Tag Archives: exercise

5 Ways to Manage Exercise In Remission From An Eating Disorder

loving-yourself

So you’re in recovery from an eating disorder, or disordered eating, or compulsive exercise, and you’ve used and abused exercise as a form of punishment/weight-loss/distraction/control/etc – whatever reason you’ve used it for, it’s come from your eating disorder or disordered thoughts, and it’s well and truly messed up your relationship with exercise. To be fair, with the society that we live in, you don’t even need an eating disorder to have the idea of exercise completely screwed around with and made into something that is a torment. Thanks, society! But whatever has caused your negative relationship with exercise to develop, and whatever you are recovering from, you’re now wondering…am I ever going to be able to have a healthy relationship with exercise again? How will I keep fit and healthy once I am recovered if exercise has such negative connotations for me?

Moving your body in life is part of general well-being, both mentally and physically, but it’s a totally different experience to forcing yourself to the gym five times a week because you want to lose 10lbs or get a six pack. It’s not the same as stressing over being at peak fitness, or worrying that if you don’t do x amount of exercise, you won’t be the healthiest that you could be. It’s about exercise being an enjoyable addition to your life; something that isn’t rigid or absolute, but something to engage in as and when it fits around the rest of your life. Here are 5 things to think about when trying to establish a positive relationship with moving your body:

1. Go Cold Turkey

If you want to change your relationship with exercise so that it is a healthy one, you first have to break your addiction to it. That means stopping exercise entirely. It means totally breaking all your compulsive habits; it means managing the anxiety that goes with that, and it means overcoming that anxiety, in order to be able to develop a totally new relationship with moving your body. You can’t just flow from a disastrous and destructive relationship into a positive and beneficial one without stopping the former, unhealthy relationship, and leaving it behind you before starting to form a new relationship in a totally different way.

2. Traffic Light Your Exercise

The first thing I did when I really got to grips with the reality of my situation with exercise was to traffic light each individual type of exercise. I was in recovery and I was failing in my attempts to cold turkey exercise. I would stop and start, stop and start, and each time I started, I without fail fell back into the addiction. And so eventually I decided that if I was ever going to be able to move my body in a healthy way without the compulsive element creeping back in, I’d have to first recognise that going back to it wasn’t working and that I’d have to cease it entirely for a while, and secondly, that going back to the same type of exercise was setting me up to fail. I decided that I needed to categorise each type of exercise in an honest way in an attempt to recognise exactly when things were headed in the wrong direction. For example, badminton I green-lighted: it’s a sport that I did not play at all when sick and a sociable sport that I enjoy playing. I know that my risk of abusing this is almost nil as I play it for fun with my friends. Walking and swimming I orange-lighted: both had been abused during the time that I was ill with my eating disorder, but are also activities that I take pleasure in. These are activities to keep an eye on; to assess myself now and again to make sure that they are being used in a positive and healthy way. Aerobics I red-lighted. Aerobics is a form of activity that I do not enjoy and used purely as a way of losing weight. I know that if I find myself doing aerobics, then something is very wrong, and I need to address it ASAP. Traffic-lighting your exercise only works if you are completely and utterly honest with yourself, and then continue being honest with yourself when you have your traffic light system. There are no excuses for those red-lighted activities. Those orange-lighted ones are going to be the trickiest to keep an eye on, because it will be more difficult to distinguish when it’s being used in a positive or negative way, and again, that requires 100% honesty from you, to you.

3. Move Your Body in an Enjoyable Way

Find recreational activity that you actually like doing that involves moving your body. This could be taking your kids swimming, walking your dog, riding your horse, or playing footie with the guys. It could mean taking photographs on a country walk, taking a sunset stroll to the pub with a mate, playing rounders with a bunch of friends, or taking part in the annual cheese-rolling contest (no, seriously, we have that here). Find something that is actually about enjoying yourself, rather than about exercise. Find something that is another hobby. This is not about exercise – that is secondary. This is not about changing your body – that is no longer the aim. This is about moving your body and enjoying it whilst you do it. There are no reasons for doing this any more other than pleasure and recreation: this is not about guilt, or burning calories, or altering your appearance. This has to be just another thing in your life that you enjoy doing, that coincidentally involves moving.

