The Unspoken Struggle: Eating Disorders
When what you feel and what you see in the mirror don't match up, the results can be devastating. I sat down with one woman to hear her story of struggle and recovery, and how she's turned her past into a hopeful future for others.
Anna was just 13 years old when her eating disorder began. Her journey, detailed below, is unfortunately not uncommon.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, or ANAD, notes that there are upwards of 30 million people in the US suffer from some type of eating disorder. The age that deals with eating disorders the most is 16-24 year olds.
If there are so many people dealing with these issues, why is there still a stigma?
I reached out to Anna, creator of the website Dear-Self, to talk about her story, goals for her website, and how sharing is part of the path to recovery.
VR: What made you want to create this website?
Anna J: I was first inspired as an Intern project while working at MEDA (Multi-Service Eating Disorder Association) this summer. I wanted to make something that would go further than just the last day of work that could somehow reach others. I hated seeing all of the diet websites and pro-eating disorder forums online. I wanted to put something out there that could serve as a reminder that it's acceptable to love ourselves instead of tearing ourselves down all the time.
Why did you choose this theme for your website?
I chose the theme of body positivity and recovery because I think it's important. I reached out to friends to see if anyone would be willing to contribute and I got an overwhelming response. As soon as I put the idea out there, I realized how many people needed something like this. It's important to embrace self-love and self-care and I realize that it's extremely hard for many people to do.
Why did you decide to share your story?
I felt like it was crucial for me to be vulnerable and honest if I was willing to ask others to do the same. As soon as I decided there would be a recovery aspect for the site, I knew I would have to overcome the obstacle of telling my story. The experience was a bit nerve-racking, but I am so happy I went through with it.
Were there difficult moments in sharing your story with the public?
Oh my goodness, yes. I was so nervous when I first published my story on the site. I think I literally sat at my computer for an hour trying to will myself to press send but the responses from others made every second of discomfort worthwhile. Just hearing that one person could benefit from relating to my story was all I needed to take pride in my decision. I'm fairly private about my personal life so it felt very revealing to display another side of myself. Now that it's out there, however, I think it was a great start in stopping the shame and secrecy that comes along with having an eating disorder. Now I'm trying to focus on the other side of things; like giving back to others and priding myself on my recovery.
I think I would tell myself that trying to take up less space in the world wasn't doing anyone a service. I would say that I needed to learn to be nicer to myself because I'm the only person in the world who has the ability to always have my back.
Can you tell me a bit more about the first time you shared your story?
It was actually a bit odd now that I think about it. I'm pretty sure the first person I told was my stepmom at the time. She and my dad were only married for a year and we weren't very close. I feel like it felt safe to tell her because of our disconnect. I knew she would care enough to help but I wasn't ready to look my parents in the eyes and hurt them in that way.
What are the proper terms in referring to or talking to someone about an eating disorder?
I would say one thing that I see as being important is raising public awareness that eating disorders are not simply limited to anorexia and bulimia. Often times, people will feel extreme levels of body negativity and display disordered eating patterns, but they don't seek help because they don't fit into one of two categories. Beyond anorexia and bulimia, there's also binge eating disorder and OSFOED (Otherwise Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder). Anyone who is feeling doubtful of their self worth or who is troubled by the act of nourishing their bodies deserves to be heard and helped.
What has been the most validating or positive result from creating this website? Has there been any negative side effects from making this website?
Definitely the most positive result that has come from creating this website has been people reaching out to me and telling them that it helped them in some way. It's just incredible and humbling to hear that I am able to play even the smallest role in affirming someone's experience or making them feel less alone. I felt so alone when I was struggling and I hate the idea of anyone else feeling this way. Someone recently told me that, "Our purpose in life is born from our deepest wound and our greatest heartbreak". That's how this feels. Sharing my story has made me feel like there was a great reason for all the pain I felt in the past.
The only negative/challenging thing that has come from this experience is having loved one's reach out and tell me that they're sorry that didn't help me when I was struggling. I so appreciate the thought and love behind that sentiment, but I truly didn't put my story out there to inspire any sense of guilt. Eating disorders are ridden with shame and secrecy and I just hate the idea of making those who were close to me at the time feel responsible for what I was going through.
In telling your story, you mention your interactions with your parents briefly – can you elaborate on the relationship with them during that time? Can you offer any advice to someone who doesn't know how to approach their parents with their eating disorder?
Just like most teenagers, I went through a bit of a rocky patch with my parents. I was feeling pretty awful about myself and a lot of these feelings presented themselves in the form of rebellion. It was difficult to reach out to my parents because I felt so isolated and misunderstood. I will say, however, that the more I grew up and turned to them for support, the easier it was to fight my disorder. Everything is harder when facing it alone, if not your parents, try to find someone who you feel you can talk to.
Every situation is unique, but I will share that I did find relief in realizing that someone was willing to be on my side. Having your parents become aware of your situation means that someone is there to root for your recovery even if you're not yet ready. I know that I was more likely to resist hurting myself in order to save my dad's feelings before I was thinking about it in terms of my own. Although this isn't the end goal, sometimes it's an important stepping stone to recovery.
What were the effects of having an eating disorder within personal relationships? Do you still feel those effects today?
It's really hard to maintain relationships when struggling with an eating disorder. As I've mentioned, there are a lot of secrets involved in this type of disorder and it definitely makes it hard to get close to people. Especially in romantic relationships, I think insecurity can hinder intimacy and communication.
I don't think I really feel these effects today and I'm very lucky to have left that part of my life. I actually think that those experiences motivate me to be more open and caring of others rather than pulling away.
What has the general reaction over your website been? Has anyone reached out to you?
I feel very lucky as the general reaction has been very positive and supportive. MEDA has posted a link to the blog on their site and Dr. Melody Moore with the Embody Love Movement has spoken to me about it. Every bit of feedback has been incredibly flattering!
What do you hope people take away from seeing "Dear Self"?
I would hope people would come away from this site feeling less alone. It may be too idealistic, but it would be great if having the chance to feel less alone would motivate individuals to seek help. I think that asking for help is so important but that people can wrongly associate the willingness to ask for help as weakness. Asking for help is a sign of courage and self-awareness and I hope that my site can in some way push for this.
If all someone takes away from this site is a moment of relief or seeing something that resonates with them, every minute of work was worth it. I just want people to take what they need from what I've put out there.
Finally, If you could tell you from 8 years ago one thing, what would it be?
I think I would tell myself that trying to take up less space in the world wasn't doing anyone a service. I would say that I needed to learn to be nicer to myself because I'm the only person in the world who has the ability to always have my back. I think I would also tell myself that I was crazy for trying to do it all alone and that I needed to ask for help.
Check Anna's website below for more stories of struggle and recovery.
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