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Eating Disorder Experiences: Where Did It Come From?

When the idea of a series of posts about eating disorders came up, I was pretty excited. I am diagnosed with EDNOS, depression, and anxiety. I’ve experienced them all in very different ways at different times, and so I have a lot to say about my experiences of them. This post comes with a HUGE TRIGGER WARNING for depression, eating disorders, anxiety and perfectionism.

But here’s where I have trouble: how can I sum up the thing that has dominated my thoughts for the last four years? How do I address all of the things I have learned from it and about it? Even if I only touch on one or two experiences, how do I choose which ones are the most meaningful, or the most exemplary of my experience?

The thing about eating disorders is that they are just life: they can’t be summarized. They come from all the bits and pieces that make a person who they are, just as any other personality trait does, and each eating disorder has its quirks and particularities that come from the experiences of the person who has it. To understand an eating disorder, you have to understand the person who has it, what scares them, what they love, what they strive for, just like you need to understand anyone in order to begin to grasp their experiences. And that’s almost impossible without a whole lot of work and a whole lot of listening.

Many people have talked about their experiences with eating disorders, often focusing on the underlying causes, the physical behaviors and sometimes the images associated with eating disorders and the negative effects of “media”. I’d like to focus on something a little different: the emotions and philosophies that underpin my experience, and how these emotions relate to larger themes that I believe many people feel in their lives.

It’s almost a cliché at this point to say that eating disorders are about control. My experience of needing control began my senior year of high school when I was exposed to things like philosophy and anthropology and had the startling realization that I had built my identity on academic success and my ability to understand the world, yet these things were relative, uncertain, and easily questioned. I was completely lost. I had no idea what I wanted anymore, I had no idea who I was. School was boring but the idea that there could be more important things or that I could look outside of it for fulfillment was terrifying.

At the same time, I was in a relationship that was incredibly unhealthy, with a person who expected me to be completely responsible for his emotional well-being, to the detriment of my own. I couldn’t control his emotions, so I felt as though nothing was stable. Facts weren’t stable, people weren’t stable, my identity wasn’t stable, and no matter what I did, I wasn’t good enough because my accomplishments in school meant nothing and I couldn’t make someone else happy. I began to think I was worthless, or that life was worthless, that I needed a solid purpose, something to hold on to and to make myself better. I needed solid ground in the world again.

The fact that my depression came from a rejection of my mind and a romantic/sexual relationship that was falling apart made it very easy for me to look to my body as the thing that had screwed up and that needed to be fixed. Choosing my body as the vehicle for expressing my confusion, my anxiety, my self-hatred, and my uncertainty did a number of things: it numbed the chaos I felt intellectually, because my starved brain simply could not process that chaos. It fed into my drive for perfection because it opened up a whole new arena to strive in. It was distinctly solid and certain, when everything else was not. It created a new identity to fill in for the one that I felt I had lost. It made me feel like I could give up parts of myself to attract men, to be better for other people. But more importantly, it gave my life a purpose again. Many days, my only thought getting out of bed in the morning is how to avoid food, how to burn the calories I have eaten, and how to pretend that I have eaten.

Falling into these behaviors when things started to go wrong was so easy because I had already developed various unhealthy coping techniques. I placed all my self-worth into school, because of messages my brother had sent me about being worthless, hated, and bad when I was a child. I had always felt that I needed to be perfect at everything because my family put a huge emphasis on academic accomplishment and preparing for the future. I had always planned very heavily to feel on top of things, to the point where I would plan every moment of my day in order to cope with the anxiety and stress of having taken on too many things. I had a great deal of black and white thinking, perfectionist tendencies, the need to control the future because I had been given fatalistic messages about what would happen otherwise.

When the breakneck pace that I’d set for myself started to fall apart, when I began to question the reasons for it, the only way I could get by was with this new coping mechanism, which took over the role that school had played in my life for so long: it numbed me to feelings, kept me away from relationships, allowed me to have right or wrong answers, had clear rules that were always the same, and gave me a meaning and a purpose that was concrete and, on some level, “objective.”

Many of the harmful coping mechanisms and problematic attitudes that made me easy prey for an eating disorder came from a societal attitude towards young women. I found a quote on Tumblr a while ago that summed up this attitude, and unfortunately, I don’t know who it’s from, but I think that anyone who is interested in knowing why so many young, intelligent, talented women hurt themselves so badly should read it.

“We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans. We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read, and witty, intellectually curious, always moving…We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation. We drink coffee, a lot of it. We are on birth control, Prozac, and multivitamins…We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others. We never want to be as passive-aggressive as our mothers, never want to marry men as uninspired as our fathers…We are the daughters of the feminists who said “You can be anything” and we heard “You have to be everything.”

Young women today have been given opportunities that their mothers didn’t dream of. We are told that we have all the same opportunities as men, but in practice we have to be better than men in order to succeed. So we know that we need to be perfect. We can’t slip up in any way because people are always watching. Many young women have become the high hopes of their families, the ones who can’t show any kind of weakness and so must be perfect looking, perfect achieving, and perfect in their relationships with others. I have felt this kind of pressure all my life. If I am not perfect, I am a failure. This leads me to a great deal of frustration, because as a feminist I know that I do not have to live up to these expectations, but as a human being I can’t stop feeling the weight of them.

Tied into this is the need for concreteness, for achievements that can be listed on a resume, and for a meaning that is clear and objective. For me, this came from spending my whole life in a Catholic school, where I was told repeatedly that the only meaning in life was God. Our society fixates on certainty, on clear answers, on objectivity, on “facts,” and on tying all of these things to a concrete meaning. This easily leads to the need for control and identity through something concrete, something physical.

I don’t think it’s possible to clearly explain what it feels like to have an eating disorder, or to explain why I feel I cannot survive without it, why I am afraid to take the risk of trying to live in a healthy way. I know that my life often feels chaotic, out of control, empty, and I often feel exhausted by keeping up with my own expectations. No matter what I do, I don’t think that I am enough. And until I accept that I deserve the space that I take up, it will be extremely difficult for me to give myself the care that I need.

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Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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