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Inside the Mindset of an Eating Disorder

We can brush aside the harsh reality that is mental illness. We can reduce it to that -- just a harsh reality. Or we can work to help one another understand. To create clarity and enlightenment to not only provide much-needed support, but to prevent further mental illness, like these deadly eating disorders.
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sad woman profile silhouette in dark
sad woman profile silhouette in dark

Trigger warning

Panic. My mind begins to race as I stand in the doorway of the kitchen. I don't want to be in this familiar spot. This paradoxical heaven and hell, just on the brink of relief and pain.
My bare feet touch the floor as my eyes wander.

Refrigerator. Enemy. Snack pantry. Enemy. Mind. Enemy. I turn to leave when I hear the familiar turn of the key in the door.

My accountability has arrived home. Skipping this snack won't be as easy, not with the "police" around. I can refuse, no one will force me. But that's one step closer to a fate I'd like to avoid; a fate of hospitals and force feeding, of answering questions that seem hurtful in their lack of creativity.

Why do you do this; can't you see what you're doing to yourself? I do this not because it feels like a luxury or choice, but because it feels like I have no alternative. Somehow, my pain, anxiety, sadness -- they all feel as if they'll dissipate if I continue to restrict, to wither, to blossom. Whatever it is I'm doing to myself.

But I know why I need to eat. If I'd ever like to achieve all those future goals, I'll need to do as I'm told. It may not be for me right now but shouldn't it be enough that I feel any semblance of willingness?

"What are you up to?" I don't bother turning around. Simply hold my stance poised in front of the fridge, awaiting its attack. Awaiting the attack my mind is launching on myself.

"Getting snack ready," I say. I'm met with a throated agreement, an attempt to hold ground without giving any leeway for my usual arguments to be vocalized. But they're always there.

Sitting in my mind.

I open the door and hear the hum of the motor and, just like that, the thoughts flood: You don't really need this, most people don't eat snacks, why should you have to?

You know exactly what it'll do to you if you eat anything!

Look, there's that food that has been called off limits by me, that delicious sugary treat you can think about it, but best you don't go for it.

Choose something safe.

My eating-disorder voice is much stronger than my healthy voice which attempts to shout back:
"I need to do this to get better. I'm not an exception, this illness will kill me. I want to eat what I'm in the mood for, don't tell me what to do!"

But it comes out as barely a whisper.

I choose something on my meal plan and bring it to the table.

An immediate fullness sets in by my simply looking at the food. My stomach hurts, my body feels as if it can't contain my thoughts. My legs begin to shake and I avoid eye contact with the food in front of me.

"You need to get started."

My thoughts race at one million miles per minute. Any argument to avoid this. To avoid what feels like pain. But there are none that I haven't tried. My hand begins to lift, to reach the spoon but stops halfway.

The eating disorder in my mind is playing "claw machine" with my hand, but avoiding the prize. The prize in my twisted head is to get up and leave. The ultimate prize, I know, is to be free.

But is it possible? Can I ever be free? What's really the point of doing this if I'll never recover.

And I'm quite convinced I won't recover. It's been ages and it feels like any steps I've made have been erased by this demon in my mind.

All of this flies through my thoughts in mere seconds.

"Come on, Temimah. You've been taking too long with snacks, you need to start now." I hear growing agitation in that voice. Tears begin to fill my eyes.

"I can't do it." I say, wobbly.

"You can and you know there isn't another option."

I take the first bite. I swallow with emphasis, as if taking cough syrup or a potion I know will bring me some uncertain future. My body reacts. It is craving this food. This energy. My mind scorns my body, wishing there could be more control, wishing there could be some detachment.

One minute and 26 seconds pass. I hear an impatient sigh. Next bite. This continues until I'm through, at which point I float upstairs and wonder about what I've just done. Wonder if that was right, if I should do something to compensate, if this truly will bring me on the road closer to recovery.

The text above depicts the haunting mindset of an individual suffering from an eating disorder--my thought process for years. It depicts the internal strife, the dialogue and inner workings of one struggling with a demonic voice, a part of herself that was conceived as a means to cope but instead becomes an enemy from within.

Why share the specific thoughts and inner workings? What does it achieve beyond creating a haunting, and perhaps familiar image?

One of the greatest difficulties when struggling with an eating disorder is the feeling of complete isolation. The eating disorder has been compared to a "best friend" or even "an abusive boyfriend" as it takes on a role, rather than simply a mindset. The eating disorder is a part of oneself, but a part that exists as a means to manage pain, fear or loss. When a person begins the process of recovery, s/he is working to combat the "eating disorder self" by strengthening the healthier parts of him/herself--the part of the individual that wants to recover and be free from the eating disorder.

The loneliness and hopelessness that one sits with is practically unbearable. I can recall both wanting support and craving connection, yet shunning it whenever the opportunity presented itself. No one understood. My parents and siblings tried to understand, my boyfriend tried to understand, some friends hoped to understand--but they couldn't.

It is for this reason that I am sharing a glimpse, a mere glimpse, into the experience of one struggling. Understanding what it is like will allow for a greater ability to support the individual.
So many people, upon hearing that I had anorexia, responded with comments such as, "Can't you just eat?" or "But food is great," "You look so good, I don't know why you'd want to have an eating disorder."

After reading above, you may be better able to imagine how hurtful it can feel when someone talks about the eating disorder as if it is a choice, as if it is about vanity or as if it is something from which one can "simply walk away." While so much of the struggle pertains to food, the eating disorder is not really about food at all. And the components that do manifest through food feel heavy and unbearable; joking around about eating disorders or making comments about the simplicity of "just eating" feels like daggers to one's struggling self.

What can you say, then? How should one approach it?

First, respond with compassion rather than accusations. If you, as a supporter, or even as someone learning more about eating disorders, hear about another individual's struggle, it is best to respond not to the symptoms, but instead to the experience. For instance, making comments about food and weight will not help the person; this is a trap or a double-edged sword. The person will not be pleased hearing that s/he "looks great" or "healthy," as this is translated, in the eating disorder mindset, to mean that the person looks "fat." Furthermore, commenting on the weight change or loss will most likely fuel the eating disorder. Instead, address the struggle and offer support.

When I left residential treatment, my sister offered me one of the best lines of support that I can remember. She said: "I can't imagine what you're going through; I won't pretend to. But please know that I'm here if there's any way that I can help."

At that time I was in the throes of my eating disorder and depression and I remember her sitting with me in silence for a few moments, just so that I knew that she was there for me. It is this type of support that is most honest and raw. It skips the jokes and the myths about eating disorders that can feel hurtful to those suffering.

We can brush aside the harsh reality that is mental illness. We can reduce it to that -- just a harsh reality. Or we can work to help one another understand. To create clarity and enlightenment to not only provide much-needed support, but to prevent further mental illness, like these deadly eating disorders. I share my story not for my own sake, not to dig up the past or to show my pride in my journey. Rather, I do so to open the window for others to be able to receive much-needed help and hope.

Adapted from original versions as published in JLNJ on December 17, 2015 and January 7, 2016

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If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.