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WHAT TO KNOW: National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

It’s National Eating Disorder Awareness, or NEDA, week.  Why do we need an entire week out of the year in order to promote awareness of eating disorders?  Well firstly, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any other psychiatric illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; that means that eating disorders are related to more deaths than schizophrenia, addiction, depression, and all other psychiatric illnesses (www.ANAD.org).

Also—eating disorders suck.  A lot. 

Too many people suffer from eating disorders.  We NEDAwareness because myths about eating disorders are widespread and impede recovery.  As an eating disorder activist and an individual in recovery, I hope to dispel some of these myths and offer some ways to help.


Myth: most people with eating disorders are underweight

Eating disorders are not weight disorders, they are eating disorders.  Along with being complex psychological illnesses, eating disorders do indeed have severe impacts on the body.  A common misconception is that eating disorders primarily impact the body in the form of weight loss.  This is simply not the case.  Someone with a life-threatening eating disorder may not appear to be underweight.  At one point in my life I was in fact underweight because of my eating disorder, but at my sickest I had a normal weight.  Consistent purging did damage to my esophagus, throat, and teeth.  My electrolytes were unbalanced, and my blood work showed the damage I had done to my body through restriction, over exercising, and purging.  Additionally, purging can lead to serious heart issues, which was evidenced by the fact that in treatment my vital signs frequently showed that I was orthostatic.  The thing is, purging does not actually get rid of calories consumed, but does intense damage to the body.

Additionally, eating disorders can lead to significant weight gain.  Binge eating disorder, an eating disorder characterized by episodes of out-of-control and compulsive sessions of overeating, may cause the sufferer to gain weight.  Binge eating disorder is a serious disorder that causes harm to the body, and severe distress to the individual.  Eating disorders also subdue a person’s immune defenses, causing sufferers to get sick often.  Over exercising can also lead to injury and may act as an alternative form of purging and may have different effects on a sufferers physical appearance.  The fact is, eating disorders are miserable and life-threatening conditions that cannot be judged based on a person’s body shape or size. 


Myth: Men don’t have eating disorders

Not only is this assumption incorrect, the gender stereotype holding that men do not suffer from eating disorders prevents men from getting treatment.  The fact is, men do suffer from eating disorders and need to get treatment.  Eating disorders are not just for women, nor do they discriminate based on ethnicity, age, or socioeconomic status.  So let’s just get that out of the way.  Anyone can suffer from an eating disorder.  Everyone deserves to get help.


Myth: Eating disorders are about getting a perfect body

Let’s look at this logically—if someone is willing to severely harm his or her body to lose weight or manipulate food intake, there is something bigger at work than a desire to achieve a perfect body.  Indeed, some eating disorders begin as a quest to change one’s body, but clinical eating disorders become an individual’s coping mechanism, an addiction, and/or identity.  Although an important part of recovery is achieving a positive body image, eating disorders are much more complex than a means to garner the perfect body.

Here’s some anecdotal evidence for you: the second time I went to treatment (yes, the second time; I told you—eating disorders suck) I was required to do “exposure therapy.”  This means that sat at a table with a bunch of other people with eating disorders while we discussed our feelings and were then surprised with a food that the therapists and dieticians had chosen.  One day we got root beer floats and I cried.  I cried.  Let me tell you something, the intense anxiety I was experiencing was not about my efforts toward the perfect body being thwarted.  My fear was related to feeling out of control, not being able to starve myself in order to avoid emotions, and my inability to accept the fact that my body deserved nourishment.

Eating disorders are about mental illness, trauma, and self-worth.  They are not dramatic pursuits for attention and beauty fueled by vanity.  They are much more than a desire for thinness. 


Myth: Eating disorders are not that big of a deal

Eating disorders kill people.  They ruin relationships and destroy families.  Someone suffering from an eating disorder is killing him or herself from the inside out.  Bingeing, purging, restricting, laxative abuse, diet pill usage, over exercising, and constant obsession over food is physically and psychologically destructive.  Eating disorders terrorize the body; they impact organs and organ systems, they cause heart failure, and they make life miserable.  To anyone who doesn’t think that eating disorders are serious and deserve research and awareness, I beg you to listen to my story.  I spent years and years putting all of my thoughts and energy into my eating disorder.  I recall kneeling at the porcelain throne begging for my body to disappear as I purged all of the nourishment I had fearfully ingested.  Nothing mattered to save my pursuit of self-destruction.  Not only was I miserable, but I was useless. 

