Portrayal of Eating Disorders in Media

“To the Bone” is a new Netflix original coming out soon presenting the story of a young woman who goes to treatment for an eating disorder. At first, I was really looking forward to watching this film and was so glad that the truth about eating disorders was finally being brought to light. However, I realized that after watching the trailer, I went to bed that night thinking maybe, just maybe, I could do that again; I could starve myself and be “perfect”. But then I caught myself; there is nothing perfect about eating disorders. For a split second, I had forgotten about the grueling side effects onset by an eating disorder. I forgot about the life threatening aspect of this disease. I forgot about the isolation, anxiety, self hate as well as the other uglinesses that come with it.

I questioned myself as to how I could allow two minutes of a simple trailer get to me. I realized that it was because the trailer was not an accurate representation of what fighting anorexia looks like. I understand that the producers of this film were attempting to spread awareness about eating disorders in an entertaining way, but the problem is that there is nothing entertaining about mental illnesses. Gathered from the “To the Bone” trailer as well as various other films regarding mental illnesses (which I will not list due to potentially triggering content) are a couple myths debunked. Here is the raw truth of what struggling with and fighting anorexia is like:

062017-to-the-boneMyth 1: People with eating disorders proudly recite the calories of everything on their plate.

Truth: Calories are secretly and shamefully counted in the mind. Even when you try really hard not to think about it, your mind will automatically remind you of how many calories everything contains and as a result will create guilt regarding food. Calorie counting is a trapping obsession, not a prideful activity.

Myth 2: You will find the love of your life in residential treatment.

Truth: When you’re in residential treatment, you have a couple other pressing issues on your mind aside from finding your true love. If you’re not busy in DBT, CBT or ACT group, and you’re not talking to your therapist, dietician, doctor or psychiatrist, you’re most probably too busy crying to get out of treatment and longing to go back home to your family. Any time with other clients is strictly supervised by counselors and nurses, which makes it somewhat difficult to have meaningful conversations with them aside from mental illnesses. It’s hard to fall in love when you don’t love yourself, or by that means, you don’t even tolerate yourself.

Myth 3: The psych hospital is a place where you get to play games and have fun with those around you.

Truth: The psych hospital is not fun and it is not like summer camp. It is a facility where patients are held to (literally) prevent them from ending their life. The staff there doesn’t necessarily remind you of butterflies, rainbows and all things beautiful in life. They are strict and abide by rigid rules to keep all patients in check. Most patients admitted aren’t quite in the mood to play games and do arts and crafts since they undergoing mental turmoil. It is an intense period in people’s lives and is a place where some patients are sectioned to against their will. Leaving the psych hospital does not indicate that you are “cured” from feeling depressed or suicidal. It simply means that you can now focus on the long road of recovery awaiting ahead.

Myth 4: Doctors will not try to help people who do not want to recover from their eating disorders.

Truth: Many sufferers going to their doctors with an eating disorder aren’t usually hunky dory about recovering. Recovery is a long, strenuous, difficult, but also rewarding journey. The idea of recovering and getting “rid” of their eating disorder can be very intimidating. It is scary to imagine a life without an eating disorder when an eating disorder has served as a comforting coping mechanism for so long. Treatment programs are in place to provide support for those trying to strive for a life that does not revolve around food, weight and numbers. Passion and motivation for recovery increases as treatment progresses.

Myth 5: Doctors take everyone in residential outside to dance and have fun in the rain.

Truth: Definitely wish this had some truth to it, because then inpatient might have been a little more tolerable. But what really happens, is that doctors, therapists, nurses, counselors and any other staff who may be around are constantly reminding you to stay seated. For the first few weeks, you get the “royal treatment” and aren’t even allowed to clean up your dishes after meals, since they don’t want you to faint on the walk over to the dishwasher. And if you would like to go outside, a staff member needs to accompany you while you are seated on a wheelchair.

Myth 6: It’s easy to “trick the system” during treatment by water loading or stuffing weights in your clothes.

Truth: If tricks like these are shown on movies and tv shows, be assured that the health care professionals providing treatment are well aware of them. Every few days, weights are taken by nurses while you are fully gowned. They also monitor amounts of fluid intake and make you pee in a cup before being weighed…not fun, and frankly quite humiliating.

