11 Myths About Eating Disorders, Debunked By Someone Who Lived It
During the summer, most individuals feel the pressure to slim down to what's considered "beach body ready."
Unfortunately, some of these people may cross over the line of healthy dieting and exercise and develop an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are very difficult to overcome, and there are various stigmas and myths associated with the disease.
I know this because I struggled with severe anorexia, exercise addiction, binge eating and bulimia for over a decade, and I quickly learned about the depths of pain and loneliness.
For this reason, I want to shed light on the illness and dispel some of the common myths surrounding it.
1. Eating disorders are about vanity.
Growing up, I had extremely low self-esteem and was never one of the popular kids. I wondered what was wrong with me: Why wasn’t I accepted like they were?
The need to address my perceived sense of rejection and make friends caused me to desperately make changes in myself.
I took my self-hate out on my body and turned my pain inward. I became obsessed with food, calories and my appearance, but this was merely a way to distract my mind from the true pain I was feeling.
Before I knew it, I had developed an eating disorder, although I hadn't realized it.
It’s true many people wish to emulate models or movie stars because the media makes it seem like these people are happy, confident and successful. This creates the illusion that their appearances are responsible for their perfect lives.
This is a dangerous trap. Once someone develops an eating disorder, that person loses touch with all sense of reality.
Outsiders often believe those with eating disorders are looking for attention or are vain, but typically just the opposite is true. Those suffering with eating disorders often lack self-confidence, and they are simply taking steps to feel better about themselves.
Yet, at the same time, they wish others would leave them alone.
And, while these individuals appear self-absorbed and closed off, the reality is they are struggling with mental illness, and they cannot help that their eating disorders control their every thought and action.
2. Eating disorders are a phase; they're not serious.
I wish this were true, but it is a dangerous misconception.
Although most people can attempt to shed a few pounds without further repercussions, for a few others, an innocent diet serves as a gateway to a potentially deadly hell that is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to escape.
What many people fail to understand is that the obsession is not caused by a lack of character or strength of will.
When I first developed my eating disorder and began treatment, I was still blind to the severity of my situation.
While many of my friends from treatment did successfully overcome their eating disorders within a few years, I saw others who continued to struggle almost endlessly and some who tragically died.
Early intervention certainly is one key factor in addressing an eating disorder, but it does not always guarantee a cure.
I learned the hard way just how serious and long-lasting eating disorders can be.
Through my own decade of struggling, I faced serious physical and psychological complications from anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.
I cannot begin to count the number of hospitals I have attended, the surgeries I have faced and the excruciating pain I experienced after repeatedly taking dozens of laxatives.
Fortunately, I am physically healthy and in recovery now, but I spent too many days fearing for my life.
I know others facing the same hardships may not have survived.
3. You can tell who has an eating disorder just by looking.
When people think of eating disorders, they often picture an image of a skeleton.
Although one suffering from anorexia may look sickly thin, this only accounts for a small portion of those battling eating disorders.
Statistically speaking, anorexia affects about 1 percent of the population, while bulimia afflicts 1-2 percent and binge-eating disorder up to 5 percent. Each form of eating disorder is significantly disabling and may be equally as deadly.
When I first developed anorexia, I didn’t appear to be sick, but my mind sure was.
While in residential treatment, I was quick to compare myself to those thinner than me, and then I concluded I was not sick because I wasn’t as bad off as them.
This train of thought led me into a death spiral.
Just five years later, I was lying in the ICU close to death, but I still believed I was “fat” and nowhere near sick enough to have anorexia.
Fast forward only a year and a half later, and I was obese.
It actually is somewhat common for people who first struggle with anorexia to flip into binge-eating disorder or bulimia.
After I gained so much weight from binging, I was horrified. I didn’t even recognize myself and believed I had failed shamefully as an anorexic, which had become my identity for the past seven years.
I thought I was lazy and lacked self-control, and so I isolated myself inside my house for months, only leaving to buy foods for binging. Those who saw me as I first began to gain weight stated I looked so much healthier, but obviously I wasn’t.
Two years later, my eating disorder transformed once again. This time, I developed bulimia.
I had reached a healthy weight, but not in a healthy way. I was still battling the same demons that took control of my life years ago.
Sure, from an outsider’s perspective, I didn’t have an eating disorder because I looked fine. But, no one could see into my mind or read my thoughts. No one knew I was secretly binging, over-exercising and overdosing on deadly amounts of laxatives on a weekly basis.
So yes, I looked healthy, but no, that did not mean I wasn’t struggling with an eating disorder that could have taken my life at any moment.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness for a reason, and it is not because of one’s physical appearance.
4. Eating disorders are about food and weight.
It would be easy to believe this. People with eating disorders often live a life controlled and consumed by food and weight. But, these are merely behaviors covering up much deeper problems.
I was lonely, had low self-esteem, was a perfectionist and put an unrealistic amount of pressure on myself.
By focusing my mind on calories, food and weight, I was able to numb the painful core issues I didn’t want to face. My eating disorder served as a Band-Aid over a wound that continued to grow.
I started to live in my own little world, and it wasn’t until I was in too deep that I realized I was in a deadly trap.
5. Eating disorders only affect young women.
I believed this myth myself for quite some time. It was only after several visits to treatment centers that I recognized many boys and men were consistently there with me.
In fact, 10-15 percent of those who suffer from an eating disorder are male.
