I'm betting that If you think that eating disorders are choices and that to get better, just takes "willpower," or "eating healthy,” you have never experienced the hell of being trapped in one.
Or you’ve never watched and felt powerless as a loved one struggled, wishing that you knew how you could help.
Regardless, if you lack an understanding of eating disorders, it’s so important to educate yourself.
Eating Disorders Are Not Lifestyle Choices
There's a common misperceptions that eating disorders are all about wanting to "be thin," or "look like a model." However, the reality is that while symptoms might manifest as an obsession with food or weight, eating disorders are life-threatening mental illnesses that are caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and temperamental factors.
Here's the thing. No one would choose to feel intense anxiety about eating certain foods, to the point where it starts to isolate themselves from the people that they care about. No one would choose to binge eat until they feel sick, with pain in their stomach and feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. No one would decide to binge eat and then purge through vomiting or exercise, to feel completely trapped in the exhaustion and pain of the restrict/binge/purge cycle.
Eating disorders are something that no one would choose. Further, every 62 minutes someone will die as a result of their eating disorder.
If you struggle with a restrictive eating disorder, you aren't "vain." If you suffer from binge eating disorder or bulimia, you aren't just "lacking willpower." You are suffering from a mental illness.
What You Can Choose
So here's where the message becomes more positive. I hope I've made it clear that eating disorders are not lifestyle choices.
However, here are a things that you can choose to do, if you are struggling with one:
1. You can reach out for help from specialists.
Eating disorders will try to convince you that you "aren't sick enough" to need help. However, it doesn't matter what your weight is (you can have one at any weight), your age, gender, race, or how long you've been struggling-you deserve to get help.
Reaching out for help when you are struggling is a sign of true strength.
Eating disorders are treatable illnesses and with access to treatment and support, full recovery is possible!
2. You can take small steps towards recovery, not matter what "the eating disorder" is telling you to do.
To the people who are following their meal plan, or pushing themselves to eat when they have a mental illness that is telling them not to-that is true courage.
To those who are sitting with urges to binge or binge and purge, and are not acting on them or are at least practicing sitting with the urge longer than they did before-that is strength. If you are really struggling with this, it just means that you likely would benefit from additional support or you are having a rough patch in your recovery.
To the person who decided to pick up the phone and reach out for help from a professional, that is true strength.
3. You can educate yourself.
If you don't have an eating disorder-you can choose to educate yourself and be an ally to those who are in recovery. You may think that you don't know anyone who is struggling, but it's very likely that you do.
4. You can urge your loved one to seek help.
If you have a loved one who is struggling, it’s so important that you point out your concern over the behaviors that you are noticing and urge them to seek help.
Many people who are deep in their eating disorders are unable to see how “ill” they actually are. Thus, it’s crucial that loved ones express concern and their desire for the person to get some help.
The Bottom Line
People with eating disorders are some of the strongest, most compassionate, intelligent, and overall amazing people that I know. What's so sad is that when many of my clients first come to me, they often are unable to see their many positive qualities.
However, with practice they can learn how to be kinder to themselves, to recognize their strengths, and to use tools and skills to recover from their eating disorders, to uncover a meaningful and purpose-filled life.
With access to treatment and support, freedom from eating disorders and body hate is possible.
Jennifer Rollin, MSW, LCSW-C: is an eating disorder therapist in private practice in Rockville, Maryland. Jennifer specializes in helping teens and adults struggling with anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, and body image issues. Jennifer provides eating disorder therapy in Rockville, MD, easily accessible to individuals in Potomac, North Potomac, Bethesda, Olney, Germantown, and Washington D.C. Connect with Jennifer through her website: www.jenniferrollin.com
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.