4. Don’t Have Set Routines or Rules

Do not get caught in the trap of setting routines for yourself that you find yourself unable to break. You don’t have to play tennis every Thursday. You don’t have to walk to town every time you need to go to the shops. You don’t have to swim 25 lengths every single time you get in the pool. Switch it up. Fit these hobbies around the rest of your schedule rather than fitting the rest of your schedule around moving your body. Try not to make it a priority – because it’s not. There are more important things than physical activity. Do it as and when. Do it because you have a spare couple of hours and you need some fresh air, or to let off some steam. When it comes to making something a set routine, you know as well as I do that they can quickly become compulsive time slots where you feel that you have to do that certain activity, for that certain amount of time. Check in with yourself about how you feel before doing an activity and go with how you feel, not how long you feel you should be moving for. If you feel tired, skip it for today. If you’re sick, skip it for today. And if you are feeling that there is a certain amount of time that you should be exercising for, then you’re probably not ready yet to reintroduce movement back into your life, and should go back to resting, and working on your relationship with healthy movement. When it comes to rules, I’m talking about that little voice that says: “I can eat x if I do a pilates class” or “I can have a nap later if I have an hours walk” or “I can rest all day tomorrow if I do a run today”. No, no, no no no no. If that is what is going through your head, then you need to check out number 1 again and cold turkey your exercise. You need to separate everything from movement food; weight; rest; everything – nothing should be linked with exercise other than the fun of it. If you are setting rules for yourself, you need to continue working through your issues with exercise and how you use it.

5. Assess Yourself…Then Assess Yourself Again

This is so, so, so important to do, and again, requires being transparent with yourself – always. It means checking in with yourself over and over and over again to see how you are feeling about the movement that you are engaging in, and your reasons for taking part in the activity in your life. The more stable your remission, the less you may find that you need to check in with yourself, but this takes time, work and patience, and however firmly you are in remission, you still need to take the time to reflect on the movement in your life and how that is going for you. If you are feeling uncertain about any type of activity that you are doing, then you need to cease it. Challenge yourself now and again to test yourself: can you go a week or two being sedentary? Doing this is one of the easiest ways to see what anxieties arise for you when you take time out and rest up (or even think about doing it), and is one of the easiest ways to identify problem activity. It means acknowledging and working through whatever anxieties you feel if you should feel them.

body-positive

Really, this all comes down to getting to a place where you love yourself as you are and don’t see exercise as a way to change your body. It comes down to not feeling the need to compromise your health and happiness. It comes down to always being honest with yourself so that you stay within the boundaries of what is healthy for YOU. It means coming at recreational physical activity with a totally different mindset. It means finding what is right and healthy and positive for YOU, and going with that. It means being able to not exercise at all, in order to then exercise in a positive way. It means taking time out whenever you want/need to. It means not having any anxiety around moving your body. It means loving yourself, and loving your body, and it means being free.

Orthorexia Nervosa: The Invisible Eating Disorder

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Orthorexia Nervosa. Have you heard the term before? Many haven’t. “Orthorexia” is a word that is not yet an official eating disorder diagnosis, but is used to describe a particular set of eating disorder behaviours that are distinguishable from other eating disorders, although can be experienced in conjunction with other eating disorders (usually anorexia nervosa). It is also an eating disorder that is easily overlooked in a society obsessed with “healthy eating” and exercise.

Those suffering from orthorexia have an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and healthy lifestyle, so much so that it becomes extremely rigid and restrictive in regards to food, and can also include compulsive and excessive exercise. Orthorexics can be obsessed with feeling “clean” or being “pure”, and generally fixate more on this than on body weight as a motivation for behaviours. Orthorexics can also feel morally superior for the choices that they make in regards to their lifestyle, and the way they view themselves becomes entangled with the way they live their lives and what they put into their bodies or do with them. Orthorexics can find that their diet becomes so restrictive in both calories and food variety that it can become extremely physically unhealthy as well as mentally. This can also be the case in regards to excessive exercise. Like other eating disorders, it will end up becoming a top priority for the sufferer, and they can end up isolated.

In a culture that celebrates weight loss, calorie and food group restriction, and exercise, it is easy to go unnoticed if you have an eating disorder at a “normal” weight, but even easier if you have orthorexia. In a society that focuses so much on health, those with orthorexia will more likely than not be congratulated for their “healthy” life choices, determination, perseverance, and motivation. Others may aspire to be like them because they appear to work so hard at being healthy, whilst in reality they are driven by a relentless and miserable force that has nothing to do with being healthy and more to do with being mentally ill. That mental illness will be driving that person into the ground both mentally and physically with its extreme rules and restrictions, and that may go unnoticed in amongst the admiration of others.

