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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Having An Eating Disorder: What Does It Mean About You?

Melanie Reid who writes about her spinal injury in The Times says; … the world is split into people who moan and people who don’t. I have heard enough moaning in the past 12 months to last me a lifetime. In this regard, I refuse, ever again, to spend time with anyone who complains continually about the weather, their job, their relationship or their appearance. These people are death to the soul; they suck the oxygen out of the air; they need to be avoided at all costs. …….. avoid people too stupid to appreciate what they’ve got. Like loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

So, are people with anorexia or bulimia stupid?
Or, vexations to the spirit?

On television recently I said words to this effect. People with anorexia are sensitive, even before the illness they find it hard to cope with the slings and arrows of life. And this brought forth a sort of rant from someone, let’s call her Jane. She said to me, you are saying that anorexics are weak, you are undoing all the good I am trying to do trying to get people to understand this illness! I work as an Ambassador for B-eat and you are undoing all my good work!!! My reply to her was lengthy.

So, are people with anorexia or bulimia weak?

And, in OK magazine this week, there is a story of a footballer’s wife who is fading away and refusing to eat, having got rid of some baby weight plus a great deal more. She admits to having anorexia and who knows what else she is doing to herself. She threatens, if anyone comments about my weight loss I will stop eating even more. Now here’s the thing; mature people do not punish people who reach out to show their love, do they? If someone says to me “You look tired, are you working too hard” I say to them “Thank you for caring”. Her anxious friends are damned if they show their concern and they are damned if they don’t.

So, are people with eating disorders infantile or immature?

One person who wrote to me recently said her therapist views her as having a “mental health problem”. Another therapist suggests that she suffers from “Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Because of the shame she feels about these unwelcome labels she is unable to continue with treatment. She chooses to wake up every day trapped in the prison of her eating disorder and her preoccupations with food and weight, rather than be labelled as a mental case.

So, are people with eating disorders mentally ill?

An eating disorder charity says “it’s not about food, it is about feelings”. I heard myself say this on ITV as well. We talk of using food or starving to medicate pain or block feelings that cannot be expressed. I have found that some of my people seem to have “too many feelings” and use binge eating or purging just to calm themselves down. Purging can be the only way you know to get those feelings out.

So, are people with eating disorders “in pain”?

Experts who write textbooks for each other say all kinds of things about people with eating disorders and call it “research findings”. They associate eating disorders with many different pathological presentations. If we are to believe this research, we would view people with anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating as being either:



Personality disordered?

Narcissistic – desperate for attention and desperate when they don’t have it in the way they want?

Dependent- always needing approval from other people?


Insecurely attached; meaning not very good with relating to other people?

Having autonomy fears - which means that they aren’t able to grow up, separate from their families and live “normal lives”?

Experts, even those with eating disorders themselves, pre suppose that there is something very wrong with eating disorder sufferers and bend over backwards to be kind and do everything they can to help the person with self esteem. Even in the field of obesity work, there are experts who designate all emotional eaters as food addicts with poor attachment skills.

And experts do not generally view the person with an eating disorder as very strong, no matter how much they can manage hunger pangs. We call this perfectionism, which is always couched in derogatory terms. We may secretly wish that someone could simply lighten up.

And, that feels to me like a slap in the face with a wet kipper too.

Or are people with eating disorders amazing, strong, creative, intelligent people who have been captured by an evil spirit? It sometimes feels like that to people looking on. If that were so we would have to accept that someone with an eating disorder is enslaved.

When I see someone with an eating disorder, whether it is anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, I try not to make assumptions about what is wrong or right about them. Yet it is hard not to see predictable patterns in each disorder. Our sufferers are generally misinformed about food, dieting and weight. They know a lot about calories but very little about the science behind appetite and weight control. As to the rest, there is a great deal of fear, panic and anxiety. Closely followed by shame, misery and guilt. There is a huge amount of self talk about food, weight and diets. There may be a great deal of purpose in managing food but very little self confidence, something which we all aspire to in life.

There is a trail of people in the wake of the sufferer who are confused, angry or worried. Eating, it seems, is a relational issue. So the collateral damage of an eating disorder is very far and wide.

So what does it mean about you if you have an eating disorder? I say this. Stop worrying about the labels for a start, because these labels do not capture what it means to be human and imperfect. I am not sure that we can quest for recovery, or even desire it, until we have looked inside ourselves to find out “what my eating disorder is saying about me, personally”.

Perhaps we all need to accept our shadow side, name the bad as well as the good, the weak with the strong, the evil and the angelic, so that we can become the master of our fate.

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