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Eating Disorders and Willpower: An Absurd Association

will power

Willpower. It’s something that we associate with strength. It is something that we admire in others, and it’s something we want for ourselves. And in this day and age, it is problematically associated with dieting and weight loss. The association even extends to restrictive eating disorders. I want to tell you how wrong it is to think that the two are synonymous.

I want to firstly consult the dictionary. Let’s take a look at the definition of “will”:

Will
noun

1. the faculty by which a person decides on and initiates action.
“she has an iron will”
synonyms: determination, firmness of purpose, fixity of purpose, will power, strength of character, resolution, resolve, resoluteness, purposefulness, single-mindedness, drive, commitment, dedication, doggedness, tenacity, tenaciousness, staying power, backbone, spine; More
2. control deliberately exerted to do something or to restrain one’s own impulses.
noun: willpower
“a stupendous effort of will”

A person with an eating disorder does not decide to have one. They do not have any power or control when developing or having an active eating disorder. They do not initiate action: the eating disorder does. They have no say in the matter whatsoever. So using “will” in the context of eating disorders is absurd.
Let’s also have a look at the definition of willpower itself:

noun
1. control of one’s impulses and actions; self-control.

Again, there is no control when it comes to an eating disorder. There is certainly no self-control. In actuality, it is the opposite that is true: someone with an eating disorder is completely out of control. They are not deciding to abstain from food or drink. They are not deciding to compulsively exercise. They are not deciding to vomit their meals into toilets and trash cans. They have no control over their ever dwindling intake, the inability to eat ice cream, or the ten miles they feel they must run. The severe mental illness that they are suffering from is running the show, not the person with the illness. Eating disorders are not a choice, and to insinuate that someone with an eating disorder has willpower is to insinuate that they have a choice.

You might be someone who has previously considered an eating disorder to be a choice, and are looking for an explanation of how it is not. Let me first stress: eating disorders have a genetic link. This means that if you do not have the genes to develop an eating disorder, then you will not develop one. If you have the eating disorder gene (which is being researched: the specific gene has not been identified as of yet, and it is most likely a combination of genes, not just one) then it is possible to go through life without triggering it into action. However, if environmental factors trigger the gene (and the triggers are plentiful: dieting, bullying, death of a loved one, abuse, parents divorcing, illness, fasting – you see how these can be both emotional or physical triggers), then you will develop an eating disorder. Genetics load the gun, environment pulls the trigger, the saying goes. So genetics have an important part to play in the development of an eating disorder, and you don’t get to choose your genes.

Here are some examples of how it works inside the mind: if you had to choose between eating a highly restrictive amount of calories and living with aching hunger, or feeling like tearing your own skin off, would you comply with your eating disorder or your hunger? If you had to choose between exercising until you felt like you might vomit and pass out or feeling so disgusting in your body that you would consider killing yourself, what choice would you make? If you had to choose between not eating a slice of pizza that you desperately crave or feeling like such a failure that you punished yourself by cutting you body multiple times in multiple places, what would you choose? And when you see those options, does it really look like much of a choice any more? Each option is torturous and punishing, but one always gets you closer to the goal of losing more weight, or at least attempting to. You’ll feel better when your body is perfect, the eating disorder says. You’ll feel better if you barely eat. You will be more in control, it lies, and there are so many lies it will tell to keep you from fighting against it. 

The more the illness pervades the mind and the sufferer responds to the eating disorder, the more things like food and weight become a source of anxiety. Each time you respond to the voice telling you not to eat or you will feel something unbearable, the more the message in reinforced in the brain. You see, when you avoid something that makes you anxious, the more the brain is told that it is something to be anxious of because it is being avoided, and the more anxious you become of it. Another sneaky way the eating disorder survives is to completely distort the perception of the sufferer, so that their body looks to them to be completely different to what anyone else sees, and in a lot of cases, the thinner they become, the fatter they feel. This way the eating disorder continues to dictate the actions and thoughts of its host (and yes, that is what you feel like: just a host to a demon that is making you diminish in size inside and outside day by day).

I could go on, but let’s get back to willpower.

Meghan Trainor caused uproar with her incomprehensible comment about her apparent lack of willpower to “go anorexic”.

I wasn’t strong enough to have an eating disorder. I tried to go anorexic for a good three hours. I ate ice and celery, but that’s not even anorexic. And I quit. I was like, ‘Ma, can you make me a sandwich? Like, immediately.’

Her comment is one of such extreme ignorance that it makes my blood boil. For one, strength doesn’t come into eating disorders. Strength is something of value. It is a brilliantly positive trait to have; something you use in the face of hardship; to get through something or to defeat it. It is something that you use to fight and beat an eating disorder, not something you use to continue its existence. It does not take strength to have an eating disorder: it takes sickness and misery and intense self-hatred. It takes strength to recover. Secondly, you cannot “try to go anorexic for a good three hours”. Anorexia is first and foremost a mental illness (like all other eating disorders), not something that you can just “try” and then stop because you get a bit too hungry. “Trying” is not part of an eating disorder. You would never in a million years “try” to have an eating disorder if you understood what it entailed. It’s not about having the willpower to “go anorexic”. Any eating disorder is a disease that creeps up on you and slowly invades your mind bit by bit until it has wormed its way into every part of it, and then suddenly you realise that you are drowning in it and there is no conceivable way out. You don’t just “go anorexic” for three hours and then choose to stop. Need I say it again: there is no choice. And no, funnily enough eating ice and celery for three hours only does not mean you have a serious and deadly disease.

