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“It’s not about the food” – Eating disorders: a misnomer

Rachel Clifton, an 18-year-old student from London, writes a compelling description of her battle with mental health issues; specifically, her eating disorder.

“Growing up in London, a city known for its ethnic and cultural diversity and relative liberalism, I am yet to find someone who hasn’t heard the term “eating disorder.” While I am sure these people exist, they are not among my circle of friends, family, and further acquaintances; indeed, within that particular “bubble”, I can say with some confidence that “everybody knows someone.” How can I be so certain? Easy. I am one of them.

rach profile

I am one of over 1.6 million people (statistic courtesy of Anorexia and Bulimia Care) estimated to be “directly affected” by an eating disorder. This is a very loose estimation; owing to the fact that sufferers often do not seek and/or receive help, the actual statistics are likely to be far higher. This means that despite the substantial physical and psychological impact of their disordered cognitions and behaviours, they remain invisible; without any official diagnosis, they cannot get the treatment that they need.

But for those people who wouldn’t fit the tick-box criteria for clinical diagnosis, whose mentality and behaviours aren’t deemed “bad enough” to “need” help in the active sense of the word, one – paradoxically – often has to get “worse” to get better. In a world where the disorder is “the new normal” – or the old normal, even, because this has been going on for a while – we find safety and salvation in rigidity, routine, and rules. “If we do this then maybe everything will fall into place”; we think we can change the world by ourselves, and that changing ourselves means changing the external. Ultimately, we are wrong.

Stripped back, there are no “absolute truths”; just layers upon layers of a framework we ourselves created. These constructs provide the illusion of tangibility, but not the foundation for it; the closest thing to clarity is found in their purpose. Without a clear sense of direction, of “right” and “wrong”, of moral conduct and social norms, we are aimless and floundering at the crossroads, unsure of how to move forward. This also applies in a personal context: without a clear sense of self, it’s easy to get lost in the shadows.

eating disorder inforgraph

There is a sense of safety in certainty, but life has few: we are born, we live, we will die – that’s all there is. The rest is up to us – a prospect that can be as intimidating as it is exhilarating. For the first time, we are forced to confront ourselves. Who are we? What do we want? What do we need? What makes us feel? And who are we when we remove the protection of solidarity? Who are we as I, you, me? All we know is that despite our efforts, we know almost nothing; a premise that is best described as “fucking terrifying”.

An eating disorder is best described as a method of avoidance. It works on the basis that by escaping into the eating-disordered world and closeting oneself within it, one doesn’t have to focus on the “real” issues.  It is a method of communication, albeit one in which the use of words is discouraged; it is the body that wields true power.  For those drawn to self-destruction, self-punishment, self-denial and self-sabotage, the body is most powerful at its weakest.  I think my personal experience is encapsulated by the idea that I was trying to break myself in the hope that someone might hear me.

What did I want to say? What was I trying to communicate? Somewhere along the way, the message was lost. What was once about fear, guilt, and shame became about food, exercise, and weight. Channelling these feelings into food, however distressing on a day-to-day basis, was easier than facing the feelings themselves. For a while, there was a sense of safety in the monotony, a sense of freedom in the numbness, but then it became a trap in and of itself. Addiction, a compulsion – something I couldn’t control. A “problem” in and of itself – albeit unlike my neuroses, one with physicality: I recognised the duality of the situation I was in, encompassing both mind and body.

That recovery is difficult is because it is about more than fixing the external; whilst the latter is relatively “easy” in the grand scheme of things – “all you have to do” is stop doing what you were doing, and substitute it for new, healthier habits – eating disorders are about more than just their symptoms. To get yourself out of the rut of an eating disorder, one must confront what led you to the eating disorder in the first place – by which I am not necessarily referring to any particular life event, but to the core beliefs that underpin your dysfunctional relationship with food and weight.

eating disorder map

What does being “thin” mean to you; what does it represent? Likewise, what would it mean to be “fat” – what would this say about you as a person? Is your “greed”, your “gluttony”, your excess solely directed at food and your body, or is this just a means of deflecting from your feelings of being “too much” as a human being? The body is an easy target, but the problem – much like the solution – is rarely rooted in it. The severity of an eating disorder is not denoted by one’s physical state for the simple reason that eating disorders are not ultimately about food or weight; they are just two of many triggers through which internal distress can manifest itself.

Some of this is about perspective: I am not defined by my eating disorder because I choose not to be. In no longer pledging allegiance to that identity, I am putting across a powerful statement – that I refuse to inhibit myself.  Whilst recovery remains a active work in progress rather than a destination, I, too, remain determined. To me, a half-life is no life at all.

They say that “beyond fear lies freedom”, but until recently I was too scared to take that leap. What had to change to enable me to take that first tentative step towards real health and happiness? Whilst I had been sick and tired for a long time, I had never been sick and tired enough of being sick and tired to confront myself with my own accountability. I was faced with an uncomfortable premise: the idea that I was more in control than I realised. From there, I began to do the seemingly impossible: prove it to myself. There’s a beautiful irony to the fact that, in doing so, my weakness became a source of strength. But what allowed me to do this? At face value, at least, it’s “simple”: I realised that I had nothing to lose.”

If you want more information about the illness head over to the National Institute of Mental Health.

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