There’s a lot said in the media about eating disorders, but how much of it is fact? As part of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, I’ve compiled my most important (a little unconventional) have-to-know eating disorder facts – to raise awareness and encourage a better understanding all-round of what is still a misunderstood mental illness.
- People with eating disorders are not ‘selfish’ – There’s a particularly annoying misconception that people with mental illness, but eating disorders especially, are somehow selfish because they are ‘choosing’ not to eat. An eating disorder is not a choice. An eating disorder is a savage, damaging mental illness which is intertwined with your personality making it look like the things you say and do are a product of your own psyche when of course they are not. Saying that somebody with an eating disorder is selfish is just as bad as saying someone with cancer is selfish, so please, don’t do it, and don’t let anyone make you feel that way either.
- It’s not that easy to ‘just eat’ – For anyone with a ‘normal’ relationship with food (I say it like that because I don’t believe anyone in Western society really has a ‘normal’ relationship with food!), the action of eating is very simple and easy. It doesn’t have any other connotations other than putting food in your mouth. For someone with an eating disorder, it constitutes a whole lot more. Anyone who has not had an eating disorder will probably never be able to appreciate the absolute horror, dread and upset that fills you when you are faced with eating in the midst of an eating disorder. It represents so much more for you at that time – and that’s something which is hard for others to understand. If you’re reading this as somebody who has never had an eating disorder then please, don’t ever say ‘just eat’ to somebody going through hell. It’s not helpful and it achieves nothing.
- Eating disorders are secretive – That’s partly why they’re so dangerous. Official statistics for the UK estimate that millions are suffering from an eating disorder (a figure which worryingly is rising year on year) – but those are only the ones we know about, the ones which have been diagnosed. GPs still find it difficult to recognise an eating disorder in a patient and of course it’s likely the patient might not identify it themselves, or hide it if they do.
- Not everybody who is very thin has an eating disorder – ‘Anorexic’ has become a disdainful adjective used to describe anybody skinny but there are lots of people who are naturally very thin who suffer abuse because of that. Firstly – nobody should suffer abuse for having an eating disorder. Think about the strong possibility that they have an eating disorder which has been caused by some sort of bullying in the past. Secondly – nobody should suffer abuse for how they look full stop. Some people are very thin and probably have already noticed that, and already feel self-conscious about it. Try to be kind.
- Recovery IS possible and it is what you deserve – Lots of people feel, and might be told, that it’s not possible to recover fully from an eating disorder. Well I’m living proof that this is bullshit! Aside from that, I don’t think anyone with an eating disorder needs discouragement – it’s the very last thing that’s needed. Instead we should be promoting recovery, showing people that it is possible and that it is the right thing to do – and more than that, that they are worth recovery. They’re amazing people with indescribably good futures ahead of them. They have more to offer, in fact, because they have had this experience. I talk about this in Tough Cookie – it’s something I’m really passionate about.
- Resources are sparse, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recover – There’s lots of bad press about the NHS provision for eating disorders and to be honest, I don’t know anyone who has been through an eating disorder who hasn’t been let down in some way by the NHS, some more than others. But bashing the NHS doesn’t serve any purpose – it certainly won’t magic a load of money and resources to help people with eating disorders. I think it’s time to look at different solutions. I was ‘left to die’ as campaigners so delicately put it – but I recovered on my own with the support of my parents, so that shows that it is possible to recover outside of the NHS. I’m not discouraging anybody to seek professional help here – that is a MUST – but if the help is lacking in urgency or you are struggling to access help, don’t feel that you can’t recover or that you are a lost cause. It’s possible. That’s why I wrote Tough Cookie.
- You are not alone – Having an eating disorder can be very lonely. Generally you’re surrounded by people who through no fault of their own don’t understand what you’re going through, and if you’re not in a specialist unit, you’re discouraged from interacting with fellow sufferers for obvious reasons – plus the internet is to be avoided as we all know the horrors that are on there which can make eating disorders worse. Please don’t feel alone! So many people are going through what you are going through. Plus remember that even if your family and friends say or do the wrong thing, they probably mean well. They love you very much and even though you feel alone, you’re not.
This blog, my books, and me as a person, are there especially for people with eating disorders to prevent you from feeling alone. Please feel free to contact me via the form on the site if you feel you have nobody to talk to who understands, or alternatively if you don’t have access to any professional help, seek out free counselling in your local area. Just having someone as a sounding board can be invaluable.
Eating Disorder Awareness Week for me is all about having a platform with which to help people to feel they can access help and feel better, but also to educate the public and front line professionals on what can and should be done for those with eating disorders, and how they should be treated. What are your own personal facts that you’d like to see more widely publicised?
Tough Cookie is a blog for support and inspiration during recovery from Anorexia. Eating disorder recovery can be tough – but so are you!