Eating disorders are terrifyingly common, let alone the phenomenal amount of people living with disordered eating (issues with food, weight, etc, that are not a mental illness but are a problem). Our preoccupation with a “healthy” lifestyle and our celebration of “healthy choices” is misplaced. Living a healthy lifestyle is great, but we are missing the bigger picture: so many people are utterly miserable trying to achieve goals that are usually more about being thin than being healthy, or are driven by guilt and shame about not being “healthy” enough. In trying so hard to be physically healthy, we are sacrificing mental health, which is just as important – if not more so. With our food/weight/exercise/health obsession, and the equation of “health” with morality, no wonder so many eating disorders go undetected. It is a culture for eating disorders to thrive in, and that horrifying truth is something that we need to recognise and address.

So could you recognise orthorexia? Do you think you may have it yourself? The Timberline Knolls website talks about orthorexia and how to recognise it particularly articulately, so I have put it below. If you want to read more information on it, just click the link above.

Orthorexia is the term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. Orthorexia sufferers often display signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders that frequently co-occur with anorexia nervosa or other eating disorders.

A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight. She will fixate on eating foods that give her a feeling of being pure and healthy. An orthorexic may avoid numerous foods, including those made with:

  • Artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
  • Pesticides or genetic modification
  • Fat, sugar or salt
  • Animal or dairy products
  • Other ingredients considered to be unhealthy

Common behavior changes that may be signs of orthorexia may include:

  • Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health concerns such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies
  • Increasing avoidance of foods because of food allergies, without medical advice
  • Noticeable increase in consumption of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics
  • Drastic reduction in opinions of acceptable food choices, such that the sufferer may eventually consume fewer than 10 foods
  • Irrational concern over food preparation techniques, especially washing of food or sterilization of utensils

Similar to a woman suffering with bulimia or anorexia, a woman with orthorexia may find that her food obsessions begin to hinder everyday activities. Her strict rules and beliefs about food may lead her to become socially isolated, and result in anxiety or panic attacks in extreme cases. Worsening emotional symptoms can indicate the disease may be progressing into a serious eating disorder:

  • Feelings of guilt when deviating from strict diet guidelines
  • Increase in amount of time spent thinking about food
  • Regular advance planning of meals for the next day
  • Feelings of satisfaction, esteem, or spiritual fulfilment from eating “healthy”
  • Thinking critical thoughts about others who do not adhere to rigorous diets
  • Fear that eating away from home will make it impossible to comply with diet
  • Distancing from friends or family members who do not share similar views about food
  • Avoiding eating food bought or prepared by others
  • Worsening depression, mood swings or anxiety

You can also read my article ‘Food Is Not A Moral Issue’ here.

 

New Year’s Resolutions vs Eating Disorder Recovery

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So New Year’s Eve has come and gone, and people are scribbling their new year’s resolutions all over social media and bringing them up in conversation. And if truth be told, it’s boring. It’s boring and it’s pointless, because most people jump simultaneously on the resolutions and diet culture band wagon and publicise their diet/weightloss/health/exercise #goals for 2016, which predictably (and thankfully) are forgotten about a month or so into the year.

For some people, it’s not just boring, it’s anxiety-provoking, and those people are those recovering from a restrictive eating disorder. After knuckling down and recognising and accepting that weight gain is part of the process, as is eating much more, ceasing exercise during recovery and cutting it down in general for life, and eating and regaining a healthy relationship with “fear foods” which generally consist of high fat, high carb, or high sugar foods/food groups, they then have to watch everyone pledge to lose weight, exercise more, and cut down on “unhealthy” foods.

If you are one of those people, it’s going to be hard seeing and hearing about all these new years resolutions that trigger negative thoughts and emotions, and tempt you to engage in the same behaviours that for most would end in the cessation of them, but for you would end in the spiral back down to misery and sickness, and could end in death. It could be an obvious impulse to just say “fuck it” and relapse, or it could come under the manipulative guise of “health” – that eating disorder voice whispering in your ear that going paleo, cutting down on carbs, or hitting the gym would not be a behaviour but just a way to get healthier (Nope. It’s a behaviour. It would be many steps backwards and the path to full relapse). If you are experiencing any of the above difficulties, you need to remember to focus on yourself. Other people’s behaviours should not impact on your own. You know where it would lead you, and it is important to make it your utmost priority to do what is best for you, your recovery, your happiness, and your health. Don’t allow other people’s insecurities and anxieties about their weight and shape influence your own actions. Instead, empathise with them. Know that they are not feeling happy with themselves and hope for their sake that they find a way to accept their bodies as they are naturally and celebrate themselves as beautiful people with beautiful bodies.

