The following originally appeared in The May 3 Sunday Viewpoints Section of The Buffalo News:
In July of 2001 my husband took me to the emergency room. I’d been sick for over two weeks, but that particular Saturday morning I was almost too weak to get out of bed. After getting a brief once over from the attending physician and being sent home with little more than a shrug and a prescription, I went straight back to bed. When my husband brought me the medication, I scanned the packaging for all of the warnings and indications. I never ate anything before I read all of the ingredients and nutritional facts, and that included medicine. As soon as I noticed the little yellow label I handed it back to my husband who was standing by with a glass of water.
“I can’t take this,” I said.
“Why not?” he asked, confused.
“Because it has to be taken with food.”
I’d been too weak that morning to weigh myself. Without that number to be my guide for the day, I hadn’t been able to make a food plan. Without a food plan, I couldn’t eat. When my husband insisted that I take the medicine, I resisted. I could hear our children playing in the other room and I could see the strain written all over his face and it was at that moment that I realized for the first time that I might have a problem. I very reluctantly agreed to eat a piece of toast and take the medicine.
Because I was well past my teen years, the possibility that I might have an eating disorder never crossed my mind; I thought I was just really good at dieting. I’d been heavy all of my life, but after leaving an abusive marriage I’d gained real control over not only my life but also my weight. The more weight I lost the more positive the people around me seemed to be; the world was a nicer place to live in once I was thin. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line my wires got crossed. I started attributing every good feeling and every positive experience to being thin, though the feeling of being in control was becoming increasingly harder to achieve. I’d become dependent on the numbers on my bathroom scale to tell me what kind of day I was going to have. The numbers dictated what I would eat and what I would wear. Slowly, those numbers started to define me as a person. They interfered with where I would go and who I would see. They crept into the bedroom at night and dictated my relationship with my husband. But even dealing with all of that, it still didn’t occur to me that I might have an eating disorder, not until that afternoon when I was forced to decide how badly I wanted to feel well again.
The key to navigating the complex issue of eating disorders is the important distinction that they’re not really about food at all. Eating disorders are simply an unhealthy way to cope with emotional problems, the manifestation of which is starvation, binging/purging and over-exercising. I accidentally fell into the habit of using food restriction as a tool to feel in control of my life, which made room for my self-worth to get wrapped up in the resulting weight loss, though starvation didn’t help to fix the many other issues that I was dealing with. Looking back, I wish I’d sought professional help in order to speed my recovery. If I’d gotten help for the eating disorder, every other stress point in my life could have been addressed, as well. Unfortunately, deeply held biases kept me from seeking mental health counseling. I’d been raised to believe that seeking psychological help meant that you were emotionally weak. Now I know that nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s also untrue that only teenage girls are at risk for developing eating disorders. Though 95% of the 24 million people who suffer are women ages 12 – 25, (according to anad.org) the remaining 5% (roughly 1.2 million people) are women over the age of 25, adolescent boys and men. Eating disorders can happen to anyone, and menopause can be just as stressful as adolescence. With the changes that occur in our homes and in our bodies around middle age, women need to be extra kind to themselves in regards to weight maintenance and good mental health during the menopausal years.
Today, I’m at a very healthy weight and the urge to restrict my food intake isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. I’ve built safety mechanisms into my emotional cache in an effort to stop myself from accidentally slipping back into the negative thought processes that lead to the eating disorder in the first place. Do I believe that I’ll ever be “cured”? No. But am I willing to talk about my concerns when life gets crazy and things seem out of control, even though what I really want to do is restrict my food intake? Yes. Stress is inevitable, but how I choose to handle it doesn’t have to be. I know that every day I have a choice to make. Today I woke up and decided, once again, that I’m more than the numbers on my scale. Recovery is a journey, but now I’m absolutely sure that I’m worth the effort.