What It Feels Like to Be Anorexic

BlogHer Original Post

This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I'm sure you are already aware of eating disorders. What I wish is that people understood them better. I think everyone gets that anorexics starve, bulimics purge, overeaters eat more than is healthy on an ongoing basis -- the general public *seems* to grok the physical part of eating disorders. What's way tougher to understand is the mental part.

blue flowers

Credit Image: apphotoshooter

This month my debut young adult novel, THE OBVIOUS GAME, was released from InkSpell Publishing. Mixed in with the excitement of having my first novel published is the fear of people's reaction to the subject matter. Diana, the novel's protagonist, gets really, really anorexic. First I worried about how my family would react, since I myself was anorexic and bulimic and just plain disordered for most of my late teens and twenties. A few of my relatives have told me they cried while reading my book. Then I worried about how -- if they read it -- health professionals would react. I am no psychologist. All I know is how it feels. I don't know why I got it, I don't know how exactly I overcame it, I just know how it felt to have it, how it felt to force myself through recovery and how it feels now to be on the other side. Finally, I worried how current and former anorexics would feel when they read it. Would they see themselves in my characters? Would they identify? Would they tell me?

The book has been out now for a few weeks, and by far the most surprising fact to me is how many women are telling me they were what sounds like clinically anorexic at some period of their lives. I'm sure the people who weren't just aren't telling me so it seems skewed, but this is a lot of people. A LOT.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the statistics are in line with my shock.

  • There has been a rise in incidence of anorexia in young women 15-19 in each decade since 1930 (Hoek& van Hoeken, 2003).

  • The incidence of bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993 (Hoek& van Hoeken, 2003).

  • A review of nearly fifty years of research confirms that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder (Arcelus, Mitchell, Wales, & Nielsen, 2011).

  • In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011).

However, there's hope. A lot of hope. It is possible to retrain and reframe and break out of the rule-based mentality that affects so many with eating disorders, particularly anorexics. If you've ever watched someone in your life suffer from anorexia and wanted to scream at him or her to just eat, I want to explain why they can't, or at least why they can't without someone coming at them from a place of understanding and helping them fight the voices that are both of them and against them in their heads.

Sometimes I think I wrote The Obvious Game just so I could write this scene between Diana and her best guy friend, Seth:

I picked up my spoon and made it walk around the table. And I told him. “Imagine I'm your mother. Every ten minutes I interrupt you from whatever you are doing and tell you to clean your room. You clean it. It's clean. It's spotless. You could serve the Queen Mother off your floor. Ten minutes later, I walk back in and tell you to clean it again.

“‘It’s clean,’ you say. ‘I just cleaned it.’

‘Clean it again,’ I say. ‘You missed a spot.’

So you get down on your hands and knees and scrub the floor with your toothbrush. Ten minutes later, I walk back in and tell you to clean it again.

This repeats, over and over, until the room is so clean it’s starting to come apart at the seams with the scrubbing, but still I continue to walk in and tell you to clean it. You show me the floorboards coming up. I don’t care. I tell you to clean it again.

“After a while, the floorboards do come up, and underneath them, you imagine you see dirt. You know I’m coming back to tell you to clean it again, so you begin to scrub. You scrub and scrub.

And I tell you to do it again.

You fall asleep in the middle of the floor. First thing in the morning, you wake up and examine every inch of the room. It is spotless.

I walk into your room before you’ve even gotten up.

And I tell you to clean it again.”

I took a deep breath. “That’s what it’s like inside my head.”

Seth stared at me, his mouth open.

Pretty horrible, isn't it? That's what my head felt like for at least ten years. Even after I looked normal on the outside, I didn't feel normal on the inside. It's taken years of examining my self-talk and my perspective on life and me actually completely changing the way I interact with the world in order to recover. It's possible, but it's hard. And it's even harder if the people who love you are so frustrated with you they're ready to let you starve to death.

So I'm not sure it should be called Eating Disorder Awareness Week. I'd love it to become Eating Disorder Understanding Week. Disordered eaters have some very important work to do. Nobody makes someone have an eating disorder, and no one can make them not have one. If you have an eating disorder, please reach out. If you love someone with an eating disorder, please figure out how best to help them from a professional. Please check out BlogHer's Own Your Beauty initiative for stories of bloggers who have learned to accept themselves for dozens of reasons, not just eating disorders. And remember: Fat is not a feeling.

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Rita Arens is the author of the young adult novel The Obvious Game & the senior editor of BlogHer. Find more at www.surrenderdorothyblog.com.

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