Myth 7: You need to be underweight to get help.

Truth: This is INCREDIBLY misleading and false! The prognosis of an eating disorder can be influenced by how quickly intervention takes place. The “eating disorder voice” will tell you that you are not thin enough, not sick enough, not bony enough along with whatever else it may add on to make you feel unworthy of reaching out for help. Eating disorders are mental illnesses with physical symptoms. Weight can not be a sole indicator of the amount of mental suffering taking place.

Veganism and Eating Disorder Recovery

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for animals. And every since I found out in elementary school that meat actually came from slaughtered animals, I longed to be a vegetarian. I ate mainly vegetarian but still ate meat while living with my family at home throughout high school. It was only while in college, I made the dramatic decision to become vegan.

It had first started out with me wanting to become vegetarian. But I suffered with IBS in college and avoiding dairy helped me feel less bloated along with experiencing other uncomfortable symptoms. I thought to myself that I might as well become vegan if I didn’t eat meat or dairy…which I see now was definitely “all or nothing” thinking!

For months while in treatment, I fought my dieticians when they advised I become vegetarian, instead of vegan. I would continuously ask nurses and counselors if the meals I was presented with were vegan and would either eat it with tears in my eyes or shut down, numb out and mindlessly stuff down the food I was given to finish.

It was only after 4 months in intensive treatment, I voluntarily let go of the restriction I had put on myself of staying vegan. And honestly, it has been one of the most monumental steps I have taken in my recovery journey.

Even though I am very passionate about animal rights, being vegan WHILE battling an eating disorder was just not applicable for me. My eating disorder gradually took over, and it became an obsession. Being vegan and restricting out so many foods was just another way for me to feel “in control”. Checking backs of food labels for calories changed into checking for dairy or egg products. Being vegan was a more acceptable excuse I used with my friends and family to avoid going out to eat. I hijacked myself into thinking that I hated cheese and loved vegan desserts…definitely not true!

I challenged myself with a non vegan food everyday until it became more tolerable. Even though I now consider myself vegetarian, I still allow myself to eat vegan foods! The difference is that I am no longer restricted to eating ONLY vegan foods.

Being vegan while in recovery from an eating disorder isn’t advised by most health professionals. ED may tell you that you are strong & different, and can still fully recover while being vegan. But just because you CAN, doesn’t mean that you NEED to. Letting go of veganism opened me up to not only a less restrictive diet, but also to a less restrictive life stlye. It helped me release a large set of food rules that I was trying so desperately to hold onto. I told myself that if I still want to be vegan in ten years, after being stable in recovery for sometime, I can open up that door again if I so choose. But for the time being, veganism is not on my agenda!

Starting Treatment

Making the decision to get help for my eating disorder may have been one of the toughest decisions I have had to make in my recovery journey. I had experienced years of on and off restricting and “healthy” eating. Exercise had slowly worked its way up to a major, controlling aspect of my life. It had all happened so gradually, that all my thoughts and behaviors had seemed normal at the time. It’s normal to diet and its normal to hate our bodies…I let this belief become a reason to isolate and cut myself off from the treatment available to me.

There are always going to be those people who are consistently on the latest diet or juice cleanse. And yes, people may joke about their chubby face or thunder thighs now and then. But not all of them spend hours body checking and crying in front of the mirror. Not all of them feel their self worth and value plummet when eating an “unhealthy” food. That is because not all of them have an eating disorder.

It took time for me to reach out for help. I took several eating disorder questionnaires online to deem my problem valid or not. However, even if the results indicated that I may have an eating disorder, I ignored and minimized the results by telling myself that everyone my age dealt with the same issues. There were times where I felt so miserable and thought I was crazy for letting something as vain as physical appearance affect me so much. After countless nights crying about the reflection I saw in the mirror and overwhelming moments of guilt after eating, I knew I needed help.

After accepting that I needed help, the problem came of finding a way to receive support. My parents knew very well of my eating habits, and they never sent me to treatment. I thought this was because I was too fat. Later on I learned that my parents were painfully afraid for my health, but were too afraid to confront the issue since they were struggling with their own feelings of denial. The only other way I knew I could get help is if my doctor recognized the issue. I knew I had an annual check up appointment coming up, and figured that if I truly had a problem, she would address it. Before that could happen, my eating disorder voice took over. It made me lose more and more weight, before I could really feel validated enough to ask for help. There were several cancelled doctors appointments because of the fear that I was too fat to have a problem. It was finally after needing to go into the doctors for a school sports physical signature, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder.