Men seem to be less likely to seek treatment and admit to an eating disorder because of the stigma eating disorders are “women’s problems.”
Also, many of the people I encountered in treatment were significantly older than me, and their numbers are continuing to rise.
Eating disorders absolutely do not discriminate when it comes to gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic group, sexual orientation or age.
6. Family or a traumatic event is to blame.
From an outsider’s perspective, I had no reason to develop an eating disorder.
I was a straight-A student, a talented horseback rider, a naturally gifted tennis player, and I had incredible parents. But, I was also a perfectionist and lived with the belief I was never good enough.
I was teased by my peers at a young age and never had any close friends. I also was shy and never told my parents how unhappy I was.
I thought if I could become the best tennis player in the world or somehow become famous, I would be magically liked, accepted and happy.
This extreme thinking set me up for guaranteed failure, since no matter what I achieved, I could always “do better.”
My standards continued to rise as I chased hopeless perfection.
Through my decade-long battle, I’ve met many different people struggling with eating disorders. Some did experience a significant trauma, or came from abusive households, but this was certainly not true for everyone.
Rather, the common denominator for all of us was a deep feeling of inadequacy and a need to self-medicate a painful issue.
Eating disorders start out as a means to gain a sense of control over a life that feels chaotic. Sadly, it does not take long for the eating disorder to take control instead.
So, who is to blame? The short answer is no one.
It is well settled that eating disorders arise from a multifaceted combination of factors that come together to trigger a perfect storm.
Genetics, one’s personality, relationships, environment and particular events can all trigger an eating disorder, but rarely is one single factor to blame.
Developing an eating disorder is no different than falling victim to cancer, autism or depression. No one chooses to have an eating disorder; it is never the person's fault.
7. Bulimics always throw up to purge.
When most people think of bulimia, they think of people forcing themselves to throw up. However, this is only one method of eliminating excessive quantities of food, which is the hallmark of bulimia.
For me, vomiting was never an option, but I found other equally dangerous ways to purge after binging.
Sometimes, I would compensate for a binge by obsessively exercising. Other times, I would simply under-eat, thereby creating a vicious binge-restrict cycle. I also used colonics and took severe overdoses of laxatives.
8. Eating disorders are easy to beat – just eat more or less.
This is a painful thing to hear when you are struggling with an eating disorder.
I can’t tell you how many times I screamed, “It’s not about food!” It truly wasn’t, and I definitely did not have the power or capacity to just “get over it.”
Years of pain and trauma were buried deep beneath my obsessive relationships with food. The complexity of eating disorders is significant and takes a tremendous amount of patience, hard work and support to overcome.
I often fell into the same trap with my own personal dialogue: “Why can’t you just eat more, Brittany? Or less, Brittany?” “Why can’t you just be normal?” I was often my own worst bully.
Eating disorders are one of the hardest conditions to beat since abstinence is not an option. You have to eat!
My favorite analogy is one I learned from a therapist:
“With addictions, you can lock the tiger up in the cage and throw the key away. With eating disorders, you have to learn how to open that cage multiple times a day and walk that tiger.”
9. Once you get treatment for an eating disorder, you are cured.
During family week at my first residential treatment center, my dad told me how proud he was I wasn’t like the other girls. I smiled and kept quiet.
I did follow the rules and tried my hardest to become the perfect recovering patient, but I never talked in therapy and never dared to look at what lay underneath my disorder. I just went through the motions.
Some people do well from the start with treatment, and they recover with only minor setbacks and without major relapses. However, there are, unfortunately, many individuals who are repeat “offenders” with treatment centers and spend decades struggling.
I received treatment at the onset of my eating disorder, but it certainly did not cure me.
Unfortunately, what works for one person does not work for another.
As the years went by, I truly believed I would never recover. But thankfully, I never gave up. The amazing thing is you never know when something will click and your whole life will be transformed.
While treatment can aid a person with recovery, one has to be in the right place at the right time with the right people and the right attitude to make it all come together.
10. Once you look healthy, you are recovered.
Many people suffer in silence with severe eating disorders because they physically look fine. So, they justify they are not sick, or they are not worthy of help. Too often, friends, family members and even doctors contribute to this dangerous justification.
When I started to binge and rapidly put weight on my skeletal physique, everyone was thrilled.
Everywhere I went, people kept telling me how great I looked, but they couldn’t see my inner turmoil. Likewise, once I began losing weight after becoming obese, people praised me for my shrinking body.
How twisted was that? And, then, when I reached a normal weight, everyone again was so happy, but bulimia hid what was really going on.
Actually, this may have been when I struggled the most, but who could have guessed?
11. You can never recover from an eating disorder.
Some people argue victims of eating disorders can never recover, while others believe remission is possible with constant vigilance. However, I personally agree with professionals who believe full recovery is possible.
The important thing to remember about recovery is it is not a linear process.
Recovery is messy, often full of bumps, potholes, swerving turns and painful falls. Recovery is not rainbows and butterflies.
Healing involves facing your demons, ripping off your Band-Aids, using brand new coping skills and learning how to live a seemingly foreign life. As the saying goes, “Two steps forward, one step back.”
Recovery will, at first, seem far more difficult than just continuing to live with the eating disorder, which has become so safe and familiar.
It’s easy to decide recovery isn’t worth it or give up when you feel defeated. But, this is where trust and faith in a better life becomes vital.
Although recovery is the hardest thing I have ever faced in my life, it is simultaneously the greatest gift I have ever received.