why I share my story with you. I want everyone to know that eating disorders cannot always be identified based on a person’s body size. And that just because your weight may be in a “normal” range according to onlookers or weight charts, it does not mean that your eating disorder is not destroying you or your loved ones. I want you and your loved ones to know that there is nothing to be ashamed of by either talking about your own eating disorder or finding ways to talk to someone else about concerns you might have regarding eating or other behaviors relating to nutrition, spending calories, or efforts to make your body “perfect.” I want you to know that you can get help and that there are people to help you. I want you to know that you are not alone, and that becoming “fully recovered” from this illness is so very possible.
You see, the statement “I had no idea” is a phrase readily spoken about this illness that affects approximately thirty million people. But it doesn’t have to be that way.