Remove toxic relationships or negative people from your life if you are finding a certain person consistently triggering. Unfollow people on social media who are likely to post/continue posting about weightloss, dieting, exercising, or anything else that triggers you as an individual. Talk to the people in your life who try to have conversation with you about their diet or exercise routines or similar, and let them know that it is unhelpful for you. Those who love you and care about you will cease pushing these topics on you. Those that don’t are the toxic, negative people in your life that I mentioned above.

Finally, know that your recovery is mandatory. You need to do what is best for you and your recovery, and that means fighting the negative thoughts and getting rid of any constantly triggering people. You deserve to live a happy and healthy life. Keep working for that, and keep moving forwards. You can do this.

Exercise (pt 2): Exercise and Eating Disorders

exercise addiction

This is the second part to the article I wrote last time, which talked about exercise in general and the way that an unhealthy mindset around exercise has infiltrated our society as a whole.

Today I want to talk about exercise and eating disorders.

Like I spoke about two weeks ago, nearly everyone views exercise as something that is healthy, regardless of how it is used. During my recovery from my eating disorder, I told a friend about my compulsive exercise and about how I was trying to challenge it because I was doing x amount of exercise a week because I felt that I had to, and hadn’t been able to stop myself from doing it even when I didn’t want to. She genuinely replied with “Yeah but that’s fine because exercise is good!” Because we have such a warped view about exercise, many people don’t seem to understand how detrimental it is to those with eating disorders, especially when it doesn’t appear to be severe.

Some people with eating disorders push themselves to the extreme when it comes to exercise. Some people exercise for five hours a day, and some more. Some people never let themselves sit down – ever – except when sleeping (and I’ve even known someone to sleep standing up). It is easier for people without eating disorders to understand why this might be a problem, but when you are someone with an eating disorder who exercises in a way that people might perceive as inspiring and healthy; in a way that people might see as #goals; in a way that people aspire to, you may end up with congratulations rather than concern.

For those who have exercise addiction, you can’t just stop when you want to, or give yourself a day off (unless you already have a “scheduled” day/time, and then it must be that day/time and none other). You will miss social events if it coincides with your sessions. You will feel incredibly anxious before exercising, and after the exhilaration of finishing a workout has subsided, you will feel the dread of knowing that in less than 24 hours you will be repeating the same monotonous and exhausting work out. You will continue with your exercise routine however much you don’t want to do it, however tired you feel, or however sick you are. It is not enjoyment that drives someone with exercise addiction: it is the perceived need to do so.

As well as being mentally draining, compulsive exercise (also known an obligatory exercise or in extreme cases, anorexia athletica) can have a negative effect on the body. Firstly, by working out intensely every day, the body is being put under a lot of strain, and is not being given any time to recover, which is needed. Those addicted to exercise will work out even if they are ill or injured, which could have serious consequences to their health, including damage to tendons, ligaments, bones, cartilage, and joints. When injuries happen and are not given enough rest to heal, this can result in long-term damage. If the body is not getting the nutrition that it needs, muscle can be broken down for energy instead of building muscle. Girls and women could disrupt the balance of hormones in their bodies, which can change menstrual cycles and even lead to the absence of them altogether. It can also increase the risk of premature bone loss, which is known as osteoporosis. The most serious risk is the stress that excessively exercising can place on the heart, particularly when someone is also restricting their intake, or using self-induced vomiting to control their weight. Using diet pills or supplements can also increase the risk for heart complications. In worst case scenarios, restrictive eating disorders and compulsive exercise can result in death.

The reasons behind exercise addiction can be complicated when it comes to eating disorders. For many people it is an additional means of furthering and/or quickening weight loss, or it could be the main part of someone’s eating disorder, in order to get “fit” or muscular (anorexia athletica). It could be about control. It could be, like the rest of the eating disorder, a form of distraction from feeling or thinking certain things. It could be part of orthorexia (an obsession with eating “healthy” or “pure” foods and leading “healthy” or “pure” lifestyle). Athletes, dancers, wrestlers, gymnasts, and other people who are fixated with keeping in shape and keeping their weight down for their careers are also susceptible to developing exercise addiction.

