Samantha is eighteen years old and is from a small, rural town in Upstate New York. She’s currently studying English and Psychology at a private college on the East Coast. I’d initially asked for her input on the piece about eating disorders that I wrote for The Buffalo News as she is a recovering bulimic, but when word count and the eventual slant of the article restricted what I could include, I ended up being forced to shelve her thoughts. After re-reading them, I decided that they were too important not to share.
There are a few key elements that are important to take note of before continuing on. Samantha’s earliest memory of feeling inadequate in her own skin happened when she was just eight years old; it was only a few months after that she started purging. By the time she was thirteen she was purging after every meal “no matter how small”, restricting food and exercising obsessively even though she had already been to inpatient treatment for “suicidal thoughts and major depressive episodes” and was seeing a therapist every other week. At fifteen she was admitted to inpatient treatment again for “depression and substance abuse”. Samantha notes that, “Although neither inpatient experience was because of my (eating) disorder, working through the roots of my self-hatred and distorted perception helped me to enter periods of recovery.”
Periods is a key word, here, as recovery is an ongoing process. The feeling of being unable to control one’s life or surroundings is a typical trigger for those plagued by eating disorders, and Samantha is no different. She points to the loss of her father and “the chaos that followed” in her very early teen years as a trigger to a relapse, though now simply managing the day to day stressors of her health, relationships and family life can sometimes be enough to shake her resolve. Samantha still sees an on-campus therapist during the school year.
The initial question that I posed to Samantha was this: Tell me three things you wish people knew about eating disorders/people with ED. The following was her response:
“Three Things I Wish People Understood:
1. My eating disorder is not about beauty, and it hasn’t been for a very long time. I was eight years old when I started feeling like my body was something disgusting and shameful, and I purged for the first time when I was nine. For the first year or two, I would do it when I felt fat or ugly, but since then it has evolved into being about control and punishment. I relapse when my life or health is in a place that feels uncertain, and I feel the need to have power over some aspect of my life.
2. Telling me that I’m beautiful does absolutely nothing as far as making me feel better. When I’m having a hard day, in the middle of a relapse period, or experiencing dysmorphia, I don’t care if anyone else thinks that my body is perfect or that I look good because it isn’t about anyone else. (This one is kind of an offshoot of 1, but it’s major enough that I feel like it’s deserving of its own point.)
3. I hate my disorder. I don’t glorify it, and I do not believe that anyone should try to emulate the mindset or behaviors associated with it. I’ve had people tell me that they wish they had the self-control/ability to do the things I’ve done and it makes me sad and sick because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.
As far as treatment goes, all of my inpatient was for depression, but a lot of my outpatient therapy has been focused on working through my disorder. The most successful has been dialectical behavioral therapy, which helped me to work on changing behaviors while I worked through the roots of my disorder.”
Now it’s time for full disclosure: Samantha is my niece. I love her as I loved her father (my brother); completely and without reserve. We are similar in so many ways: We are both “closet redheads”, we both have dimples, we’re both writers (but to be fair, our family of origin’s last name is “Bardwell”, so… no surprise there!) and we both suffer with eating disorders. Some of it is environmental and some of it is genetic but none of it is good, helpful, normal or fair. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to provide her a solution, even at the expense of finding one of my own.
Everyone has a “Samantha” in their life; someone they love completely and without reserve. It’s never wrong to sit a loved one down and ask (gently and without judgment) if they’re in need of help. The stigma of seeking mental health counseling lessens every time a person speaks up and admits that they’re having an issue and believes that they might need therapeutic intervention. If your “Samantha” had a broken arm, you wouldn’t think twice about seeking medical help for her. A broken heart and spirit should be no different.