My doctor asked me how I was doing and I responded with “fine”. She told me that I must not be fine if my weight had plummeted so dramatically. My heart was pounding. I was scared. She asked me what my goal weight was and questioned me about my eating habits. I left her office with an appointment scheduled for two days later at an eating disorder specialty clinic. I cried for hours and told my mom that my doctor was wrong. But inside, I felt a slight sense of relief. I was no longer a slave to my eating disorder. There was another way. I didn’t know what the future would hold, but I knew that anything was better than the mental turmoil I was facing at the moment.

Looking back at it now, there are not words that can describe the pride I have in myself for stepping into that first appointment with an eating disorder specialist. That is where my recovery journey truly began. There have definitely been several ups and downs since then, but overall, things have gotten better. I slowly learned how to cope with those feelings of guilt I experience so intensely. I no longer believe that peace is only possible at death. I have faith that I can learn to love and accept myself the way I am. I experience relapses, just like anyone else in recovery. But I pick myself back up, and strive towards a life free of eating disorder thoughts. Eating disorders are fatal, terrifying mental illnesses that I would not wish upon anyone. My heart goes out to all the victims struggling, including myself. Fortunately, there IS a cure. There IS treatment. There IS support out there, and letting your guard down to accept help may be one of the scariest, yet most wonderful things you can do for yourself.

So You Think You Want an Eating Disorder?

In the last thirty years, the number of middle school girls skipping lunch is nine times higher than it used to be! As shocking as this is, unfortunately it is somewhat understandable with the media. Eating disorders, which are a mental illness, are glamorized for only one of the many side effects they entail: weight loss. What seems to be disregarded are the countless other physical, as well as mental effects an eating disorder can have on its victim and their loved ones. Listed here are some grueling of the tolls an eating disorder has had on my life, which of some others may be able to identify with.

Family: When struggling with an eating disorder, weight and food comes before all, even before family. I sat at home re-watching the same episodes of Friends instead of going out to eat with my parents. I ran upstairs to my room to look at more thinspo pictures in place of enjoying cake on my little brother’s birthday. I decided to go to the gym to burn more calories rather than going shopping with my grandma. All these precious moments I could have spent with family were wasted away by the preoccupation of one day, attaining the unattainable ideal body.

School: As smart, intelligent or determined as you are, school can’t happen if you’re in the depths of an eating disorder. I was a straight A student when I had to drop out of school to receive treatment. With no fuel for my brain, even reading the smallest article or writing the easiest paper became a major challenge. I began to be overwhelmed with the idea of calories, weight, exercise and body image. There were even a few times when I had to walk out of my class because the idea of being so huge brought me to tears.

Nightmares: Waking up in the middle of the night, being deathly afraid of having gained several pounds is no pleasant way to be awoken. When restricting or struggling intensely with body image, I have had repeated dreams feeling so miserable and hating myself as a result of eating too much. The human body doesn’t like to be left starving. Your stomach will growl the entire night hoping you’ll get the hint to get up and eat. It’s eight hours of sleep per night that’s recommended, but you’ll be lucky if you get three.

Fatigue: Whether it be restricting, binging or purging, these behaviors leave you exhausted, both mentally and physically at the end. I personally struggled with mainly restricting during the depths of my eating disorder. Living life takes energy, and energy comes from food! You can forget about hanging out with friends and going out every night, because laying in bed will probably be the only thing that sounds good.

There is a large genetic component to the onset of eating disorders, however, most of society does not seem to understand that quite yet. Furthermore, many people do not even know what eating disorders are! Anorexia is a disease, not an adjective. Being “anorexic” is not a phase or a look; it is a serious mental illness. Eating disorders can happen to anyone, regardless of size, weight or gender. It can be a torturous and deadly mental state, and in no way is this beautiful.

In Loving Memory

Treatment friends are like no other. When I say they understand, I mean they REALLY understand. They understand the illogical thoughts racing through your mind, because they have the same thoughts. They relate to your feelings of guilt, pressure and self-hate, because they experience the same feelings. And most importantly, they understand the difficulty in striving for recovery, because they are fighting the same battle.

