Walking into my Dad's store one afternoon, I heard him asking a customer, “Did you hear about Emma’s benefit concert for NEDA we held the other weekend?”
“NEDA?” The customer did not seem to recognize the acronym.
“The National Eating Disorder Association," was my Dad's response. And his response immediately blanketed the room in awkward tension. The words "eating disorder" overpowered the rest of the sentence-- they carried an uncomfortable amount of weight.
The silence was finally interrupted by the customer's voice:
“Oh, I see! The people with eating disorders are the ones that don't eat right?" I tried to interrupt the stream of conversation, “Well, people suffering from eating disorders can struggle with restriction, but there are many other people who battle with—”
My words were disregarded before they could leave my mouth: “Just send them to Africa! They would love it! Little food plus everyone else around them is skinny!"
The awkward silence from before was nothing compared to the level of discomfort shared by the three of us after this statement. It was cleat that this stranger found truth in the myth that people suffering from eating disorders despise food and effortlessly fabricated a disorder that has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. He assumed that there is only one type of eating disorder, dismissing the reality that the words "eating disorder" denote bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorders, other specified feeding or eating disorders, avoidant food intake disorder, diabulimia and beyond. In one confident delivery, this man decided that eating disorders are governed by choice; people can decide whether or not they want to be diagnosed with one. Mental disorders can be swept away for good with the simple decision to just stop, right? These people have the power to override irrational thinking, don't they?
There was one aspect of my encounter with this man that stung me long after our conversation ended: He would never know my story underpinned by pain, doubt, acceptance, and growth because I appeared to be healthy. In his mind, anyone suffering from an eating disorder had to fit the stereotype of being troublingly thin to have their suffering acknowledged. This confusion is the reason why the National Eating Disorder Association has made this special week official worldwide. This ignorance is the reason millions of men and women never receive treatment and drown out their own voice with the all-powerful opinions of their eating disorder. The words, "But you look healthy?" is the reason so many struggling individuals take steps backwards, and crumble as their eating disorder grips them tighter and tighter. Reaching a stable weight does not free people from their imprisoning thoughts. In fact, relapse occurs most often as soon as people restore their weight.
It is known that it only takes thirty days to solidify a habit. For those suffering from eating disorders, toxic routines of restricting or over-exercising, binging or purging, are daily habits that become engrained over time. Personally speaking, the habits and routines I upheld everyday for six years cannot be cured solely with food. If you bite your nails ceaselessly for six years, quitting on the spot and never revisiting this habit again would be daunting, and for some, impossible. Recovery is a process. It is a time of trial and error, falling down in the face of fear, standing back up even when this fear does not fade away, answering difficult questions, opening your heart and your mind, and beginning to accept yourself wholeheartedly after years of neglect. All of this cannot happen overnight. Even if someone made the decision to stop biting their nails after years of abiding by this routine, it is inevitable that their habit will return subconsciously from one time to another. This reality is true for those enduring eating disorder recovery, and has been ever-present in my own journey. I realize that I have the power to decide to free myself from this disorder, but I have to be accepting of the fact that it will not be abandoned permanently at the moment of this decision. From one time to another, I am bound to resort to the habits that have became deeply-rooted in my mind over the course of six years. In moments of trial, when your strength is tested, you have the choice to follow the course of your eating disorder or the path you have paved for yourself throughout recovery. No one is home to sit with you for lunch? For someone with an eating disorder, this presents a burdensome decision. As soon as this situation presents itself, the eating disorder begins to whisper, tempting the person as a siren would, willing them to take its hand and gain back the control it believes has slipped away with recovery. Then, simultaneously, guilt begins to take root, and the mind begins to spiral with shame. Is restricting worth it? How will I hide weight loss from my doctors or loved ones if I skip this meal? I cannot live with the guilt of tossing away my food or lying to parents when they ask the dreaded question: did you finish your lunch? At this point, a mind battle has begun. But without having to make decisions as daunting as these, you would never see if you are truly freed from disordered thinking. Even if you respond to freedom with actions provoked by your eating disorder, you are not failing; you are not throwing away recovery. It will only cultivate a learning experience and pose as a test to pass the next time you are confronted by it. Without moments like these, you would never know for certain which path to follow with confidence.
Some may be vocal about their confusion regarding eating disorders, while others may whisper theirs in hushed tones, or masquerade it with stereotypes. Regardless, confusion remains steadfast and ever-present. If I had never been acquainted with this stranger in my Dad's store-- though it does not lend the fondest of memories-- recognizing my purpose as an educator and advocate would have never materialized.
A situation that was originally fueled by anger metamorphosed into one to be thankful for as I stood in my Dad's shop. After meeting this man, I quickly realized that the subject of eating disorders is one that is never talked about. Being an educator and an advocate is vital for catalyzing positive change. The National Eating Disorder Association recognized this need for education and advocacy, and has dedicated this entire week to spotlighting eating disorders. This week is devoted to bringing awareness to a subject that often goes unnoticed. Join me this week in making yourself vulnerable, using your voice as a tool for positive change and stepping out of the silence. Ignorance is not always bliss. Be a difference maker.