5 Unexpected Things I Learned From Having an Eating Disorder
Our culture tends to make the most basic concepts way too complicated, even something as simple as putting stuff in our bodies so we can keep living. In one corner, we have evil food companies who trick you into becoming addicted to foods that will kill you, and in the other corner, in the blue trunks, we have our cultural obsession with things like the ever-elusive "thigh gap." It's no surprise, then, that some people become clinically confused, resulting in drastic measures like starving themselves or having their cake and puking it too.
Outside of shitty Lifetime original movies, though, nobody really talks about the everyday reality of eating disorders. We sat down with two young women who have struggled with anorexia and bulimia and got a look at what has to be one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses out there ...
It Involves More Than Just Starving or Puking
We all think we know the basics -- anorexia means you starve yourself to death, bulimia means you eat and then puke it up. And already we're wrong -- many bulimics, for example, never throw up. There are as many ways to purge as there are exit routes in your body, and there are probably a lot of those that you never even thought about. And, uh, some that you did. Such as your butthole.
You've never seen steaks so well-browned.
According to one of the women we talked to, Sara, that can be just as effective of a route as the other end, with a little help from your friends (laxatives, that is, which are really no one's friend). Also, diuretics can get rid of all the pesky water loafing around in your body by directing it straight to your pee tube. On one hand, these might be more pleasant than shoving a finger down your throat to trigger vomiting, but on the other, you have no control over when the "purge" happens. So, we hope you've got plenty of time for frequent bathroom breaks, as you've now chemically turned your body into an unholy calorie-excreting cannon.
"Ride of the Valkyries" blaring before every toilet session isn't normal.
The other woman we talked to, Christine, was a big fan of diet pills, which keep your hunger at bay and speed up your metabolism at the same time, for a one-two punch straight to your heart. So, you're walking around tempting death while everyone tells you how great you look. "You have to tell me what diet you're on!"
But then there are the less obvious exit routes, like sweat. Exercise bulimia is a thing, and it was Christine's preferred method of purging. She exercised several times every day, for a minimum of two hours at a time. "But Cracked," you might be saying, "why even call that an eating disorder? Athletes exercise all the time, too. Are you claiming they have some kind of mental illness?"
No, it becomes a disorder when it turns into a compulsion that you can't control. In other words ...
It's Not a Choice
The hardest part of any mental illness is getting people to acknowledge it even exists. And just as the average person has a horrible time separating clinical depression from merely being sad ("Just cheer up, little buddy!") people also can't separate "she has an eating disorder" from "she wants to be thin and pretty like the girl on the magazine cover." People will use "anorexic" to mean someone who is vain and shallow about their looks. ("Why do girls want to look like one of those anorexic starlets?") So let's clear this up right now: One study showed that 97 percent of eating disorder patients were found to exhibit at least one other psychiatric illness, such as severe depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse.
"I'll tip you an extra $100 if you let me tell you about my childhood for an hour."
So the eating disorder is basically just an expression of those illnesses, but for some reason everyone seems to think that psychologically healthy people just decide to start puking on a regular basis because bikini season is coming up. This misconception can lead to a lot of ineffective and even downright harmful messages. For instance, there's a big push in the culture to promote self-acceptance (despite interrogating one of the greatest comedians of our generation about her weight every time she gives an interview, mind you), but it comes with this bizarre tendency to try to shame people out of eating disorders. It sounds open-minded to say, "You have a beautiful body, why do you want to look like one of those gross anorexic girls?" Unless you happen to have anorexia, in which case it comes off like you're being blamed for ruining society.
"The California drought: Are water-wasting bulimics to blame? Our report will shock you."
Sara compared eating disorders to an abusive relationship -- some entity outside of herself that constantly bullies her. Christine agreed, explaining that she felt a constant urge to exercise so strong that she often left the house in the middle of the night to go to the gym, hitting the Nordic Track until roughly ass o'clock in the morning. "I had to keep going until my brain was happy," she says. Of course, it never really was. If that sounds kind of like an addiction or even obsessive-compulsive, that's because that's what it is.
So, no, it doesn't help to just sit the person down and reassure them that Hollywood's beauty standards are bullshit. They're kind of beyond that point.
The camera adds 10 pounds of crippling self-doubt.
Don't get us wrong, nothing occurs in a vacuum -- it has been shown that the introduction of Western media in non-Western countries dramatically increases the incidence of eating disorders, so that's not to say that fighting impossible standards of beauty isn't a worthwhile goal. The problem is that once that compulsion has you in its grip, telling a person who has an eating disorder "You're beautiful just the way you are!" is about as helpful as asking someone who is clinically depressed, "Have you tried not being depressed? Because I'm here to tell you that no matter what Hollywood says, depression is bad!"
You Can't Tell Who Has an Eating Disorder
Unlike those other mental illnesses, you're probably pretty sure you can spot someone with an eating disorder. Someone who is depressed might be able to force themselves to put on a happy face, but you can't hide an exposed collarbone. For many who suffer from eating disorders, though, that collarbone is already exactly as hidden as it should be. When Christine noticed that, like her, most of the women she saw at the clinic where she was treated were pretty normal-looking, she did some research and found out that the majority of bulimics never become scarily underweight.
It makes sense, if you stop to think about it. No matter how quickly you purge, your body has already started doing its absorbing-calories thing, and different methods have different efficiency rates. Add to that the Midwestern Irish Catholic family-sized meals most bulimics are eating and it balances out to a pretty typical caloric intake.
Carbs find a way.
Furthermore, eating disorder sufferers become very good at hiding their condition. Sara says she became a masterful liar, inventing excuses for eating or not eating on the fly with more skill than a professional improv team. If she was in binge mode, she would eat a huge meal at home, go out with her friends, and beg them to hit up the dollar menu because she "hasn't eaten all day." Then she'd go home and shuffle the food around in the pantry so it didn't look like so much was missing.
