As someone who has lived through Anorexia Nervosa, and who is now in recovery, I know how difficult it can be for others to comprehend such a perplexing illness. Throughout the dark years when I was in the depth of the eating disorder, I was sustained and encouraged by my family, even though they didn’t know exactly what was happening. As I struggled to fathom the condition, it was immeasurably more difficult for those on the outside, watching me self-destruct, to make sense of the torment.
There is a widely circulated perception that eating disorders are caused by culture and society, and that parents, as part of this environment, are equally responsible. While I cannot comment on every situation, I know from my own experience and from the research material that I have read, that this is not the case. The causes of Anorexia Nervosa are incredibly complex and not yet fully understood. While there may be a definite choice made to lose weight or change eating patterns, no one affected by Anorexia Nervosa makes a conscious decision to choose the constant barrage of tormenting thoughts, or to slowly die of starvation. I know what an incredibly persuasive voice anorexia has – it cajoles, it tempts, it tricks. It is not an innocent, passing or harmless phase which is to be expected in the lives of most teenage girls – far from it.
From an increasingly young age, females are conditioned to be sensitive and worried about their bodies and weight. Western culture encourages a mind-set of dis-satisfaction and even outright hatred of one’s body. Surrounded by such a cultural climate, I was able to understand the attractions of weight loss through Anorexia Nervosa. Undeniably, it was an effective way for me to lose weight – but the cost to me personally and to my family was enormous.
As the fat stores in my body were depleted, and any enjoyment of life itself disappeared. During the years I spent controlled by anorexic thoughts and behaviours, nothing in my life caused me any pleasure or joy. As I restricted the amount of food I consumed, my body began to eat away at its own muscle to support life. While I was in such a compromised condition, and didn’t want to acknowledge any problem, I did admit that I was terrified of uncontrollable weight gain. On the surface, that fear appeared to be one of the main motivators behind my self-starvation; however, this explanation did not truly grasp the core issues that I was facing. At all times throughout my experience with this disorder, I refused to acknowledge that my lowered health levels were due to a reduction in food intake.
Even though I had an overwhelming terror of eating anything that did not meet my standards of suitable food, I was not ultimately afraid of the food itself – the root went much deeper. Foods that were ‘fat’ and ‘rich’ were feared because of what they signified, not because they were excluded from the latest fashionable diet. These types of food did not comply with my standards of perfection and my perceived necessity for personal control. It was not until I began to emerge from the illness that I really understood this. While in the midst of anorexia, nothing made a great deal of sense – all I knew was that food was terrifying and anyone who tried to encourage me to eat had to be opposed at all costs. I also feared the concept of ‘satisfaction’ because it indicated fullness to the point of indulgence. It indicated to me an uncomfortable degree of freedom. If somehow I ever felt satisfied, that sensation was translated in my mind as the beginning of chaos – a complete contrast to my craving for control. Basically, my central fear was not that my weight would sky rocket enormously, but that any measure of control that I had would be lost.
Terrified of this outcome, I resolved to restrict my intake of food, so that there was little or no opportunity for excessive eating to occur. By taking this drastic course of action, I eliminated any possibility of gaining satisfaction from food. My memories of this time are bleak and colourless. Life went on around me, but somehow I was detached, isolated and unable to meaningfully connect with anything. I now see how alarmed and powerless my parents must have felt as the eating disorder took over - and they had good reason to be.
Anorexia nervosa has an extremely high mortality rate. It is a harrowing experience for everyone involved. But recovery is possible. The process though, is never easy; it is not a smooth progression to wellness. Instead there is much fear and suspicion to overcome. For me, the eating disorder was the only way of life that seemed possible, viable and acceptable. A tremendous amount of care and patience was needed to support me through recovery. Health and life can be regained from the clutches of starvation – and parents are crucial in the recovery process. Keep fighting for your child and don’t give in to despair when you’re going through the darkest parts of such a hellish experience. Hope remains, even in the midst of fear, panic and depression.