Whatever the form an eating disorder takes, the ulimate sacrifice is the same. Anorexics, bulimics, and binge and overeaters prevent themselves from dealing with their true emotions. This tragic consequence is illustrated through the lives of three people who generously allowed me to share their stories in my book, Hope, Help & Healing for Eating Disorders: A New Approach to Treating Anorexia, Bulimia, and Overeating.
ANOREXIA: MEGAN'S CONTROL
"Every holiday it was always the same. Megan truly hated sitting down with everyone else to eat. It was like she was on display. People she hadn't seen in a year felt it necessary to judge what and how she ate. Endless, insipid observations about her appearance -- how big she'd become, how tall she was getting. And then last year that comment by her uncle, spoken in a whisper when no one else was around, about how much weight she'd gained. She shivered in disgust every time she thought of it.
"She didn't remember when she'd come to the decision that this year she wasn't going to give them anything to talk about. She was only going to take as little food as she could get away with and then just spread it around, pretending to eat. While everyone else was stuffing their faces, she was going to remain above it all. Megan simply refused to join in. It was an excellent way to declare her independence from the rest of her family. She;d been trying out this newfound freedom from family and food for several weeks, and it felt great. She felt free."
How is it that anorexics like Megan come to associate starving themselves with "freedom"? Because they have a fear of something in their lives that feels out of their control. Obsessing over their appearance shifts the attention to something absolutely controllable -- when, what and how much they eat. Though they experience a sense of empowerment at having the willpower to deny their bodies food, anorexics avoid dealing with the true source of their fear, be it a fear of failure, abandonment, intimacy or sexuality itself.
As stated by the National Eating Disorder Association, the five primary symptoms of anorexia include:
1) Refusal to maintain minimally normal body weight for corresponding height, body type, age, and activity level
2) Intense fear of weight gain or being "fat"
3) Feeling "fat" or overweight despite dramatic weight loss
4) Loss of menstrual periods in postpubescent women and girls
5) Extreme concern with body weight and shape
Making note of symptoms 2 through 5 is vital. Just because someone looks "too skinny" does not mean they anorexic. Conversely, those who are living with anorexia may still maintain a normal body weight.
BULIMIA: DEBBIE'S CLEANSE
"Debbie couldn't get enough. It felt like a gaping hole had opened up at the end of her throat and no matter how much food she shoved in, it would never be filled. The rich sweets she'd chosen to eat first practically melted in her mouth as she hastily consumed every crumb. Eating them made her feel warm inside. Her face flushed with the massive infusion of sugar into her bloodstream.
"At the first twinge of upset, Debbie continued to eat. She knew from experience she could get away wtih a few more bites before the real nausia. It really didn't matter if she felt sick, because she planned to throw it all up anyway. There was no way she was going to allow herself to digest all of this food. Throwing it up would be unpleasant for just a little bit, but she was pretty fast at getting it all to come up.... It was cleansing, like she was vomiting up all of the bad feelings."
Unlike anorexics who resist the reality of their self-starvation, those with bulimia recognize the behavior as wrong. They feel guilty for bingeing so they purge, "cleansing" themselves of the "bad feelings." And since at least 60 percent of anorexics are also bulimics, millions of men, women and adolescents starve themselves between bingeing and purging episodes.
Ironically, those who use bingeing and purging as a means of controlling their appearance actually find that their behavior destroys their bodies from the inside out -- from tooth decay caused by stomach acids brought up while vomiting, to laxative abuse that leeches the body of essential nutrients.
BINGE & HABITUAL OVEREATING: BOB'S BEST FRIEND
"The party was still going full-swing in the living room, so Bob felt safe ducking into the kitchen. Half-eaten meals littered the dishes spread along the countertops, many still with forks and spoons sticking out. If anyone did come in and catch him, Bob could say he was just clearing up for JoAnn.
"Quickly going from dish to dish, Bob gulped down several spoonfuls or forkfuls of each.... He'd worry about the consequences later. Either he'd work out a little harder or he'd just not eat for the next day or so. He used to do that all the time when he was younger. It had been a little harder to do lately, but that was just because he hadn't really put his mind to it. Tomorrow, he was really going to get serious."
Like bulimics, binge and overeaters know their behavior is wrong. They are embarassed by it and will go to great lengths to hide it. Over time, a binge eater can become more intimate with food than with people, as food is used to give the binge eater sensual pleasure. This type of relationship with food brings social isolation, depression, and despair. Of course, this only exacerbates the problem. The more isolated from others a binge or overeater feels, the more dependent they become on food as their best (perhaps only) friend.
I choose to take hold of my pain -- to strengthen me, not weaken me.