I’ll never forget the day I realized I had an eating disorder as a child.
We were all sitting in a hip Chattanooga restaurant with our (damn delicious) locally-sourced polenta with fig spread and quinoa encrusted salmon (of course); all of us either foodies, dietitians, nutritionists, or students there to learn and talk about working with clients with eating disorders. I have always been fascinated with the relationship between mental health and food, and so was hanging onto every word of the guest speaker’s. At the start of the presentation, I remember feeling as if these individuals with eating disorders were somewhat “other” than me. Eating disorders were something I wanted to understand more of, but were not something I could personally and intimately relate to.
Then, the speaker, a well-known eating disorder specialist named Jessica Setnick, summed up in a few words the definition of an eating disorder. (I am paraphrasing; this was a while ago and I cannot remember (or find) her exact words(I am sorry if you read this and I get it wrong, Jessica!!)).
“An eating disorder encompasses any form of having an unhealthy relationship with food.”
And then I was like, oh wait, what? I think I had an eating disorder as a child. I used food as a way to control the outcome of events. It was not a healthy relationship. So that means, according to her definition, I had an eating disorder.
When I was in third grade I began to feel nauseous all of the time. My irrational, life-long fear of throwing up was just beginning to surface. I began to say no to things that once brought me joy: going to friends houses, taking trips to the local water park, playing sports, etc. Anything that was in the least bit outside of my comfort zone or in an environment where I couldn’t see the exact outcome, I tried my hardest to avoid. My parents would sometimes let me stay in my little bubble in the house or in the yard, but would usually fight me on it and force me out into the wild unknown. Although necessary, I hated them for it at the time. My parents will never let me forget the time when they forced me to show up for my softball match with our team, The Scrapette’s, named appropriately after our sponsors, the scrap metal company down the road. I remember clinging to the chain-link fence, crying and begging my parents not to make me go up to bat. I was forced to walk to the plate. I hit a home run. But did I care that I just led our team to victory? Nope. I ran crying around every base, tears streaming down my face.
My phobia of throwing up dominated my life as a child and adolescent. Not only did it stop me from venturing out of my house to do things I once loved, but it also created in me compulsions and unhealthy eating patterns in an effort to try to control the microscopic chance that I might throw up. I felt it necessary to tap things an exact number of times, wash my hands incessantly, and repeat my prayers every night before going to bed in a certain way. It was an especially bad night when I was up for hours, begging God not to let any of my family members throw up.
I began to regulate everything I ate in hopes that I could control whether or not I felt sick or, the worst thing, throw up that day. My phobia was especially bad in the evening and before bed, so I thought it would be a great idea to stop eating dinner entirely. Anyone else would have understood that the pit they felt in their stomach was hunger from eating nothing for dinner, but I knew it had to have been the dreaded stomach virus. My twin sister who I shared a bed with would talk to me and tell me about her day as I fell asleep-the kindest act, a nightly ritual performed solely with the purpose of allowing her sister to quiet her frantic mind and get some rest.
I lost a lot of weight during those few years of not eating dinner. Looking back at pictures now, my heart breaks for the skinny girl who wasted so much time worrying about something she could never truly control. My eating disorder was not a textbook example of anorexia nervosa or bulimia. It did not occur because of a preoccupation with weight or appearance. But it was an unhealthy relationship with food that was used to reach a certain end goal, which I now understand qualifies as an eating disorder.
In grade school, we are taught that an eating disorder usually exists when someone has an obsession with looking skinny. We are taught that people throw up their food or stop eating entirely in order to obtain a certain size of Abercrombie jeans. Most of us are not taught that an eating disorder can be much broader than that. It can be brought on from someone trying to control something in an out-of-control home life. It can be hidden under the culturally acceptable mask of “clean eating”, sometimes really just another form of controlled eating. It can occur in a 30-year-old, male athlete, obsessed with protein intake in hopes of growing his already huge muscles. It can be found in the woman who can’t stop binge eating, because she can’t live with the expectations put on her by society to look and act a certain way. It can occur in a third grade child, so scared of throwing up that she will stop eating entirely so there is nothing to throw up in the first place. It is not discriminatory of race, age, gender, or sexual orientation. And it is never about the actual food.
I still struggle today with my fear of throwing up, although it is not as acute. I have found others who have the same phobia and it makes it easier to handle; knowing that others understand you and are going through the same thing as you. I no longer control my food intake with the goal of not throwing up. I now love to eat and dinner has become one of my favorite meals! I am not completely healed, and don’t think I ever will be completely free of the fear, but I am now able to separate my food intake from my fear and that is huge.
After sitting for the Eating Disorders 101 presentation, I now realize how necessary and important it is to recognize the vast scope of the mental illness. If we don’t, we are putting ourselves at risk of letting too many people continue to struggle without getting the help they need. The first step is admitting that something is not quite right with your relationship with food and we can only do that if we broaden our understanding of what can “qualify” as an eating disorder. We can’t downplay it, we can’t think it is “just a phase”, and we can’t choose to look the other way. Food is one of the most important facets of living our healthiest lives and should be the source of one of our greatest joys. To experience it as anything less than that would really suck.
I look forward to continuing to study and understand the complexity of eating disorders. It was definitely shocking to realize that I struggled with an eating disorder as a child. It is not something that we should find out 20 years later after the fact, but it is understandable why it happens that way for many of us.