I’m sitting in a wicker chair at a resort in Caya Coco, Cuba. The sun is shining, the flamingos are fishing and the palm trees are swaying. Despite the beautiful Caribbean scenery, I am distracted and fascinated by people’s bodies, which I examine with utmost meticulousness. It is mainly women I observe, scanning their curves, crevasses, proportions, watching how their chests and abdomen’s swell with each breath. This intense observational behaviour is typical of a person like me, with a history of body dysmorphia and an eating disorder.
Body image issues and disordered eating are some of the most complicated, individualistic, and well-hidden mental health disturbances. Because of this I prefer to speak from my own thoughts, feelings and behaviours and avoid making generalizations. Also, as I have heard from many counselors, social workers and psychologists, if you wish to help someone effectively, you must first learn how to help yourself. While I have made a lot of progress in helping myself, I am not yet fully recovered. I still experience symptom flare-ups, and almost always struggle with the mental and physical residues of the times when I was sick. I have come to peace with the idea that it will be a long time before I consider myself healthy and even longer before the residue completely wears away. Since February is eating disorder awareness month, I am hoping that sharing my story will help unpack common assumptions about eating disorders and inspire greater mindfulness of the topic.
I remember my mother telling me about one of her favourite books, Lit, a memoir about author Mary Karr’s experience with alcoholism. In the book, Karr explains the moment she hit rock bottom. On Thanksgiving she hides a bottle of vodka in the cavity of a raw turkey. Later on, desperate for a drink, Karr attempts to retrieve the vodka from the turkey, but can’t dislodge it from the bird’s gut. Managing to screw off the bottle cap by reaching her hand inside, she lifts the entire turkey over her head, hoping the vodka spills into her mouth. This scene still makes my mother and I burst into a fit of baffled laughter. Karr found a way to find humour in her desperation, a strategy, along with writing, that helped her heal.
It was only recently that I was able to acknowledge my rock bottom moments (some of which are as shocking as Karr’s), without feeling shame, guilt or trauma. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to laugh at them, however. While I recognize the healing potential of finding humour in mental illnesses and addictions the way Karr does, I am deeply offended and humiliated by discourses that trivialize, generalize, stigmatize and condemn those who have experienced body image issues, eating disorders and various forms of self harm.
Many people don’t understand why eating disorders begin and how they are sustained. Common assumptions I hear are that it’s simply a problem developed from the pressures of attaining a thin body, or preoccupations with attractiveness and vanity. For many women the seeds of eating disorders are planted during formative years, when entering the world of boys, puberty, bullying, school demands, and parental expectations are layered with the bombardment of media messaging and beauty standards. Additional factors thrown into the mix, such as financial stress, sexual identity formation, sexual abuse, and cultural transitions, make adolescence difficult and some of us resort to unhealthy and self-destructive coping mechanisms.
Whatever recipe of factors, to whatever degree of severity, assuming a self-harming person is seeking attention or is obsessed with shallow expectations is both hurtful and damaging. Often, physical forms of self-harm are used to distract a person from mental and emotional pain that is so strong nothing else seems to relieve it. Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive over-eating are self-harming tendencies that in many cases cause a person to use food as an avenue of depriving and punishing themselves, as well as symbolically ridding themselves of excess stress and anxiety. In other words, disordered eating behaviour essentially means having a disturbed relationship with one of the human body’s most instinctual and necessary needs: food.
I developed anorexia when I was 15 years-old. The pressures of high school, abnormally high anxiety and stress, vivid memories of being bullied about my weight, and other adolescent disturbances, became more powerful than the strength of my self-esteem. My anorexia was sustained by people telling me how good I looked when I lost weight, as well as my obsession with performing well in school and being tirelessly available to friends. I refused to take a break and get the help I so desperately needed. Like many people who refuse to make recovery their top priority, my eating disorder fluctuated and morphed into other illnesses such as binge-eating and bulimia. Even as my life changed and improved, I would always find justifications for why my disorder should exist, connecting it to the various stressors and problems I would encounter. I now recognize that no matter where I am in my life, the stress and the problems will always be there and it’s my responsibility to find a healthier coping mechanism.
It wasn’t until starting university at Trent that I hit rock bottom and realized how bad my illness was affecting not only me and my chances for a bright and healthy future, but also those who loved me. During this episode of my life, I committed to understanding and educating myself on my illness and was determined to discover why it was so deeply embedded in my life. The most significant realization I made about my illness was that it was no longer about my fear of returning to that chubby 13 year-old, nor was it because I was troubled by insecurity. I realized I had been using food as an avenue of control, as a way of symbolically relieving anxiety and unrealistic expectations I had for myself. I needed my eating disorder to fall back on as an excuse for failing, slacking or underperforming in other areas of life. The truth is, for a long time my eating disorder gave me a sense of control in this unpredictable, stress-filled, fast-paced society. I realize now that everything I was convincing myself of was a grave lie which I’d masked as truth. The biggest fail I was making was preventing myself from seeking help.
The Queen’s University Mental Health Commission of 2012 looks at how developing resilience can help students maintain good mental health. They found that resilience is significantly lacking among the current generation of students. Perhaps this is because of the increasing demands on young people, with fewer guarantees of a finding a job, or our budding technology-based society. Whatever the reason is, mental illness is increasing, and young people are becoming more and more discouraged in their lives.
When I hit rock bottom, I examined my life and realized how fortunate I was, and that I was taking my resilience for granted. I realized I had been hating my illness, allowing my illness to control me and distract me from the beautiful periphery, while fooling myself into thinking it was the other way around. What saved me was deciding to use my experience as a catalyst for positive change. I started paying close attention to what I wanted, what my body needed, and the person I wanted to be. Becoming a mental health advocate has allowed me to share my story and have it valued. For those who haven’t hit rock bottom, with whatever it is you are struggling, the best advice I can give you is not to wait for that to happen. Admitting there is a problem and committing to change is the best first step. Recovery isn’t always uphill, and will present its own challenges and dark periods, but your life is yours, and the process of improving mental health is worth investing in.
There is lots of help available to you in the Trent and Peterborough community when you’re ready to start looking! Consider these resources…
* Women’s Health Care Centre inside Peterborough Regional Health Centre located at 1 Hospital Drive, Level W4, (705) 743 4132
* CMHA Peterborough, 466 George Street, North, (705) 748-6711 or 1 (866) 990-9956, [email protected]
* Trent University Counselling Services, Blackburn Hall, Suite 113, Peterborough, Ontario, (705) 748-1386, [email protected]
Check out Trent Active Minds on Facebook (Trent Active Minds) or at trentactiveminds.wordpress.com.