Eating disorders are serious health concerns. They deprive the world of the contribution of countless sufferers who do not get the care they need to recover. Far too often, they destroy lives permanently. They are a significant cause of early death.
There is hope, however, especially now, but this is not widely known. Despite the fact that successful treatment is possible, most sufferers never get help and most of the treatment they get is baseless or under-powered. Access to better care is held back by public misunderstanding of the problem as well as paltry research funding and clinical training.
Eating disorder charities are fighting this. They do so knowing that the public has countless causes to care about. Not that anyone begrudges the successful charitable outreach, far from it. Those of us who have tried to raise money for a cause we believe in can only congratulate and cheer for the Ice Bucket Challenge and the many walks and runs and Roast Beef Dinners and silent auctions that move people to voluntarily put their money where their heart is.
It is increasingly common to put on fundraising events derivative of many others out there: around walks and runs and endurance events. People are used to charities raising funds this way, and of being beneficiaries of such campaigns. So why have I taken a position against this?
It is not that I don't appreciate the intent. People come forward willingly and with generous hearts to promote a charity when they are running a marathon or organizing an awareness walk/run. They are, often, stung when they hear my hesitation. They may never have heard such an objection and feel offended. They have probably heard of charities who accept and even hold such events.
I am always reminded, in awkward conversations, that we would not put on a wine-tasting to raise money for a substance abuse charity. Cigar smoking for lung cancer charities? To hold events where even mild and measured exercise is featured is far too much like serving beer at an AA meeting for me. It is not that beer is bad of itself, but that in that context it is needless and inappropriate.
With eating disorders we often forget that not only is compulsive exercise a frequent and devastating symptom, but that eating disorder sufferers are some of the most altruistic and self-sacrificing people you will ever meet. Holding an event in which they are unable or should not fully participate seems not quite thought through.
Eating disorders often involve a symptom called "anosognosia," which leaves patients unable, genuinely unable, to accurately perceive their own medical state. The ill person may feel fine, even quite well, and unable to understand why those around them are concerned. This is especially tragic when the activity is for the very cause they are courageous enough to stand up for.
Active eating disorders also distort self-esteem, leaving patients to feel they are letting others down by not doing all they can as well as or better than others. These are the same patients who most need support in resting, in putting recovery first, where mixed messages are a risk to their recovery process
And, for those who suffer from compulsive exercise currently, is it fair to ask them to watch and cheer as others participate in the very activity from which they must abstain?
I am not against charitable events centered on physical activity. But with eating disorders I suggest that we think about the context and break out of the "walk" line. Just as these events are only a few decades old, others will arise. Just as the public's imagination was stirred by the Ice Bucket challenge, there are countless ideas to explore. For eating disorders, at least, we may want to lead the search for new ways. In fact, we must. The quest for better public knowledge and training and research funding is a marathon, but let's make that figurative and not literal!
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.