Today I attended the funeral of a fellow peer. Anorexia took her life.

Words cannot explain the heart wrench I feel. When first hearing about her passing, I began to question, why is it that only some people recover? Why can’t everyone experience a fully recovered life? The answer is that recovery from an eating disorder is tough. It takes so much self-hate and despair to starve, purge or engage in any other eating disorder behavior. Having said that, it takes twice as much self compassion, courage and hope to overcome these feelings.

Choosing to seek treatment is a huge step in recovery that takes a tremendous amount of bravery. However, this is purely the beginning of a lifelong journey. Why is it that these individuals must keep their admirable decision to battle a mental illness a secret? Far too many people in our society glamorize eating disorders and do not understand just how life threatening the disorders are. If they could have witnessed the beautiful life taken today, along with the countless others taken each year, they would understand that eating disorders are far much more than an”extended diet” or an attention seeking behavior. Recovery is tough and is not as simple as “just eating”. If recovery was so easy, then we would not be needing to attend the funerals of those who lose the battle.

Precious lives are ended prematurely and I can no longer sit back and watch without putting up a fight. I will be conducting an Eating Disorder Awareness Day on my university campus next week and hope to continue organizing more events to normalize mental health topics. A simple flyer or poster about body image or the effects of low self-esteem can make a difference. I have included links that provide ideas to get involved for the upcoming week of awareness. I hope you will consider taking action, because you hold more power than you believe!

 

http://nedawareness.org

http://www.activeminds.org/our-programming/awareness-campaigns/eating-disorders-awareness-week

https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org

A Day in the Life of Treatment

I knew I wasn’t following my meal plan all the way, but I was trying hard so it was close enough. I mean it feels like I’m eating ALL the time, so I must be way over my meal plan actually. My therapist hands me the usual check-in sheet I get at the start of every program day. It asks for the percentage of my meal plan followed. I’ll put 90% followed. Actually 90% is an A, and I don’t think I deserve an A. I’ll put 85%, that sounds more realistic. Ugh I hate these check-in sheets so much. For the next section, I honestly don’t know how to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how depressed or anxious I was over the past few days. Was it a 2? Maybe I’m going to easy on myself. It was probably an 8. Ah I’m so confused. I’ll just put down a 5. That’s neutral, can’t go wrong.

Okay, now I just have to stuff down these two fig newtons. I definitely choose the perfect, condensed snack. Two bites and I am done! Wow, this other lady next to me is so skinny. It’s a different kind of skinny though. Not the kind you see on the magazine covers in bikinis by the beach, but a strange, weak skinny. Her face drooped down and her eyes seemed tired of life. Her legs must be really tiny since her skinny jeans are loose on her, but it kind of just seems like she bought too big of pants. I wonder if she brushed her hair this morning. Maybe she did, but the thinning hair and bald spots were too distracting to tell. I feel sympathy for her; it must suck to live life so depressed.

I hand my therapist my check-in sheet. I look down and finish my snack while avoiding eye contact with the therapist. I really can’t stand the judgements that are probably going on in her head. She’s probably thinking that I have no hope in recovering, a lost cause. Whatever. I stand up confidently and throw away my snack wrappers. The other patient finally finishes and I start sharing. I answer “maybe” and “I don’t know” to every other question the therapist asks and stare down like I’m thinking during the awkward, silent moments.

After check-ins, the first group begins. It’s DBT group today and a tall, outgoing therapist is leading it. I can’t get over how vibrant and engaged she is in the lesson, despite the solemn, bored looks on my and the other lady’s face. I’m not really paying attention because most of my concentration is going to trying to keep my eyelids from drooping down and shutting. Oh wow, we still have 30 minutes of this group left. Saved by my therapist! She walks in through the back door and asks to steal me. I don’t know what its for, but it’s probably better than group. Anything is better than group. I was wrong.