Although it is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, exercise addiction is a serious and potentially life-threatening obsession, and needs to be taken extremely seriously. It is not just a strain on the body but a strain on the mind. It is absolutely exhausting, and completely miserable to experience. It can take up a huge amount of your life and a huge amount of your thoughts, and is extremely unhealthy for your physical and mental health. Whether it  is the main part of an eating disorder, a lesser part of an eating disorder, or a disorder on its own, compulsive exercise is serious. It is something that must be challenged and overcome as part of recovery from an eating disorder, and must be ceased until the unhealthy relationship with exercise is broken and remade into something healthy. Only in remission can someone make an informed and healthy decision about whether to restart exercise and how much/what to do in regards to moving their body. Even then, it’s a fine line.

I talk more about a healthy relationship with exercise in part 1.

If you think you may be developing/have developed an addiction to exercise, seek medical help from your GP.

Signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from compulsive exercise include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Not enjoying exercise sessions, but feeling obligated to do them
  • Seeming (or being) anxious or guilty when missing even one workout
  • Not missing a single workout and possibly exercising twice as long if one is missed
  • Seeming (or being) constantly preoccupied with his or her (or your) weight and exercise routine
  • Not being able to sit still or relax because of worry that not enough calories are being burnt
  • A significant amount of weightloss
  • Increase in exercise after eating more
  • Not skipping a workout, even if tired, sick, or injured
  • Skipping seeing friends, or giving up activities/hobbies to make more time for exercise
  • Basing self-worth on the number of workouts completed and the effort put into training
  • Never being satisfied with his or her (or your) own physical achievements
  • Working out alone, isolated from others, or so that other people are not aware of how much exercise is being done
  • Following the same rigid exercise pattern.
  • Exercising for more than two hours daily, repeatedly

(sites used for reference and more information: 

http://www.brainphysics.com/exercise-addiction.php
http://addictions.about.com/od/lesserknownaddictions/a/exerciseadd.htm
http://kidshealth.org/parent/emotions/behavior/compulsive_exercise.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exercise_addiction )

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.

Celebrating Three Years Since Choosing Recovery

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TRIGGER WARNING – this post shows images of my body during my eating disorder, as well as images of my recovered body*. Please do not look at this article if these are images that are likely to trigger you.

In the last three years (and a bit), I have come further than I ever thought I would. Just over three years ago I was a suicidal, starved, insane mess of a human being. I was throwing glasses across the room in anger because my partner at the time had turned around my horrible self-reminders not to eat that I had plastered around the house, and had instead written lovely messages on the backs on them. Just over three years ago I was screaming at him because he put a dash of milk in the scrambled eggs. I had intense urges to eat food off the ground because my body was so hungry. Each day was all about filling out the time until I was “allowed” my next measly portion of food. My life revolved around the number on the scales. Everything I did was for that number to decrease. I walked around with my brain feeling foggy, my body weak, and put it through intense and draining physical exercise anyway. I was a walking corpse. I wasn’t alive. I was merely existing.

It took me a couple of months of uhmming and aahing to really choose recovery. I was uncertain. I was scared. I was in denial about having to gain weight in order to be healthy and happy. But eventually I got there. Gradually I solidified my decision, and I although I had ups and downs (understatement of the year), I never really looked back. I had many, many, many moments where I said to myself “I’m done! I’m going to relapse!” but I would cry it out and keep on going anyway.

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A year into my recovery, I made the photo above. If you know me and my blog, you’ve probably seen it before (and I posted it on another post on this website too). The hollow, unfocused, red-ringed eyes had been replaced by bright, shiny ones. My grey, matte skin now glowed. My smile didn’t seem stretched, and the happiness showed upon my whole face, rather than looking tired and empty. I love the comparisons. It always shocks me, and it always reminds me how terrible I looked then and how healthy I look now. It always reminds me of how far I have come.

