The organization behind NEDA Week is in fact NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) and here is the way they describe this week's mission: Our aim of NEDAwareness Week is to ultimately prevent eating disorders and body image issues while reducing the stigma surrounding eating disorders and improving access to treatment. Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening illnesses — not choices — and it’s important to recognize the pressures, attitudes and behaviors that shape the disorder.
Well, there is a lot to say here but what I am going to focus on is the statement I put in bold. ED's are "life-threatening illnesses -- not choices". Let's start with the first half of that idea. YES, they are life threatening. The consequences to my health I experienced, and I'm talking digestive, respiratory and psychological distress, were major. It would be an understatement to say I was flirting with disaster. I've known people who suffered and eventually died from any one or combination of the three (bulimia, compulsive eating and anorexia).
You don't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that repetitive self induced vomiting, laxative abuse, extreme restriction of calories, associative depressive/anxious moods concurrent with these behaviors, and binge eating spell RISK and they can all lead to DEATH. I don't think we value ourselves enough these days to call a spade a spade in this area just yet, right? It's still a little scary to admit that 10 million people a year are abusing themselves to near death, but, at least according to the disturbing statistics, it is true! Kind of makes you want to throw a scale or something across the room, doesn't it? Very, very concerning information, if you ask me.
So, yes, let's raise the level of awareness that these behaviors are life-threatening, please. If you know someone in your life who is eating or not eating in a self destructive way, and if you truly care about them, be courageous enough to step in and say, Look, I love you and care about you. I am concerned your eating behaviors are getting dangerous and I want to support you. Can we talk?
Part 2 of that phrase above is that these are "illnesses -- not choices". Now, I'm still working out my point of view on this as I grow and learn. However, what I can say after dealing with eating disorders and recovery modalities for 14.5 years, is that I've come to disagree. I believe it is a choice. I also believe that thinking it is NOT a choice is what kept me stuck for so long, so that's one of the reason I'm speaking out here right now.
I have experienced and observed in many people the kinds of thinking that go with eating disorders, from depressive to anxious, obsessive compulsive to rapidly cycling moods, black-and-white to super emotional (these are my own categories, consider adding SUPER EMOTIONAL Disorder to the DSMV-3), etc. I know that biology plays a part in our thinking and certain patterns of thought are just there like the color of our eyes. I know that when we lack the right tools or counter-behaviors it may seem and feel as if we are completely powerless over the kinds of thoughts/feelings that occur and typically lead to eating disordered behavior. I know that being in a devastating cycle of binge/purge/restriction behavior could feel like it's totally OUT OF CONTROL but the degree to which we are powerless to change has been, in opinion, vastly understated.
What if the message to people is something like this:
Eating disorders are behavioral choices (starving, binge eating and purging being the most common amongst them) that people make and practice, usually to help them cope with feelings. They have devastating effects on health, happiness and mental well being.
What if we put the recovery right back into the hands of the person suffering and said to them, You are responsible and have the power to change. You have the power to CHOOSE.
What if we helped people uncover the power inside of them to make the changes they need to save their own life?
Now, I can remember being at my absolute sickest and most vulnerable times when I was in the throes of bulimia and major depression. I felt, I believed wholeheartedly, that there was NOTHING I could do to stop myself from the cycle of binge eating and purging 12x/day. I was darting around Cornell University in a mental stupor while clogging library and sorority house's toilets (the latter at 4am in the morning). It was a DISASTER. I felt more hopeless than I'd ever felt in my life and this could not be a greater contradiction to the powerful, inspired identity I had abandoned, the one of a young, strong girl THRIVING in sports and classes, and with friends/family. When rightfully concerned people in my life begged me to stop and kept trying to tell me I could, I did not believe them. In no uncertain terms, I told them to $*#() off and leave me alone. Don't tell me I am choosing this! Don't you dare tell me I have the power to stop!
Well, I guess I gravitated towards people who believed me. I found in the treatment world of doctors and top-tier phD professionals, research protocols and certain support groups, people who supported the belief that I had an illness. I was sick to the extent that I must need to be issued pharmaceuticals, choose a very low stress job track, and plan on dealing with this in some way shape or form for the rest of my life.
What happened for me next was that I got sick of being sick, but more importantly, I got sick of being told I have an illness and this wasn't a choice. I got tired of being told this is something I can't control or that I will have forever to some varying degree. I began to think and believe that I am choosing the behavior. I was trying not to blame myself or be even more hard on myself than I was but I started to think I was, at the very least, choosing my response to my thoughts and feelings. How I react. Then I began to practice intenSati, acting, and writing, I took myself off all medication (in 2005), found a therapist who didn't even have an expertise in eating disorders but with whom I just started talking about my feelings with her and started allowing myself to be who I really am. I was making steady improvements over time and shifting my thinking from "I have an illness" and these are "not choices" to thoughts like "I am acting out" or "I am coping with food again" and "I am choosing to do this to myself. I am harming my own body and self with food." That was progress.
Truly, a phrase like "I hate my life", one which I used to say a LOT and which a lot of people I know with eating disorders utter when given the space to express themselves, is the verb to HATE. I was hating. I was the hater. I played the role of the hater in this drama of life and I still can, if I choose.
It's clear to me why I gravitated and found tremendous recovery, energy, aid and support through practices that teach people to actively love themselves, their feelings and their lives. The fundamental idea behind intenSati is that positive self talk fused with powerful movement/exercise and LOVE leads to empowerment. It did in my case. In the acting and writing world, stories of human behavior and real experience, displays of emotions and decisions of all varieties are held up to the light and actually receive applause. :) I'll never forget how amazing it felt when I first began performing scenes in acting class that allowed me to release anger without holding back an inch. My "work" which felt like I was just being real would garner appreciation and I would do the same for my fellow performers. I saw their beauty in their humanity. I felt really good and still feeds me to this day, though I don't find the same need for the validation as I used to feel.
This is turning into a much longer post than I expected, but it's important stuff, so I'm hoping you are still tuned in and listening to what I'm sharing. If just one person shifts from this post, it's worth it to me!! I am gratefully light years away from the devastating years of my life that were like riding a very (un)merry-go-round and traveling nowhere. I still have my struggles and my recovery process is definitely something I pay attention to every day, not just during NEDAwareness week, but I am grateful to say my personal responsibility feels less like something to shirk and more like something to embrace.
For today, I live with the belief that I choose my behaviors and with more practice, my thoughts and feelings. The more love I feel and call up, the more compassion I bring into my life through compassionate people and my own work, the easier it becomes to choose wisely, healthily and lovingly for myself. My thoughts and feeling patterns take on a lot of different shapes and colors, still, and I often wonder what is "normal" for the human experience and to what degree simple emotions like sadness, anger, joy or desire, to name a few, should be felt. I wonder if what I feel is "too much" or "disproportionate" to whatever might be causing the reaction. At this point, I think the most freeing thing for me lately is that I am starting to just say F it, I feel how I feel and as long as I can live with it and take care of myself, there is really no need to change.
Please take time today or this week to do something to contribute to the eating disorder recovery landscape. I would appreciate it very much and I am sure someone else in your life would, too.