And then, of course, there's the purging, which came with its own cover-up tactics. People start to get suspicious when every time you go to the bathroom, you leave behind the distinct aroma of half-digested chicken nuggets, no matter how many cocktails you claim you had the night before. So Sara started vomiting in the shower, outside in the bushes, and even in containers that she kept in her bedroom. Think about that for a second. Think about sitting in a room surrounded by Tupperware full of puke. That's some impressive dedication, and it worked, because nobody knew she had a problem for over a year and a half.
They figured something was up when they had to have a 13th Tupperware party.
If that's making it sound like having an eating disorder is a complicated, life-altering project, you should also know that ...
It Can Be Expensive
Christine was pretty amused when she came across an article on a gross pickup-artist blog titled 5 Reasons to Date a Girl With an Eating Disorder, and not just for the reasons you would normally laugh at those kinds of people (don't worry, that link goes to another eating disorder sufferer's analysis of the article, because fuck giving them traffic). It was because one of the items on the list was "She costs less money," and oh boy are these pathetic manbabies even more clueless than you thought. Starving might sound cheap, but there's a reason eating disorders are considered a "rich girl's disease." Even the most ludicrous stereotype contains a kernel of truth, after all, and the kernel here is that it's really easy to get fat if you're poor and really hard to lose weight without a ton of cash and free time. Thanks, capitalism!
You're more likely to see a candy dish at the unemployment office than a bowl of carrot sticks.
To start with, there's all of those laxatives, diuretics, and diet pills. Gym memberships don't come cheap, either, as anyone who's ever taken one look at the price tag and laughed themselves out of a New Year's resolution can tell you. The sheer amount of food you eat in a typical binge is going to send your grocery bill skyrocketing -- you can't exactly be called a cheap date -- and then there are all the weird tricks panicked sufferers can resort to when nothing else is working, like exotic diet foods and spa treatments.
These berries came from a country where you do not live. Clearly, they are made of magic.
Some people might save up for months for that sort of thing, but someone with an eating disorder is like a junkie trying to get their fix, and they're equally desperate to drop however much cash they need to. Once you decide that maybe this isn't the way you want to live your life anymore, you better hope you have good insurance -- the average cost of a month's stay in a rehabilitation program is about $30,000.
Which brings us to ...
Related: 5 Cruel Ways Being Poor Is Expensive
Recovery Is Like Drug Rehab
We've all known, or at least heard of, people who smoked right up until the day they died of lung cancer, or were told their liver was failing and went straight home to drink a six-pack. Eating disorders are no different -- and by that we mean they can absolutely be fatal.
"It becomes a part of your identity," Sara says, and that makes sense considering the above -- the disorder dominates your schedule, budget, and everyday thoughts. It's your life's work, and that makes it incredibly difficult to let go. Even when Sara's body started showing signs of shutting down (her heart would start pounding out of nowhere, followed by annoying periods of unconsciousness) it was still a long time before she could accept help. When even staring death in the face isn't enough to convince you that maybe you should have a sandwich, it's pretty hard to argue that you don't have a "real" illness.
"That's close enough, right? I don't really have to chew it, right?"
And fixing it can be even harder, because unlike drugs or alcohol, food isn't something you can abstain from entirely. That's kind of the opposite of what you're going for, but it's tricky, because you also don't want to eat too much and be tempted to binge. It's a delicate balance. So, just like an alcoholic who can't be around booze, food-related celebrations like Thanksgiving can be a landmine for recovered eating disorder sufferers, and any stressful event can be a potential trigger for the desire to regain that control through food. Christine says the biggest trigger for her was just the act of coming home after class, because that's when she would usually start bingeing. Home is a pretty hard place to avoid, what with living there and all, so she signed up for trips to study abroad. That's right -- she literally left the country so she wouldn't be tempted to binge.
"Everything's boiled and bland here? Sold!"
And, where a movie would portray the healing process as the protagonist checking into a clinic and then learning to love herself over the course of three scenes and a montage, fixing this sort of thing in real life is much, much messier. Ask any addict -- bodies are stubborn things, and even good change will be met with resistance, in the "French resistance" sense of the word. In this case, the protesters line up all along the road from your stomach to your asshole, firing their muskets and generally fucking shit up, pretty literally. Sara's body reacted to the six meals a day she was forced to eat in recovery by deciding pretty illogically that she didn't need to poop anymore and threw in some cramping and bloating for fun. You can't exactly ask for a laxative, either, because that's kind of what got you into this situation.
See? Still pooping, even after all these entries.
Even once you get past those short-term effects, your metabolism is a mess. All the starving and bingeing and purging has thrown it into permanent emergency mode, making you way more prone to weight gain than you ever were before, because life is full of cruel ironies. After receiving treatment, Christine started eating around 1,600 calories a day and exercising for 30 to 60 minutes every day. That sounds like a pretty healthy lifestyle, one that would probably result in weight loss for most of our lazy asses, yet she actually gained 15 to 20 pounds. And while none of us like to put on weight, imagine what a trigger that is for someone who spent years obsessing about every ounce.
Now, look around you and notice how much of our everyday culture is food-based. We eat to celebrate holidays, we date by going to dinner, we have job interviews over lunch -- everything revolves around food, and every mention of it is a chance to relapse. And none of this is made any easier by people rolling their eyes and saying (or posting in comments) things like, "Eating disorder?!?! I can show you people in Africa who know what real starvation looks like! Just eat a damned sandwich!"
Manna just wants everyone to stop body-shaming each other and also to follow her on Twitter.
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