*Trigger Warning*: This article covers eating disorders, attitudes and mentions food a lot.
The week of the 21st of June this year, I will – knocks on wood manically – be graduating from the University of St Andrews with an MA in Psychology and Social Anthropology. That date also coincides with the third anniversary of my leaving hospital, leaving my eating disorder behind and going on to a new life.
When I tell people I still go to a support group for eating issues, either a flash of panic or concern flashes across their faces. Oh no! Have I relapsed? Is everything ok? Those who don’t know me as well sneak a look at my figure: Well, she doesn’t look underweight. She doesn’t look like she has an eating disorder. And occasionally the label of ‘attention seeker’ will be attached to my name for ever after.
To those who ask, or wonder, or worry – I say, ‘Nope. I am fine.’ This sounds like denial but I love eating. I love food, I love eating out, I love shopping for food, I love cooking, I love baking, I love planning what food I will eat. I actually quite like my body as well; I appreciate it for what it is, and what it does for me. I don’t weigh my self-worth on the amount of stones or pounds my body amounts to, I no longer attach meaning to numbers on a clothes hanger.
But I still go to the support group.
I have a therapist, and with her I discuss my present state of being, my present coping skills, my present emotions and difficulties. I go to Student Services and chat to them about how I am doing, good or bad. I talk to my boyfriend, and my friends, and my parents, and my sister.
I still go to the support group.
I go because sometimes I still need to talk about it. ‘It’ being the thing that took up a lot of my life and swallowed up my identity. I need to talk to others who have been or are going through the same thing, in a way that most people cannot quite understand because they have not experienced it. The support group is a shared safe place for people of all backgrounds, ages, races, genders and sexualities to talk about something that is still not a safe topic to discuss publicly: disordered eating.
There is something about eating disorders that makes people inherently awkward. Even within the sphere of Mental Health, eating disorders are an uncomfortable bedfellow. There is an element of choice, like an addiction – and yet there is the research to back up genetic, biochemical and wider environmental and sociological factors. There is the interlocking of body image and the fashion world, infantilising those who live with it and reducing their disorder to no more than an extreme vanity.
There are the occasional shocking images in the tabloids of skeletal females, often marketed alongside diet adverts or an exclusive on how some famous nobody lost weight. I think we are uncomfortable with eating disorders because we ourselves have created the paradox. The demand for physical perfection is all fun and games until someone develops an eating disorder: then the reaction is ‘Oh dear, no one meant for you to take it that far. Why are you stupid?’
I have had the opposite ends of the spectrum as responses when I was an anorectic. I was approached by a teenager in a supermarket, as I wandered the aisles in my masochistic element, tormenting myself with all the foods I could never eat. She asked me where I had got my thigh gap. I stared back at her. After an awkward pause, I replied bluntly, ‘Anorexia’. Then the girl, no more than fourteen years old, asked where I had got it. Like it was a product on sale.
On the opposite end, I once dared to venture out of the cubicles of a shopping’s changing area. I was trying to be brave, desperately wanting to see myself looking thin enough (translation: good enough for an abstract ideal’s approval). I was then approached by a woman, who preceded to scream at me in front of around fifteen other women. I was a disgrace, she told me. I was setting a bad example for her young daughter, my meagre existence had resulted in lowering her daughters self -esteem because now she felt too fat. People like me shouldn’t be allowed out in public.
The heart of the discomfort comes from an evolutionary, primal response. Eating disorders are unnatural because human beings need to eat in order to survive. Disordered eating is a rejection of that desire to survive, and I firmly believe to be a rejection of the self and of life. People react with curiosity or rage because it goes against a vital function of being human.
Think about how much eating plays a role in our lives: we go out for dinner, with friends, or on dates. We grab a bite to eat with others. We have meetings in coffee shops. We prepare and eat meals with our families. We bake cakes for selling outside the library. We have parties with our friends, that include food and drink. Eating plays an enormous social role in our lives. And for people with issues around eating, coupled with stigma outlined above, it is incredibly isolating.
I am not saying I always get it right. I don’t always bring my boyfriend shopping with me, lest he point out something that is NOT ON THE LIST, DARLING I LOVE YOU, BUT IT IS NOT ON THE LIST. Or someone scheduling something that CLASHES WITH MY MEAL TIME, THE TIME FOR ME TO EAT. Or running out of a supermarket because it is too small, too many people and THEY REARRANGED THE AISLES SO I CAN’T FIND THE PESTO.We are all on the spectrum: the group is not just for people who have been diagnosed, are recovering or have recovered. It is for the people who realise they are struggling with their relationship with food, and don’t know who to talk about it – or even how to. Eating disorders are equal opportunities. And yet, the stereotypes and gender roles perpetuated by society often impede people from getting help. The support group opens the door and says ‘Hi. We’re all like you. Would you like to come in?’ You don’t have to talk. You can just listen. You will be listened to, and accepted for who you are.
The facilitators who run the group in St Andrews are other students who have been trained to run the group and support those who live with issues around eating. They also know that eating disorders are incredibly private, individual and isolating experiences. They are willing to meet in person before you come to a group if you wish to ask any questions. It is also appropriate to have someone – usually another member – meet with you before the group begins, so you can have some company on the journey.
And that is the point. Support groups do something that not everyone appreciates, but that is crucial to living with and recovering from eating disorders – letting you know that you are not alone. My mother used to tell me that only I could do it, but I couldn’t do it alone. Support groups give you the opportunity to simply be, to give a voice to those misunderstood and marginalised by wider society.
They remind you that it can be overcome, it can be lived with and also that it can be understood and accepted by others. From personal experience, the facilitators are warm, endlessly compassionate and incredibly easy to speak to. You wouldn’t be causing them any inconvenience to come along – they want to be able to listen, and to support you.
We are pro-recovery, but the purpose is not to fix anyone. Sometimes you just need someone to ask, genuinely, ‘how are you doing?,’ to hear someone listen, nod, and say ‘that’s ok’, to be heard, to have a voice – and even more importantly, to hear others and know you are not alone.
If you think the Eating Disorder Support Group could help you, or someone you know, please do get in touch. The e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide you with the days and times of the meetings. You can also contact the Tribe to get in touch with the author of this piece.
All images courtesy of Pixabay.