3 years 3

My hair is shiny and soft now, not falling out, and not desert dry. After two or so years in recovery, it suddenly grew really fast and is now really long and I love it. I now engage in the world: my senses aren’t dulled due to starvation, and I take in what is around me. I am fully present when conversing with friends and thoughts of my body don’t cross my mind when I am with them, when before I was utterly distracted by how my body looked in that moment. I feel strong, rather than feeling like I am going to pass out at any moment. I feel like I am really in the world, rather than miserable and alone in my own harrowing personal nightmare.
dani and sarah
During recovery, my personality that had been smothered by my eating disorder emerged, stronger than before. During the first two years of my two and a half years in recovery, I grew more than I had ever done in my life. I established who I was and what was important to me. I developed hobbies and interests that I had never had before, whilst regaining my love of old ones. With help from feminism and the body positivity movement, I felt empowered and impassioned. I found my drive and my purpose, and I established my worth as a person inside my own head. In simple words, I now feel solid. I feel strong.

3 years 2

My eating disorder starved me. I lost myself, not just my weight. My relationship disintegrated. I couldn’t concentrate around my friends (although, unlike a lot of others with eating disorders, I managed to maintain my friendships). I didn’t do anything without thinking about losing weight. Recovery gave me back my sanity, and my ability to function within the world and within relationships. I regained weight, and I regained myself. Unfortunately, my relationship came to an end six months into recovery, but I now know I will be able to have a healthy, happy relationships without my eating disorder destroying me, and in turn, destroying my relationship.

3 years 4

For me, sleep was first an escape from the pain of the life I was living when my eating disorder was active, but after a while, as my body became more and more starved, it became impossible to sleep. I would be thinking over and over about my “meal plan” for the next day, and would find it really difficult to fall asleep. When I did, it was food that I dreamed of – that, or gaining weight – and I would wake up in fits of anxiety, or stroking my hipbones; a bizarre habit that occurred in the worst period of my eating disorder. One of my favourite things about being healthy is being able to sleep properly. Resting is so important to me now, and such a relief.

3 years 13

Giving up exercise was something that I really struggled with during recovery, and was something that I relapsed with two or three times. Once I’d started eating and my survival instincts took over, restriction wasn’t something I wanted to engage in again (even though my eating disorder kicked and screamed against that thought), but exercise was something I could do without having to feel hungry all of the time but could still burn calories and feel “healthy”. Even though my weight didn’t change whether I exercised or not, I still had the severe compulsion to work out because I felt so anxious and guilty if I did not. But even though I didn’t have to deal with being hungry all the time, exercise made me so utterly exhausted that I could not even sit up in bed with my laptop on some days. I had to lie down instead. Eventually, I was able to cease exercise until I was healthy enough both mentally and physically to be able to do what I now like to call “recreational activity”. I walk a fine line in choosing to be active in remission, but I have my “red”, “amber”, and “green” types of exercise so I know where I am with it, and I’m constantly evaluating how I feel and how much I’m doing. I see the activity I do as enjoyment rather than doing it for my body – the health benefits are secondary for me. Having fun comes first and foremost in the choice to do physical activity, and I think it should be that way for everyone.

bralet 3

The picture above is me today. I am now over 8 months into remission (full recovery). I feel strong and healthy and confident. I have bad and good days with my body, but I more or less accept it for what it is now. Today was a good day, and I feel powerful as a person. I’m about to have a delicious dinner with my family, on holiday, with a view of the sea. This evening I am going to a bar to have cocktails with my brother. And it won’t even matter to me how many calories any of what I have consumed today has.

I am enjoying being me.
3 years 6

*The reason I have included photographs of myself when I was ill is because for me, it’s an amazing transformation. Recovery should be equally about mental and physical recovery – you can’t have one without the other – and I wanted to show both, because for me, my experience with weight gain was a huge part of my recovery. I can only show my physical recovery through photographs, and my mental recovery through expressing it in writing. This article is not about the process but about the comparison as to how I was then to how I am now. I also wanted to show that it is possible to gain a significant amount of weight and look very different and be able to accept that. My body and the changes it made throughout recovery were hugely significant to me, so to be able to show that comparison and say that I made those changes to my body and I got through all the self-loathing, guilt, and anxiety, and found my way to accepting my body as how it looks now is incredibly important to my journey. Some people may not agree with my choice to include photographs, but that is why there is a trigger warning. That was my body, and this was my journey, and I want to express it in the way that is significant to me. 

Men Get Eating Disorders Too

eating-disorder-mirror-drawing

Eating disorders are stereotypically seen as an illness that young, white, females develop. Whilst this is obviously an outdated myth and anyone of all ages, genders, and races can experiencing eating disorders, there are still a huge amount of people ignorant to the fact that many men suffer from eating disorders too and it is just as serious when men suffer from them as when women do.

