Devious, devastating and deadly: the truth about eating disorders
So, its Sunday and another week kicks off as another draws to a close. But this last week has been Eating Disorders Awareness Week - and as the stats that have been publicised tell us, the new week finds many more people - especially young adults - struggling with something most people would do without a second thought: eating.
It has become a wearily regular occurrence to read stats in the uk press of rises in rates of mental and emotional health problems, particularly amongst the generation currently growing up as teens or twenties. This week was no different: reports confirmed that rates for anorexia and bulimia seem to be peaking, with admissions to hospital more than doubling this year (comparing to figures from 2010-11). In fact admissions involving eating disorders are at their highest rate for 8 years. Experts continue to debate the cause of this: an overall rise in the rates of eating disorders, or of those seeking treatment, lack of community services or slow intervention meaning more people need hospital treatment - or an increase in serious and more dramatic cases of anorexia in particular, which most commonly need emergency hospital treatment. One thing all experts agree on: this rise is very worrying.
And of course, whilst eating disorders do affect teenage and young adult women in the highest numbers, they also affect many more people of all ages. Cases in adults are increasingly common - as are those in men. In fact rates in adult men have also risen by the same degree as in women in recent years. Stereotypes are not just incorrect - there is increasing evidence that they are stopping some people, such as those from ethnic minority groups, lower income communities or the LGBT+ community from seeking treatment and accessing good support.
And of course, the rise in rates is worrying with good reason. Eating disorders are perhaps one of the most insidious and unpleasant of mental health disorders. Often affecting those whose ultimate wish would be to be no trouble to anyone, they present themselves at first as a possible solution: a way to feel better, to change something about situations or feelings otherwise out of control and to manage those things without causing other people distress. The promise of eradicating painful emotions or memories, succeeding in something, bringing about change and bringing light to an otherwise dark situation, is beautifully enticing and draws people in, sometimes gradually - sometimes with sudden and dramatic changes in behaviour. Whether it results in anorexia - where people are able to maintain a strict and often almost simplistic decision to restrict what they eat; bulimia, where this resolve is not able to be maintained either due to lapses in control or practical circumstances which make not eating impossible resulting in periods of control and periods where this is lost; or the often forgotten binge eating disorder, where suffers experience distressing and overwhelming periods where they lose control and eat far more than they would ever mean to before being left with the terrible regret and guilt over what they have done - eating disorders start simply, but very quickly begin to cause many more problems and distress than they ever solve.
Ultimately the deadly nature of eating disorders relates to the medical consequences of them as they bring a barrage of serious outcomes both short and long term. Of these the most serious is the all too real risk of death either from the physical consequences of the eating disorder (particularly the weight loss triggered by anorexia) or from the heightened suicide risk for those caught in its grip. The ultimate cruelty of an eating disorder is that it is like lighting a candle to bring light in darkness: at first it has some success, but gradually the wax burns down and pressure inevitably builds as time and options start to run out.
Eating disorders are a lot more serious than just someone who wants to be thinner. They gradually and deceptively steal life: from the days lost desperately trying to calculate or plan how much it is ok to eat to the dreams that are so often stolen: exams that can’t be taken, degrees that have to be abandoned, jobs that need to be left, friendships and relationships destroyed by the gradual retreat into solitude an eating disorder demands, hopes and dreams abandoned when the fear of being overweight becomes the only master that can be served. Eating disorders begin as an attempt to regain control, but their cruellest blow is the moment when sufferers realise, gradually or with sudden and horrible clarity that they are not in control at all.
In fact are eating disorders one of the most misunderstood illnesses as well? They generate - understandably - considerable alarm and anxiety, particularly for those supporting someone who seems so utterly caught in thinking which is clearly leading them to somewhere more risky and painful than where they were. But as many sufferers will express, they also carry a sting in the tale as attention inevitably becomes focused on what feels the like obvious ‘problem’ - eating and weight (or not eating). But eating disorders are about so much more than these symptoms of something under the surface, and it is so easy to miss this in the haze of checking meals and weight or trying to manage binges and increase ‘willpower’ or control. Easy - but such a crucial miss to avoid, because the key to real recovery lies in piecing together what is going on underneath, and not being distracted by the smokescreen of what someone is or isn’t eating - and understanding the perhaps unthinkable - what these disorders give someone in the midst of so much they are so clearly risking losing - is crucial.
A friend of mine puts all of this so much better than I ever could, in her blog where she shares a letter to her eating disorder, reflecting on how this evil force she describes as ‘a flawless beauty, and so enticing’ became such a powerful part of her life.
‘You gave me control. You gave me a sense of success and achievement. You gave me a distraction. You gave me the pain I deserve but also a reason to receive the care and nurturing I craved from other people. You gave me an excuse to be sad and broken without having to tell people the real reasons that I was. You gave me hope. I believed every day that this incredible world, a world of perfect peace and happiness was always just a week away if I lost just a bit more weight. That if I worked hard, obeyed you, suffered and endured then it would all be worth it, in just a few days it would all be okay.
While consumed in your world and your reality I didn’t have to think about much more than that. This was a relief and perhaps it saved me, because how could I possibly truly be present in a world that had caused me so much pain. Where such terrible things are allowed to happen. Where no one knew anything of the events that consumed my mind and where I felt so misunderstood. Focusing on your voice, vacantly performing your wishes meant I could shut things out. I felt so in control while, for want of better phrasing, I was under your spell. Calculated, precise, my choice. Action and reaction all in the way we wanted. Eat less, weight goes down. Simple, predictable, controlled. The total opposite to my world.
It’s hard to work out why, after all this pain you cause, it’s difficult to think about letting go but I guess I explained why though all the things you gave me. You are illogical and make no sense. It should be and often seems such a simple decision to walk away and live freely, but it’s not.”
And walking away is not, sadly, easy. Eating disorders, anorexia in particular, are notoriously difficult to treat and many sufferers struggle to find their freedom. Relapse is a common problem - in the early stages of recovery or when life throws up new challenges. But in the midst of the often alarming stats and stories we read we must remember that recovery may not be easy - but it is possible - and that many suffers DO recover - and go on to live lives free form the tyranny of these conditions. National Christian eating disorders charity Anorexia & Bulimia Care shares many stories from those who have recovered - and who are involved in supporting current sufferers and these testimonies are vital to help those still in the midst of their own disorder, to know that a better life is possible: that happiness will not always prove to be elusive: that there is another way, a better way; there is hope.
So, as Eating Disorders Awareness Week draws to a close let’s remember that the battle for many continues.
Let’s take a moment to remember those fighting inside their own heads, desperately striking out for their own freedom and futures.
Let’s think of those whose battle is all too visible and known, those in treatment, in hospital, perhaps desperately unwell.
Let’s think too though of those who have so far managed to keep their struggle hidden, but face every day the terror that someone will find out and everything they are fighting for may start to fall apart.
Let’s share the worry of those caring for and loving people caught in the grip of something so terrifyingly powerful that it threatens their very life and future happiness.
Let's think of anyone who faces another week fighting the fear in the back of their mind that maybe they cannot defeat this.
And let’s take a moment to pray - for hope and light and happiness and the promise of a brighter future for all the real lives that lie behind the figures we have read this week.
If you need help or support for you or someone else suffering because of an eating disorder, Anorexia & Bulimia care offer resources and information, telephone helplines and online communities for sufferers and carers.
If you’d like to find out more about how to get on the road to recovery check out ‘Eating disorders: the path to recovery”