I have an eating disorder. I had an eating disorder? I’m not sure which. Either way, this is a statement I have been afraid to say for a long time. I have told my family and some close friends, but this is not something I wear on my sleeve. Today, I was reminded why.
After reading Ross Boehme’s piece, “Macalester Athletics Wants You to Know My Weight. I Don’t,” which discussed his concerns with the Athletic Department publicly putting heights and weights on men’s athletic rosters, I sent out an email to several people on our campus, asking them to follow Ross’s lead and send Kim Chandler, Athletic Director, an email requesting to take down that display of information to the public.
I didn’t anticipate that anyone would be upset or offended by that, but I got a few responses that indicated that they found my request ridiculous—which is why I’m writing this. I have spoken with Ross, and I know he also wrote a follow-up for this week, and I encourage you all to read what he has to say. I’m going to do my best to add another perspective and explain a little bit more about what an eating disorder is and what it feels like (or at least what it felt like for me).
First of all, an eating disorder is an illness. It should be treated the same way one would treat a physical diagnosis. It can happen to anyone. When I say anyone, I mean anyone. No matter your height, weight, gender, body type, age, socioeconomic status, race, eye color or hometown. Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder, and it warrants treatment. Treatment can look different for a lot of people, but it generally includes some sort of cognitive therapy and a lot of appointments with psychiatrists, nutritionists and doctors. When I finally realized that I had a problem, I went to the Health and Wellness Center to talk with Dr. Steph Walters. I cannot thank her enough, as she was immensely kind, helpful and encouraging. She introduced me to a treatment facility called the Emily Program (Note: if you are having any issues at all with body image or disordered eating, please give the Emily Program a call).
My eating disorder began when I decided to start “eating healthier.” I got caught up in diet/weight loss culture and thought that healthy was equated with less. I didn’t realize, though, that I was not getting healthier—my body was actually being heavily damaged by a disease. When I first began treatment, my resting heart rate was almost 30 bpm lower than it was when I was healthy, and I had lost a lot of weight. I was told that I could no longer exercise because my heart could give out, and I could die on the spot. It didn’t even scare me.
At the time, I could only bring myself to feel secretly relieved that I was on doctor’s orders to stop exercising. I had been exercising intensely every day. There were thoughts in my head that told me I was lazy and worthless if I didn’t work out every day. I have often heard people refer to this as “a voice in their head.” I didn’t actually hear any voices. I thought that these were my own thoughts. Instead, it was the eating disorder thinking for me.
As a neuroscience major, I sometimes find that hard to accept. I think to myself, “Even if they were harsh thoughts, they still came from my own brain. They are still my thoughts.” And they were. They were my thoughts, but they were manipulated and put there by the disorder. The disease comes in and changes all the pathways of your brain. Who you are becomes lost. I’ve seen it take over my friends’ personalities completely. And I felt it take over mine. I was dull, emotionless and completely apathetic. I was just going through the motions.
This brings me to the second half of what I want to address here: how it feels and why it happens. I don’t think my limited vocabulary can begin to explain the darkness that overcomes you when you do not have enough food in your body. You are reduced to something called “starvation mode.” Your body completely shuts down processes that aren’t necessary for survival. You have no energy to spend on heating your body or metabolizing food, let alone feeling your emotions. Everything is annoying, and you are constantly irritated. Every single bone and muscle in your body aches. Sitting in class hurts because your butt has no padding anymore, so you start sitting on sweatshirts. You are cold. Always. You can’t focus, and your memory and attention are slower than you’ve ever experienced. You cannot stop thinking about food. Your friends might not even notice any of these symptoms. Some will, though, and that’s even worse. How are you supposed to tell them you aren’t eating enough—that you can’t eat enough?
Why can’t you just eat? It’s a question I used to ask myself all day, every day. It should be so easy. You just put the food on the fork, shove it into your mouth, chew and swallow. For me, this is the hardest part to explain. As miserable as I felt when I wasn’t eating, that was nothing compared to the misery I would feel if I didn’t restrict. Controlling my food was the only thing I could focus on. If I let myself eat, I would have nothing left.
The best way I can explain an eating disorder is like a drug abuse problem. It is a mental illness and an addiction to disordered behaviors. Just like many drug abusers use drugs to escape a reality or their own heads, I used restriction of food to escape my unhappiness. I was (and still am) struggling with depression. People do not just get eating disorders because they are obsessed with their body. They become truly obsessed with their body and the food they eat because they are not okay somewhere inside.
Eating disorders also often make people constantly compare their own bodies to others’. I was always looking at other people and checking if I was skinnier than them. It was disgusting how obsessed I was with what others were eating or how often they exercised.
For many, an eating disorder is a game of numbers. Over a year later, I still remember my exact lowest weight, how many calories I was eating at my lowest point, how many calories are in a piece of bread, an apple, peanut butter, chicken breast, popcorn… The list goes on. I used to weigh myself at least four times a day. Although this does not apply to everyone with an eating disorder, many people have a very unhealthy obsession with specific numbers. Included in this is their height and weight.
I understand that not everyone has an eating disorder, and that even not everyone with an eating disorder cares about their weight. But if putting this information in a public place is affecting even one athlete, it is worth taking it down. At the very least, having your weight public should be optional. I commend and admire those who feel comfortable with displaying their weight publicly. However, if these numbers allow others to feed their obsession with their weight, then they should not have to fight for those numbers to come down.
An eating disorder is horrible. If you are having any eating disorder thoughts or behaviors, please reach out. I promise you that understanding yourself and understanding the issues you have that made you rely on this deadly disorder will make your life so much better. Please reach out if you are struggling. Life doesn’t have to be the way it is for you now. Someone—a friend, a family member—will be there for you. If nothing else, I am here for you. It is so, so worth it. I promise.
If you are interested in keeping this conversation alive, or have any ideas about how our campus can better accommodate those who are struggling with mental illness, I encourage you all to speak up. For yourselves, for your friends or for the stranger on the sidewalk. Speak up.