Studies suggest that eating disorders are on the rise in men. However, it is also theorised that this may be because eating disorders in men are becoming less stigmatised and more men are coming forward and seeking help and treatment for their illness. Out of those with eating disorders, it is reported around 10% of sufferers are male, although again, these statistics are unreliable due to the fact that so many men do not come forward for treatment, and a recent study on a large university campus found that the female-to-male ratio of positive screens for eating disorder symptoms was 3-to-1 (Eisenburg, Nicklett, Roeder, & Kirz, 2011). As it says on the website MGEDT:

“Conflicting and poor quality data is one of the biggest problems in pinning down the full extent of eating disorders in the UK and indeed the world. According to Beat information from the Department of Health only shows how many individuals received inpatient treatment. This only captures only a very small percentage of cases, since as much as 50 per cent of treatment is provided by private clinics and only the most severely ill will receive inpatient care.”

Through large scale surveys it was found that in the past thirty years, male body image concerns have increased severely, with 15% to 43% of men being dissatisfied with their bodies; rates that are comparable to those found in women (Garner, 1997; Goldfield, Blouin, & Woodside, 2006; Schooler & Ward, 2006). In adolescent and college samples, between 28% and 68% of males of normal weights saw themselves as underweight and reported that they had a desire to increase their muscle mass through dieting and strength training (McCabe & Ricciardelli, 2004; McCreary & Sadava, 2001).  (Statistics and sources taken from the NEDA site)

So why do boys and men get eating disorders? Just like with girls and women, the reasons are vast and complex. Bullying, abuse, dieting, feeling pressured whilst engaging in sport, having a career that demands thinness (such as modelling or acting), and diet culture can all be a catalyst in the develop of an eating disorder in men (and these are just a tiny selection of the things that can trigger an eating disorder). It is also shown that the media is having an effect too, and that exposure to male body ideals are causing men to compare themselves to these ideals and this is positively correlated with the drive for muscularity in men. The fact that we are living in a society that still places importance on gender roles and traditional masculine ideals means that males have negative attitudes towards seeking psychological help. In addition to that, we are not identifying eating disorders in boys and men:

“Doctors are reportedly less likely to make a diagnosis of eating disorders in males than females. Other adults who work with young people and parents also may be less likely to suspect an eating disorder in boys, thereby delaying detection and treatment. A study of 135 males hospitalized with an eating disorder noted that the males with bulimia felt ashamed of having a stereotypically “female” disorder, which might explain their delay in seeking treatment. Binge eating disorder may go unrecognized in males because an overeating male is less likely to provoke attention than an overeating female.  This inferior image, among other things, contributes to the reality that 1 in 10 cases of eating disorders involve males. Particularly, for the disorder anorexia, up to one in four children referred to an eating disorders professional is a boy.” (ANAD)

Even though the stigma may be dissipating, it’s still there, as illustrated by the experiences I have been hearing about. One male wrote to my blog to tell me that his doctor told him he could not have anorexia because he could not experience amenorrhoea as he had no menstrual cycle to lose. Another man told me his doctor thrust a leaflet about eating disorders into his hands and offered no other information or support. It is extremely worrying to hear that even professionals are dealing with males with eating disorders in a way that is so dismissive and also shockingly ill-informed.

Men also find it extremely hard to talk to other people about it, because of the sense of shame they may experience in relation to having an eating disorder, and again, this is down to stigma in our society. They are afraid of being judged, and they are afraid of the negative reactions of friends who might laugh it off and dismiss it or make fun of them for suffering from an eating disorder, because it is still to some extent seen as a “girl’s illness”.

Eating disorders can also be harder to spot in some men because it is more likely for women to have dramatic weightloss, whereas in men their eating disorders can expressed through “bulking up” and hitting the gym, which is not seen as particularly suspect in a society so keen on advocating exercise and showing male body “ideals”. as lean and muscular.  It is important to note that if an individual is taking performance-enhancing supplements in their attempt to become more muscular and then engages in weight lifting, they are at increased risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

It is of paramount importance that we recognise eating disorders in boys and men as much as we recognise them in girls and women. It is of paramount importance that we start treating them just as seriously and it is of paramount importance that we continue to reduce the stigma surrounding males and eating disorders so that those suffering will come forward for help and support, from their doctors, from their friends, and from their families.