As Thursday afternoon approaches, I can feel my heart clenching tighter and tighter. I sit in my office--working busily on the computer--and can feel the perspiration on my hands getting more and more intense. I slowly close down my computer, get off my aerobic ball on which I'm bouncing, balancing, and eating my string cheese, and head out of my office. I make my way through a maze of hallways and doors and enter a small and vacant room. There is a small circle of chairs, and I take my place. Group therapy is about to begin.
"Hello, my name is Lee and I have an eating disorder. This has been a particularly stressful week, and so my relationship with food hasn't gone so well. On a scale of 1-10, my vulnerability level is at an 8 today." This is how our anonymous group therapy sessions tend to begin. We gather together once a week to talk about how our struggle with food is going, and to give each other support. My particular eating disorder is known as BED: Binge Eating Disorder. Now, I'm sure several of you will be wondering if that is really a disorder. Surely everyone binges from time to time. And you're right; most people binge several times a year--Thanksgiving for instance. But--like all eating disorders--BED has its own narrow set of symptoms, struggles, causes, and ramifications.
Addictions and problems with food are unlike most other addictions. When recovering from alcoholism, one must completely avoid alcohol. When trying to stop smoking or casual prescription drug use/dependency, ultimately the goal is to stop the usage all together. This is not the case with food, for we must eat in order to live. The struggle with any eating disorder or food addiction is in redefining our relationship with food, and learning new ways to cope with the stress and struggles that food had previously alleviated.
I have come to learn that our relationship with food, our eating disorders, body image, and self worth are intrinsically linked. When we have a problem with one, we tend to have a problem with all of of them. Isn't that sad? The frustrating part is that we know logically that it's not true. Our feelings--our inner core values-- are unmercifully undeterred by our logical acceptance to the flawed manner of thinking.
Allow me to share with you a Dear Ottis letter that I received. I confess that responding to this letter has been exceptionally difficult for me. Seeing as how I myself struggle with an eating disorder, I didn't know how best to approach it. In the end, I realized that sharing my story, my struggles, and my thoughts would be the most helpful. Here is the letter:
I have a really good friend who is a returned missionary and super cute and great and goes on about 3 dates a week on average. She is SUPER skinny and she just told me she has an eating disorder which is why she is so skinny. She showed me pictures of what she used to look like before her eating disorder when she was 30lbs heavier and she looked normal and still super cute. She said that before, when she was her old weight there was a guy who told her she could "tone-up" if she wanted to date more. Well it turns out, it worked. She is now 100lbs and gets asked out all the time. I don't get it! The thing that bugs me the most is that you KNOW if these guys knew she had an eating disorder they would immediately be turned off by it. They want a girl that's naturally skinny like that but it's NOT NATURAL! I feel like guys always go after this "ideal body type" without realizing what it costs a girl to get it! What guys are teaching us is that if we want to date them, we need to go to extreme measure to get their attention. The guys that are dating her aren't those self-centered, egotistical guys either, they're good guys who seem like they're down to earth and are doing the right things. How do I compete!? I love to work out and work out daily, I eat extremely healthy and I weigh 130lbs. Apparently some guys would say if I want more dates I need to "tone up." I hate that my friend can see a direct correlation between when she was heavier and now and how her dating life has become WAY more active just from that one change. It encourages her behavior. She doesn't see a need to stop because she likes that she goes on so many dates and she doesn't want to lose that and she feels like if she gains her weight back, she'll stop going on as many dates. Is there a solution to this twisted problem?
Help Me Ottis,
Healthy Yet Single
As I read this letter my heart sank. I truly believe that it shows this relationship between food, value of self, and body image. Unfortunately, in our society there are so many external factors. We are taught from a very young age that the more beautiful you are--the thinner you are--the more successful you are as a human being. While this issue is very prominent with women, please don't make the mistake of thinking that it is completely confined to the female population. It is surely not. Men today are more concerned than ever about their physical appearance. I mean, if you think guys are hard on girls about looks, then try experiencing how gay men treat each other based on looks. It's no walk in the park. Attaining what society says is "the ideal body" is the goal of so many people today, both old and young. We all want to be beautiful.
As I sit in my own group therapy sessions and take the time to reflect on my own reasons for struggling with food, I have come to many conclusions. We all seek out--crave even-- acceptance and connection with other people. It is what causes us to find friends, partners and spouses. Sometimes we feel like we have in some way damaged our ability to connect to people. This often manifests itself by means of body image. Eating disorders come in many different colors: starving, overeating, purging, laxatives, over exercising, malnutrition, and body dismorphia--or any combination thereof. All of these deal with some inability to feel connected to other people. Some people starve and over exercise in order to achieve the "ideal body" for increased attention and social desirability. Overeating and purging are often a coping mechanisms that comes from dealing with stress and traumatic episodes.
I remember one time in group therapy we were given mirrors and asked to look at ourselves for 2 minutes. We were then asked to write down everything that we saw. We each pointed out every flaw we could find. They were typically not related to reality. "I look tired. I look sad. My eyes are red from crying/exhaustion. My face isn't attractive. I have wrinkles. I have gray hair." These are some of the things that were said. After we all went through our list, the group leaders asked us to do the exercise again. This time they asked us to limit what we wrote to what is actually physically present. "I have two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, and hair." These were the obvious things that we saw, but were unable to really see them the first time. When we looked at our physical appearance we couldn't separate our own feelings and self perceptions with what what was physically present. Our sense of worth was tied to what we saw. Then the realization came: so many of our physical insecurities are really manifestations of emotional and mental distortions. These distortions are linked to core beliefs that are corrupted. Identifying the distorted core beliefs is the first step to changing them.
I want anyone reading this to know that whether dieting, working out, training for marathons or triathlons, trying to lose weight, or trying to gain muscle mass, the ultimate guide and goal needs to be health: having a healthy relationship with food, having a healthy body, having healthy goals and physical aspirations, and a healthy view of your own body. Any kind of extremism is unhealthy. Eating 4,000 calories in a meal is as extreme as a heavy 3 hour work out with only 700 calories in your system. Both are unhealthy and ultimately damaging.
I think that the writer in the Dear Ottis letter said it best. If those guys knew that their comments and actions caused an eating disorder, their interest level would drop dramatically. I think that most people will agree with me when I say that what is most attractive is someone who is healthy, confident, and comfortable in their own skin. Don't let media--or any external factor--cause you do have an inappropriate relationship with food or a damaging view of your own body. Seek to be healthy so that you can optimize your own happiness. Do it for you, and not for any other person. Consult a doctor to find out where your healthy range is and what your vitals should look like. It is different for each person. Then strive to be healthy for you, and not for what it will mean to other people.
For those of you interested in knowing more about BED the following might be helpful.
All of the following symptoms must be present:
-Each binge consists of eating, in a discrete period of time, an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances, and is accompanied by a feeling of loss of control.
-The binge eating occurs, on average, at least twice a week for 6 months.
-The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behavior.
-The person is seriously worried about the binge.
Also, an individual most have 3 or more of the following symptoms:
-Eats an unusually large amount of food at one time, far more than a regular person would eat.
-Eats much more quickly during binge episodes than during normal eating episodes.
-Eats until physically uncomfortable and nauseated due to the amount of food consumed.
-Eats when bored or depressed.
-Eats large amounts of food even when not really hungry.
-Often eats alone during periods of normal eating. owing to feelings of embarrassment about food.
-Feels disgusted, depressed, or guilty after binge eating.