How eating disorders start to grow

by Christine on March 15th, 2011

filed under Eating Disorders

Today I was reading a few blogs about eating disorders. It’s hard for me because I can completely relate to the mindset that these ED sufferers are currently experience. I’ve been there, a lot, in the past.

The intense self-hatred, not just of your body (but that’s a big part of it), but of everything to do with yourself. You’re not smart enough. You’re not funny enough. There’s no way you’ll ever find a partner or spouse, and if you already have one, surely he or she is planning on leaving you for someone better.

Every action is not good enough. If you’re in school, a mere A would send shockwaves through you. You need an A+.  You expect nothing less than perfection for yourself.  If you cook a meal, if it’s not completely perfectly mouthwatering and savory, you’ll throw it out and order takeout instead. If you are an employee, anything less than a pat on the back from the President is not good enough. If you’re a parent, if your child isn’t perfect in any way, it’s a reflection of you and your parenting skills.

You become obsessed with making your life entirely perfect in every way. First, you probably go through a manic cleaning phase. You eliminate all the dust and grime in your house. Then you eliminate the clutter. You shop for new decorations, hire a lawn service, hire a maid service. If someone in the house leaves a dish in the sink, you unravel and go nuts.

From there, you start perfecting other things in your life. The perfect hair. The perfect clothes. You probably spend hours in the bathroom making sure that when you leave the house, the world sees you exactly how you want to be perceived. (Ah, but if they only knew what a mess you are, inside!)

You over-compensate. You hold lavish parties. You enroll your kid in tutoring and extra sports and second-language lessons at the age of 10.  At work you take on more projects, put in more time, hoping for more and more recognition, a better title, quick advancement to the top.  At school you work with the professor after class, you volunteer on committees, you ensure yourself an A in any way possible, including (and especially) learning to manipulate the system.

Winning is what it’s all about. At all costs.

It’s all about control. You have to be in control of your surroundings, your achievements…everything in your world.

From my personal experience, and from my years of being friends with other ED sufferers, there are two ways that this whole perfection scenario starts to fall apart.

The first, and most common way the world starts to fall about, is the inability to alter your physical appearance. Despite doing everything completely by the books – dieting, eating well, exercising, methodically tracking your food intake and calorie burn – nothing works, you don’t lose weight, you cannot seem to achieve that perfect, (often waifish) physique that you are seeking.

The second way that the world spirals out of control is when one thing happens in your life that is beyond your ability to control it. Often, it’s a tragedy such as a death of a friend or parent. It might be a boyfriend or husband divorcing or leaving you. It might be getting downsized from your job. For many, many young children that develop eating disorders, it is an abusive household. I remember reading many years ago that an astonishing 80% of anorexic adolescent girls are victims of sexual abuse.

The result in either scenario is a bizarre relationship with food. Some turn to starvation as a last-ditch effort to get thin. (As I did….read about that here.)  Some turn to starvation as a way of self-punishment…it’s the mindset of “I’m less than perfect, and so I will hurt myself and punish myself for achieving less than the best by denying myself food.”  There is, I believe, a huge correlation between ED suffers in this category that “self-injure” themselves, as well, such as by cutting their skin, burning their skin, getting tattoos or piercing, or other self injurious actions.

Some people, however, turn to food to release their frustration and tension. Today, I’m a classic example of this: when something happens that is out of my control, I immediately grab a bag of cookies and chow down. Then, the guilt over what you do sets in, and you try to rectify the situation by vomiting, using laxatives, water pills, over-exercising, etc.  Every time I indulge because I am frustrated, anxious, or sad, I really have to fight the urge to “right the wrongs” done.

Ultimately, Eating Disorders are all about control and, paradoxically, the lack of control that we have in our lives.

For me, I’ve experienced all of these symptoms before. I’ve starved myself, purged, abused laxatives and water pills, and have overindulged with exercise. I’ve binge-eaten more times than I can count; I’ve fueled emotional voids in my life with food. I have exhaustively used food (or the lack thereof) to fix the wrongs in my life and to fill the spaces that I felt that needed to be filled.