Willpower is inextricably linked to choice, and we know that eating disorders are not a choice, so the two cannot be thought of in conjunction with each other. Ever. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower undermines the helplessness and hopelessness that someone feels whilst being under the control of such a powerful and deadly disease. To talk about eating disorders requiring willpower – a positive trait we all want – undermines the sheer anguish and torment someone suffering from one has to experience every second of every day. To say eating disorders require willpower is to inadvertently say that there is something that tortured person has that you admire. You are looking into eyes full of pain and saying, “I want what you have.

Willpower is a positive thing. Having an eating disorder is a living hell. Willpower is strength and control. Living with an eating disorder is being crushed under a dictator that ultimately wants you dead and feeling unable to do anything but obey and walk knowingly into the jaws of death. Willpower is willpower and eating disorders are eating disorders. Let’s not mix up the two.

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Treatment and Support Options for Eating Disorder Recovery

support

Recovery will be the best choice you have ever made for yourself. You will be choosing life over death. You will be choosing health over sickness. You will be choosing happiness over misery. However, recovery can be daunting. It can be terrifying and extremely difficult and immensely challenging. It can bring with it feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, shame, anxiety, and pain. It can leave open wounds that you were trying to cover by using your eating disorder as a band aid. It can uncover truths and experiences and memories you were trying to suppress. Because of this, it is important that you use all opportunities given to you in the form of professional support. This can be harder in countries where you have to pay for all professional help and do not have the NHS, but it is still possible to find help and support even if you are strapped for cash.

In this post I am going to go over some of the treatment and support options that you might want to consider.

Inpatient/hospital 
Inpatient treatment would be provided in a hospital setting. The main aim of inpatient is to medically stabilise the patient and get them back to a healthier weight, before discharging them. In most cases they would be discharged to a residential setting for continued care.

Residential
People using these services reside at a live-in facility where they are provided with care at all times. This means that they are under constant medical supervision and monitoring of both physical and mental health. Treatment programs within residential facilities are usually very structured, and they provide an environment in which the client can focus solely on physical and psychological healing with a great deal of support from their treatment team.

Intensive Outpatient (IOP)
Intensive outpatient is suited to those who need more professional support than outpatient treatment but still need flexibility to continue their education or job. IOP Programs generally run at suitable times for the participant, ranging from 2-5 days a week. Treatment usually includes therapy, nutrition consultation, topic focused groups, and/or family support groups.

Outpatient
Outpatient is much less restrictive than inpatient, and is good for those who have a job or are attending school or any other form of education. It is also an option for those who do not have the insurance to cover higher levels of care, but still really need a moderate level of support to aid their recovery. Those in outpatient programs may see a therapist, nutritionist, and other recovery professionals around 2-3 times per week.

Therapy
For those who don’t want to consider inpatient, outpatient, or residential, or who cannot get a placement for any reason (and that will be the majority of those with eating disorders), there are many options where therapy are concerned: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Medical Nutrition Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT),  Art Therapy, Dance Movement Therapy, Equine Therapy, Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP), Family Therapy, Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT), The Maudsley Method (also knows as Family-Based Treatment), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (you can find out more about these therapy methods here, here, here, and here).

For those who cannot afford therapy and are in education, see if your school, college, or university has counsellors on site that may be able to provide you with free support. You may also be able to find therapists at reduced costs who have been fully trained but have not clocked up sufficient hours yet.

Support Groups
If you cannot afford any therapy, cannot get any using the NHS, and are not in education or have none in your educational institution, check out if there are any support groups near you that you can utilise.

If you cannot find a therapist or support group, you could ask the NEDA Navigator service to help you find support in your area – wherever you are from – or just to vent to and get some support from. (Beat also have a HelpFinder).

Doctors
If you can, do make sure you are seeing your doctor regularly, or at least semi-regularly, to get updates on your health. Again, I know this can be a money issue for a lot of you, but it is really important that you know where you are where your health is concerned. Doctors can also help you find support groups, and give you referrals for therapy, inpatient, or outpatient programs.

Helplines
If you are struggling to find any support, do know that there are many helplines available. There is NEDA’s information and referral helpline (there is also a Click to Chat option so you can instant message if you would prefer to do it that way), there is BEAT’s 1-2-1 Chat Online service, BEAT’s online services, and BEAT’s helplines.

Forums
I would advise being careful with forums, as they can often lead to triggering discussions, but if you are going to visit forums (and they can provide invaluable help and support) I would advise BEAT’s forums, NEDA’s forums, or the forums on Your Eatopia (the latter has a tiny fee but I would say it is really worth it – personally it helped me more than anything during my time in recovery).

Self Help
There are self help options such as books on certain therapies (like CBT workbooks), anorexia and bulimia workbooks, other eating disorder workbooks, online resources etc that can help you work through your issues with the help of workbook exercises, challenges, and reflection.

I hope that if you struggling and don’t know which way to turn, this comprehensive list enables you to find help and support during your recovering from your eating disorder.

If I have missed any that are important, do let me know!