Now, through recovery, I have found a sense of purpose.  I can use the headspace I once designated for my eating disorder for social activism.  I have campaigned for women’s rights and against hate crime.  I work for a company that provides mental healthcare to low-income seniors.  I have applied to master’s programs in social work so that I can use my brain and my body to make the world a better place.  Eating disorders steal the lives of people that this world needs.  They are serious because all human life and human experience is valuable, and suffering from an eating disorder does not need to be someone’s life sentence. 

It is important to educate and raise awareness about eating disorders because too many people let their disorders go untreated for too long.  Furthermore, treatment needs to be more accessible to sufferers.  It is expensive and thereby that much more difficult to access; this needs to change.  Raising awareness can lead to more research and thus more effective treatment. 


How Can YOU Help?

You don’t have to be a therapist to help someone you know with an eating disorder.  If you suspect that someone you know has an eating disorder, it is infinitely better to take action than to hesitate for fear that he or she will be offended by your concern.  As I have said over and over again, these disorders are serious!  Here’s how you can be a courageous friend:

DO begin by asking your friend how he or she is doing.

DON’T immediately demand your friend tell you if he or she is engaging in eating disorder behaviors

DO bring up your genuine concern for your friend’s general wellbeing, happiness, and distress

DON’T comment on your friend’s body, even if he or she appears to have experienced a significant change in weight. THIS IS IMPORTANT.  If you say to your friend that you have noticed he or she looks too thin or like he or she has lost a lot of weight, it can positively reinforce more eating disorder behavior.  If you notice he or she has gained weight, do not comment on this either.  Just don’t comment on your friend’s body.

DO tell your friend that you notice he or she seems to be frequently tired or sick, avoids situations that include food, and/or obsess about exercise and body image and that you are concerned it might be harmful.

DO tell your friend that you do not judge any sort of behavior, and that you are only expressing your concern because you come from a place of love

DON’T tell you friend he or she needs to get help immediately.

DO provide your friend with resources he or she may use in order to seek recovery.


What if you think YOU may have an eating disorder?

First and foremost, there is help out there.  At the bottom of this article I have included a bunch of resources you may use to your advantage.  Know that you are not alone, and that you do not have to deal with your illness alone.  If you fear that opening up about your struggle will bring about negative judgment from others, know that your disorder is not your fault and there are people out there who care about you and want you to get better.  Don’t let your disorder get any worse.  If you are waiting until you are “ready” to seek recovery, you will find yourself sick for the rest of your life.  Eating disorders are progressive illness that don’t just “go away.”  The bravest and most powerful thing you can do for yourself is to get help now.  I know it sounds scary—I refused treatment for a really long time.  But I have found out who I am without my disorder.  Recovery is no daydream; it is hard work and can be very, very scary.  I will not lie to you, it has been one of the hardest things I have ever done and still work at today, but it has given me life, happiness, and a sense of purpose.  You are worth recovery.  As you are, and as you always will be, you are unquestionably and irrevocably enough.



Meetings in Los Angeles:

Saturdays at 11am @ A New Journey: 2121 Cloverfield Blvd, Santa Monica CA, 90404

Tuesdays at 7pm @ Beit T’Shuvah: 8831 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles CA, 90034

Tuesdays at 7pm @ St. Andrews Church: 11555 National Blvd, Los Angeles CA, 90064

UCSD Eating Disorder Program (San Diego): (855)-824-3020; edintake@ucsd.edu

A New Journey Eating Disorder Center (Santa Monica): 1(844)-348-6215; info@anewjourney.net

Eating Recovery Center (Denver): http://www.eatingrecoverycenter.com/about-us/

Timberline Knolls (Illinois): http://www.timberlineknolls.com/

Therapist Directory: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ and click “Find a Therapist”

Ashton is a psychology and sociology student and burgeoning social activist. She tweets mostly. She wants you to follow her. (@attieharris)
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