Someone once told me that after you’ve been to AA drinking loses its charm; it is never fun again. And that’s how I feel about eating disorders. Once you’ve had one, you never really enjoy food like before. You don’t approach a slab of pizza in a giddy, guilt-free way; you get angry at yourself for inhaling that second packet of crisps. Slathering everything in cheese feels like a cardinal sin. Yes, once you’ve suffered from an eating disorder you are expelled from the Fridge of Eden.
Lately I’ve had a few friends come to me about their weight issues and eating disorders. I’m not a nutritionist, and I cannot help them eat food in an unbridled way. What I can, and do, do is listen and offer advice – as I’ve been there myself. I thought I’d write this so that others, who don’t suffer from an eating disorder personally but know someone who has/does, can gain insight into how it feels, or rather how it makes them, the sufferer, feel. Working off the stereotype we are to believe that eating disorders only impact girls/woman – that’s a myth I want to slam down right now. Guys can and do suffer from them too; especially within the gay community. Body dysmorphia is rife amongst gay men and it’s caused by the same thing that affects women: An unachievable beauty standard that damages yourself esteem. Straight men suffer from them too, perhaps in an even worse way as society deems such things inherently feminine and thus shameful for ‘straight guys’ to have.
When you have body dysmorphia it is literally as though someone has put a pair of glasses on you that make you see your reflection in a totally unrealistic way. You know those mirrors you get in fun houses? The ones that balloon your waist line and stomach? Well, it’s not unlike that. You approach each meal with caution and no matter what you eat, you feel terrible about yourself after. Meal times become as as fun as going to vegan dinner party when you were promised steak; it’s the equivalent of being handed a non-alcoholic beer at a party. No matter how little or what you eat, you feel disgusting, your reflection isn’t unlike that of a repugnant warthog. And no matter how many times you are told you are a slip of a thing all you see gawking back at you is this creature shaped like a gummy bear.
Eating disorders are insidious creatures. When my bulimia first appeared, it did so under the guise of ‘healthy eating.’ It started with switching crisps for fruit, to having slightly smaller portions of food. It turned my takeaways into chicken salads and done away with a healthy eating schedule. Up until this point I maintained a child-like perspective of using scales – that weighing yourself was something you only did when you went for a check-up at the doctors. Before I knew it I was weighing myself four times a day; celebrating when a I dropped 2lbs in an afternoon, then trying not to breathe in case they got added back on. I started using kitchen scales to weigh out my branflakes in the morning and only eating one meal a day – if I went over 1000 calories a day I’d slump into a great depression and hate myself. Starving myself only worked for so long though, because your body does start to shut down. I fainted a couple of times at work, had zero body strength or energy. Eventually I discovered new ways of keeping the weight off; ones that allowed me to eat what I wanted. I’d read forums online about girls that made themselves sick after they’d ate, and how skinny they were. Pretty soon I started mimicking this behaviour with the gusto and enthusiasm of the classroom dork trying to get in with the popular kids.
Forcing myself to vomit didn’t really pan out for me though. I have a fear of being sick, but I felt as though I would go mad if I didn’t set myself boundaries. Like that guy that drank the ocean, I still wouldn’t be satisfied. I needed to be in control. So, my diet become a whirlwind of drunken takeout and unhealthy sugars inhaled at 2am after a night out – when I was drunk was the only time I didn’t feel guilty about eating. I’d waddle back to my room and collapse in a boozy heap on top of my bed and pass out. When I finally came too I’d roll about my bed like a flu-y baby, rubbing my swollen belly and cradling myself, aching mentally and psychically. I understood the binging part of bulimia perfectly; it was just the vomiting I couldn’t get down with. I did manage to make myself sick a few times, ramming my fingers down my throat until my face faded into an oxygen-deprived purple colour, but most of the time all I could summon were some half-assed dry heaves and a few chunks of regurgitated apple – remnants of a more promising time. One morning, having successfully thrown up my breakfast, my gran noticed something was wrong. There was a constellation of broken capillaries around my eyes from the vomiting, and the excuse of ‘I was crying’ didn’t fly. After that day she developed a vague awareness of my weight and proceeded to bring round rolls and square sausage for me most mornings. At the time she lived around the corner, so when I’d see her eagerly march towards our house in the crisp 8am morning light, armed with two rolls and determination, I’d recoil in terror, like someone on death row watching his executioner approach his cell. She’d arrive and watch as I ate them, saying nothing, and would then go about getting my sisters ready for school.
After months of yo-yo dieting and earning the mantle of the world’s worst bulimic, things exploded. My eating disorder was a by-product of my depression, and after a suicide attempt it slowly started to fade. Upon being discharged from hospital my mum and dad drove up to one of those mobile kitchen vans – the ones that promised E. coli with every roll you ordered. They asked me what I wanted, but made it abundantly clear that I didn’t have a choice, I was going to eat something. I looked at my shoes for a moment: “Can I get a fried egg roll?” My mother acknowledged my request. “In fact, can you make it two?”
The sympathy I’ve seen given to friends with eating disorders really sickens me. They are made to feel like they are attention seeking or being dramatic, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. If you’re going to support your friend you need to have a clear understanding of the negative impacts eating disorders have on people’s lives and you need to learn what is and isn’t okay to say. First of all, you never tell them they are being ridiculous. Eating disorders are a mental illness – and the key word there is illness. You wouldn’t tell someone in a wheel chair to stop being lazy and to get up and walk, so don’t tell someone with a disorder to ‘just eat.’
Secondly, when you’re out with them, perhaps on a night out, you make no comment AT ALL about what they eat. 3am can become an orgy of kebabs, chips and cheese and fizzy drinks, but that doesn’t mean that the person is over it. They haven’t miraculously been cured by Raj’s donner meat; that questionable looking pizza hasn’t banished their disorder to the greasy realms from which it came. They are perhaps on a binge. What you can do is make sure they eat something healthy the next day; actively encourage them to do so, because trust me, they will be hating themselves. I’d also beg you to not shy away from bringing up the issue. Ask them how they are feeling, how is the diet going. There’s so much shaming of mental illnesses; we need to conquer that stigma by addressing the issues head on. If your friend was limping you’d ask what was wrong; this isn’t any different.
Finally: Never ask ‘is that all you’re having?’ Chances are it’s taken that person a lot to even eat that. Work around it, find another way to showcase your concern in a way that isn’t so shaming for your friend. Ask them what they are doing to make themselves feel better, ask about the gym, or what you can do to support them. Encourage them to eat, but not in a forceful way.
Having an eating disorder is the most secret and humiliating thing I’ve ever had to endure. I still do suffer from it; it is a weekly battle, limping from one meal to the next. It is the same for your friends; their disorder never truly go away. I still calorie count, it’s a subconscious thing that just happens. My eyes automatically dart to the fat content of anything I’m eating, but I work around it. Encourage your friends to talk about it, and tell you what they are worried about. Sure, it will be frustrating for you at times because altering the mindset of someone who is devout in their belief they should be carted around on a silver tray like a fatty piece of pork is very difficult – I know my friends struggle when I moan about how fat I am. Most importantly though don’t be a dick to your friends or tell them to get over it – we already know how ridiculous we sound, but that doesn’t silence the whispers we hear in our head or make them any less convincing.