My therapist walks me into the dietician’s office, and sitting there were four other members of my treatment team. I walk in like a deer in headlights. I ask if I’m in trouble, but they said no. They just want to talk. I know better – that obviously means I’m in trouble. I try so hard to sit comfortably in the chair, to mask that my anxiety is way past a 10. They tell me that I need to try harder and that I am not following my meal plan. They are honestly so stupid. I swear they didn’t actually get their degrees in anything. They’re just here to make my life horrible. They keep trying to punish me! Everything I do, they call me out on. So what if I didn’t follow my meal plan 100%? I tried harder and I deserve some appreciation for that. But instead, they just keep pointing out what I’m doing wrong. I sit there and act tough. I take in everything they are saying and want to talk back, but words just don’t come out. They tell me that they need to see improvement. I just nod, even though, deep down I know that there is nothing I need to improve on! They’re so delusional. My therapist walks me back to group, and I feel completely exposed and humiliated.

I go sit back on the couch and don’t even attempt to listen to the lesson taking place. Maybe this isn’t right for me. I don’t belong here. I am not good enough for recovery.

As I’m sitting there with my negative thoughts spiraling, the always smiling kitchen lady puts the utensils out on the table on the opposite side of the group room. Then she brings one tray at a time out. I want to look at what the meal is, but I can’t because the therapist leading the group is talking right at me. I don’t even know what she’s saying because I’m too preoccupied on what lunch is going to be today.

Oh my god, I think it’s pizza. Wait, maybe its not. It can’t be. I look again after she closes group. Yes, it is pizza. My heart sinks to my belly and my throat closes up. The tears are creating pressure in my eyes and I think I’m starting to get a little light headed. My arms and legs feel like they are going to fall off. It’s pizza. I can’t. I can’t do this. They’re doing this on purpose. My treatment team is trying to make me fail. They hate me. The dietician comes in and tells us to come to the table. I feel glued to the chair I’m on. I can’t get up. The dietician calls me over again. I get up and walk over. I ask to substitute this meal. He says no, I need to try and eat what’s presented. The tears are flowing. I tell him I can’t. He tells me to sit down and try. We sit at the table. I see the greasy, oily slices of pizza in front of me. This is unbelievable. I can’t put that in my mouth. Maybe I can stuff it down and numb out. No, it’s too hard. I think I’m going to puke. I am slouched as far back as I can in my chair. I do not want to be near that food. My eyes are turned the other way and the tears just won’t stop! The dietician asks me what’s going on and I simply tremble “I can’t”. He tells me I can. He doesn’t understand. I stay slouched back and continue crying. I don’t belong here. I am so stupid for not being able to eat that pizza. It’s not even a big deal, but I just can’t. My dietician tells me that I can’t just sit there avoiding the food. He pushes the plate closer to me and tells me to face it. I am being difficult and he is getting frustrated. I turn to look at it, and it just bring up more tears. I think I’m starting to choke. I can’t breathe. The dietician tells me that it’s the halfway time. He says that I should really get started. I can’t. I keep looking at it, but I just can’t. That pizza is so wrong. I don’t know what’s wrong about it, but it just is. It’s going to clog up my throat and kill me. I am still crying. I need to stop. I calm myself. But soon again, the tears start. This is so uncomfortable.

As soon as time is up, my dietician grabs my plate and goes in the kitchen. I know what he’s doing. He’s preparing the boost. He’s going to make me drink Ensure. I don’t care. I’ll drink the Ensure. It’s so much better than pizza. He asks me what flavor, chocolate or vanilla? I say I don’t care. He tells me I need to pick one. I tell him I can’t. He states again that I need to pick a flavor. I guess vanilla. I can’t believe my life right now. This is what its come down to. I am so pathetic for not eating that pizza. My friends will seriously think I’m psycho if I tell them. My dietician comes out with two cups, one full and one 3/4 way filled. He places it right in front of me and tells me that I have five minutes to finish. I sit there. I can’t do this either. My arm just will not move up to pick up the cup. There’s so many calories in that. He tells me that I need to start now or I won’t have time to finish. The other patient across the table is looking down. I don’t even think she’s paying attention to what’s happening at the table because she’s too wrapped up in her own mind. I pick the cup up and take a sip. It is disgusting. It tastes like 5 meals crushed into one sip. I put the cup down. I lift it up again and take sip after sip without stopping. I need to finish this. After I drink this, I’m done. I somehow manage to get the first cup finished. Ugh there’s another one. I need to, I can’t stop. I immediately take the next one and start sipping. I put the cup down. I am done.