Every day, I need to remind myself that there are some things that are just outside of my control. All I can do is make the most of what I have, accept and embrace my immediate faults while still working towards long-term goals. I try very hard to see myself realistically – both the good and the bad – in the mirror every day. I struggle to find healthier ways to deal with sadness and disappointment.

I could get into a huge, long tirade about how most common eating disorder treatments are degrading to its patients (who, I might point out, are some of the most intelligent people out there in society, if standardized test scores are to be believed), and what I would recommend for the treatment of the EDs, but that is another post for another day. Furthermore, most ED sufferers don’t want to “recover” (and most don’t see themselves as having a “real problem”) and so any kind of psychological treatment attempts are pretty much in vain. Suffice it to say that most treatment fails miserably, and ED sufferers are left on their own to figure out how to fix their relationship with food.

As for me, I know rationally that food is not the answer, but old habits die hard. Every day is a struggle.  But I’m doing it, and every day this journey gets easier.

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  • Amandakiska

    Great information! I can relate and I’m so grateful that my life isn’t like that anymore.

  • aquilegia

    Thanks for your post on the pros and cons of HAES. I, too, am a critic of “intuitive eating,” (IE) because dieting trains people to tune out our hunger, and it can be extremely difficult and scary to be aware of it, and to eat promptly at the first sign of hunger. I tried applying the “hunger scale,” years ago when I read the Intuitive Eating book, and it totally backfired for me. It says to wait until a certain degree hungry (which to me sounded like a sensation described that, it turned out, was extremely hungry, as in right before I was about to binge on sweets, because I’d gotten so famished.) So ever since, I’ve had this fear about eating promptly when hungry, and now ignore my hunger for many hours per day, and then of course am bingeing or eating less healthy foods. Result over 20 years? I’ve put on a very, very great amount of weight. So I am not at all in favor of anyone promoting IE as right for everyone, or necessarily consistent with HAES.
    There are other proponents of HAES who recognize IE is impossible for many people who have learned to fear awareness of and responding to hunger via dieting (or in my case, by trying to practice IE!) They tend to advise eating 3 meals a day plus 1-3 snacks, to prevent getting overly hungry (which causes cravings for sweets and extra fats) and then eating what one wants at meals, which is much more likely to result in healthier eating.
    I hope you’ll read more about HAES and different perspectives of it. You might be interested in Ellyn Satter’s web site (she’s a dietitian and expert on EDs) and Frances Berg’s site. You also might find Jean Antonello’s site (the articles) interesting, though she does not promote size acceptance. However, she does advocate trusting hunger levels, eating til full, but eating from sensible food lists to keep hunger for sweets and higher-fat, less healthy foods at bay.
    A clarification: HAES isn’t necessarily saying that it’s healthy to be 700 lbs, but just is acknowledging that dieting is probably what got that person there (diet/binge cycle; or weight cycling–yo-yoing–caused by dieting). It simply advocates restoring normalized eating and pleasurable movement to restore health, rather than to focus on weight, and then let one’s size fall where it may.Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    this helped me alot….. i found most of everything you said to be related to me. i do alittle of everyting, and im not proud of it. i was called names all through school, any kind of fat joke you could think of, even started rymhing heavy hitter names to my name. it was miserable and everyday i think about it. i finally grew out of being fat, but now everyday my only worry is “can i eat this?” “should i eat this”  and throw it up later” “well, i ate out tonight, so i just wont eat anyting tomorrow so ican burn off all the food i ate today” ” if i go to the bath room, will my family/friends think somethings up” i NEVER want to go back to being the chunky kid of the 4th grade, ever. thats why im constantly worried. even my best friend will make fun of me and say “you have a problem haaaa” when we talk about how im obsessed with getting fat. that makes me feel so alone. to think even the ones im closest to dont even understand. it makes me scared to come out and admit i have a problem, so i keep it to myself. i just have no one to help me, alittle supprt would probably help me go far, untill that day i try and help myself mentaly, but i cant always overcome things myself. thank you for your advice and i hope to come back soon to post that i have over come my eating habbits and give more peope hope that they too, can finally be happy in their own bodies.