Margaret is in her 20’s, almost done with law school, an A student with a promising career ahead of her. Debbie is 54 years old. If you saw her you might think she’s got it all together for a woman her age. She is a smart dresser, hair always perfectly in place and she has energy galore. Pedro, on the other hand, is only 17. Tall and handsome with a shy smile who is the star swimmer for his high school. One of the “cool” kids, you would think he must be enjoying every minute of his teenage years. Robert is a 62 year old man, recently retired with his wife and known for his super fit physique. He still works out at the gym several hours a day and everyone knows him there.
What do all these individuals with seemingly a lot going for them have in common? They all are suffering from a disease that often goes unnoticed……until their world collapses. These completely different people all revolve their lives around “ED”. Short for “eating disorder”. ED does not discriminate between sex, race, religion, social class or sexual orientation. But people suffering from an eating disorder often have similarities in the debilitating affect on their lives.They likely wake up every single day of their(sometimes what feels like a) facade of a life thinking about food. They may weigh themselves daily with goal weights they have been obsessing about for weeks in Pedro’s case, or years, in Robert and Debbie’s case. When the number on that scale goes up, they have a really bad day. They may record every morsel and calorie they consume in a food diary, on an app, or in their minds. They starve, they binge, they purge, they are exhausted and feel like crap. And yet, even when they reach that initial “goal weight”, they still are not happy. So they lower it. Nobody seems to notice at first because our culture just loves it when people lose weight. Comments like “you lost weight! You look so good!” just fuel the fire. Our cultural focus on bodies makes it really confusing and hard for someone to stop the often dangerous behaviors they have fallen into. Even if someone manages to avoid serious medical and physical consequences (for a while) the psychological and emotional drains on a life are not always apparent to the outsider. But the person with the eating disorder often becomes depressed as they lose previously treasured parts of their lives (socializing, family gatherings, jobs, relationships) all because ED demands it of them. It becomes really hard for the person with an eating disorder to face food at social gatherings, to listen to comments and questions from family members expressing concern over weight loss and often sickly appearance as the disease progresses. Opportunities are lost, sports scholarships are taken away, dropping out of college and leaving a job, even relationship fall-outs happen because of ED. Sometimes, binge eating leads to excessive weight gain. Unfortunately, with the focus on childhood obesity, even children aren’t immune as they get the message at a very young age that the number on that scale really matters, and it is up to them to do something about it. The bottom line is appearance and body size of a person with an eating disorder are never the same, yet assumptions are made because of this, and this is a big mistake.
Every year during the month of February, the eating disorder community of health care professionals, those who suffer(ed) with eating disorders and the people who have been affected by them make an effort to educate us all. This year, National Eating Disorders Awareness Week is February 26th through March 4th. The theme or message is “Let’s Talk About It”. This is such a great message because the fact is, the earlier an eating disorder is identified and treated, the more chance there is to prevent it from getting worse, or to beat it. We need to talk about the fact that it is a confusing world with our focus on, and fear of fat. We get confused about what is important. Is it more important to be thin or should we just focus on being healthy? How do we fight the cultural ideal and still feel good about our bodies? And most important, we need to talk about the fact that nobody is immune, and no, you can’t tell if someone is suffering just by looking at them. Eating disorders strike children, teenagers, college kids, middle-aged and older adults. Fat, thin or in-between, rich or poor, educated or not, no matter what nationality or culture, you can’t tell what someone’s life is like or how miserable they may be.
Or, you may wonder about yourself. Is your obsessive calorie counting really a problem? Do you say to yourself “well, I do need to lose weight” and think your diet is just “healthy?” but you do feel drained from thinking about it all the time? Is it a problem that you feel guilty for missing the gym? Do you constantly think about your bulging middle-aged tummy and have started cutting out foods to fix it? Do you have an eating problem you are starting to worry about? To help you answer these questions, or to at least lead you in the right direction, why not take the free screening offered by the NEDA website (National Eating Disorder Awareness). Go ahead and take the free screening Get Screened, or share with any friends and/or family members who may know loved ones they are worried about. Remember, the earlier this debilitating disease is identified and treated the better chance for recovery. Don’t wait. It’s time to talk about it.