We are told to go sit for relaxation. But I am in my own world. I walk back to the couch with tears streaming down. A chirpy therapist comes to lead the relaxation. I look down and avoid eye contact. She says to close our eyes. I don’t. Tears are gently rolling now, and my black sweatshirt is soaked. About ten minutes into the relaxation, and I am still sniffling every so often. I want to leave so badly, but I can’t. My therapist slowly opens the door and whispers something to the therapist leading the relaxation then motions me to go with her. My eyes are numb at this point. She walks me to the dietician’s office and he is sitting there as well. They ask me what happened. I shrug my shoulders. They asked me what was getting in the way of me eating the pizza. I say I can’t. They tell me I can, and I start crying even more. They don’t understand, I cannot. They ask me what I am going to do about this. I shrug. They continue asking me several Socratic type questions and without responding to their questions, I say I need time. My therapist says okay. She says I can go back to group and go home to collect myself afterwards. I walk back to the group room feeling humiliated and weak. Group is over. I grab my backpack and head out to the elevator.

I am no longer crying. Life moves on. I get in my car and put on a mask that I expect to wear the rest of the day. My mom calls. I tell her it was a tough day and that I am heading back to school. I drive in silence for the next twenty minutes. And then I turn on the radio loudly and drive more intently to go back to school on time. I can’t waste my time thinking about pizza and group. I am needed at work and I have things to get done at school. I get back to school with my sunglasses on covering my swollen eyes. I smile and say hi to everyone I run into there. I walk up to my dorm and grab my books. I retouch my foundation and reapply my eye makeup. My best friends are gathered outside the dorm hall. I stop to say hi and ask them about their day and offer them words of support for the homework they procrastinated on. I walk to class and engage in small conversations with my neighbors. We talk about going to the upcoming music festivals and start planning days to hang out. Life’s good.

The teacher begins class right on time. She begins lecturing about music and its transformative power. I sit and look in her direction and I see her mouth moving, but I am not comprehending what she is saying. My mind wanders to the day I just had at group. My thoughts begin spiraling. I cannot do this any longer. The treatment team I have is stupid and I cannot go back there. I guess I can recover on my own. I will just follow my meal plan completely. I think I will quit treatment. No wait, I really shouldn’t. My family will be so disappointed in me and I will be a failure. Oh no, the flashbacks to the pizza are coming back. Shiny slices of pizza and cups of boost. The tears are coming back. I attempt to naturally wipe away at the tears. Oh no, they’re not stopping, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It is a five minute break for class. I pack my stuff and tell the professor I am not feeling well. She tells me that I can leave, but I’m the one who will miss out on the points. I nod and walk out the door with teary eyes. I sob. I don’t know where I am going. I stop on a ledge by a bus stop and call my mom and simply cry. I give up.

It’s the next morning and I get up at 4:15am to get ready for treatment. I wish I can just sleep in and live life like a normal person, but I know I can’t. I have an eating disorder, and it’s a problem. I did not choose to struggle with this deadly mental illness, but I can choose to fight it. So I get in the car and begin the two hour drive to the hospital.

Recovered vs Recovering

I feel like I have heard this topic come up several times, especially while in treatment. Is there such a thing as being “fully recovered” from an eating disorder or is it something that never truly goes away?

This is such a loaded, debatable question, and I believe that it’s really up to personal interpretation. For me, the eating disorder voice in my head has significantly quieted down and there is no longer such a large internal battle when sitting down to eat a meal or when catching a reflection of myself. Doing the right thing, in terms of nourishing and taking care of myself, comes more naturally. However, what has not become natural yet, are the small choices I make in life to ensure that my needs and wants are met first. I still have to constantly dispute negative core beliefs by telling myself that I am worth the help others give and and that I do not need to pursue perfection in order to be deserving. There may be eating disorder thoughts and urges that come up in my future, but the hope is that they are less frequent and not as all-consuming.

In recovery or not, there are always ways to continue growing and thriving in life. Gaining awareness of actions & emotions is the key to balance… and it is not only something people struggling with eating disorders do! The path to self-awareness allows us to live to our greatest, personal potential in the present moment and it is a tool that becomes stronger with practice. You could call it recovery, or you could simply call it living 🙂