I am on an airplane, flying from Bozeman, MT to Portland, OR wondering how in the
world I got here. How I, a 40 year old wife and mother of two young boys, could be in the grasp
of a life threatening eating disorder. It was September 0f 2011 and I was on my way to a
residential treatment facility for eating disorders. Looking back, I know I got there slowly and
steadily. Looking back, I had been heading there for much of my life. After years of restricting
food and exercising for hours and hours each day, coping strategies to manage my anxiety and
to manage an impossible body ideal, I had finally gone too far. I was severely underweight and
experiencing many health problems. I had heart palpitations, low sodium levels, and severe
osteopenia from years without a menstrual cycle. I had been using the domination and control
of my body as the perfect replacement for the utter lack of control I felt in my life A lack of
control of thoughts, emotions, circumstances and a general sense of overwhelm. With out
really being aware of it, I had slipped under the control of ED(the Eating Disorder). Let me give
you an idea of how I began this slow decline into the most life threatening of all mental
disorders, anorexia nervosa.
Many people suffering from eating disorders recall a feeling of not belonging from an early age. I
am not different on that account. The middle child, the drama queen, the one who demanded
the attention, I often felt too big and too much for my family. I have also had since, my earliest
memory, an anxious temperament. Anxious in particular about my own health. I began having
panic attacks at age 14. One day I ate some candy that had turned white from the summer
heat. I thought it must be poison. I was convinced that I was dying. That first panic attack
spiraled into daily attacks. I thought I was a ticking time bomb hidden in the perfectly healthy
body of a teenage girl. I imagined brain tumors and aneurysms. I imagined food poisoning and
choking to death. The anxiety from the attacks left me so distraught that I had little appetite. I
lost weight and for the first time in my life was skinnier than my thin and beautiful older sister.
When I started high school that fall, all of the kids told me how good I looked. Something clicked
and I began to restrict my food purposely I needed to keep the feelings of success and
importance that losing weight had given me. . Amazingly, by distracting myself with starvation
and my outer appearance, my anxiety attacks improved. A powerful coping skill, obsession with
controlling my body, was born in my teenage brain. I am still battling this coping skill 2 1⁄2
A history of anxiety disorders is not unusual in the genesis of Anorexia or it’s sisters Bulimia
nervosa and binge eating disorder (BED). Underlying every individual eating disorder
experience is a complex web of factors which contribute to its development. People with eating
disorders often have cooccurring psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
They often suffer from loneliness, feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Interpersonal
factors also play a part, such as troubled family relationships and general difficulty in managing
and expressing emotions. A history of being teased for weight or size is also common. One
often hidden contributing factor is sexual abuse. The abuse translates into self loathing and
eventually to self destruction. New research is also focused on the underlying biology of
people who develop these disorders. There also appears to be a genetic component. Eating
disorders often run in families. There is also evidence that people with an eating disorder have
an imbalance in certain chemicals in the brain which regulate hunger, appetite and digestion.
Finally, none of us lives in a vacuum free from social and cultural influence. We as Americans
live in a culture which glorify thinness and values obtaining the “perfect body.” We are force fed
narrow definitions of beauty that include only certain shapes and sizes, that are then
photoshopped to create a truly unattainable image. Our Media has overt and covert norms that
value and criticize people based more on physical appearance than inner qualities. It is no
surprise that the more economically developed a society becomes, the more “westernized,” the
greater the incidence of eating disorders.
Eating disorders are on the rise worldwide. In the United States it is estimated that 10
million women and 1 million men suffer from an eating disorder. An estimated 5% of sufferers
die as a direct result of their disorder making eating disorders the number one killer of all mental
health disorders. Eating disorders are also on the rise in older women such as myself. Whether
resurfacing in our later years or as new disorders, the pressures of being fit and beautiful as we
age have affected older women.
Eating disorders are a very sneaky disease. I once read that the best way to prevent an eating
disorder in your child is to NEVER let them try to lose weight. Almost all disorders begin with
weight loss. The initial weight loss creates feelings of success and fear. Success at the
accomplishment, and fear of losing it. Maybe if we can avoid ever dieting we can prevent the
disease in those more susceptible to it.
People in the general population may also have sub clinical symptoms of eating disorders such
as food restriction and obsessive thoughts about body and weight. . 80% of women are
unhappy with the size and shape of their bodies. Ask yourself if you ever look down at your
thighs or at your wrinkles in disgust. How often do you berate your own appearance? How often
do you think to yourself, “ I look just as my body was meant to look, or I am good enough just
the way I am.”? Our society is hyper focused on outer perfection, and as a result, our own
perceived shortcomings. We can’t measure up to the unattainable image. Sadly though we
believe if we just try this workout or this diet maybe we will get closer, and just maybe we will be
able to feel about ourselves the way we want to.
The problem is, it is an impossible moving target we will never hit. Only through accepting
ourselves just as we are, can we find peace and wholeness. But How? How do we do this?
Practice, practice, practice. We must begin to focus on what we like about our bodies, about
ourselves. We must shift the focus from what we must change, to what we can embrace and
I personally struggle desperately with self acceptance. My eating disorder wants to keep me
hyper focused on my body because it keeps me distracted from other issues and areas where I
lack control. I turn to it to help me make sense of the seemingly nonsensical parts of life. I
temper the pain and the suffering that all human beings experience, with a focus on food,
exercise and body obsession. Other addicts use drugs and alcohol, sex or gambling. Ask me
to go without a glass of wine, no problem, a workout? No way sister. Most of us use
something or other to distract ourselves from life’s inevitable pain. It is only when we are willing
to let go of these defenses and truly feel the pain, that we begin to heal.
Returning to Bozeman after 10 weeks of treatment has been difficult. There is not a quick fix
for eating disorders. The average length of time to heal is 5 to 7 years. Often acceptance of
body is the last piece to come. When people tell me I look good or healthy my brain hears, “fat”.
I have a strong network of support, but it takes daily attention to maintaining my food and
limiting my exercise. I have weekly therapy and support meetings. I turn to prayer and
meditation to deal with the compulsions to restrict my food and exercise to excess. I have
struggled with returning to my behaviors in some capacity and am inching my way back toward
the recovery that my truest, highest self believes is possible.
The path of recovery is giving me a lens to see deeply into myself. Such a gift out of such pain.
My hope in sharing my story, is to offer to anyone suffering with these self destructive coping
strategies the knowledge that you are not alone. We, humans, are all in this together. There is
a way out. By accepting ourselves, we can truly begin to improve the quality of our lives.