I had a friend, a close friend, who once told me that it was worse for her than her sister that the latter had an eating disorder. I found this a hard thing to get my head around:
Worse for the non-anorexic one?
But then I thought about it. I pictured one of my own sisters playing with her food, compressing it into smaller piles on her plate so as to hide her lack of eating. Then I pictured her throwing up in secret, cleaning the toilet bowl to maintain the clandestine nature of her lifestyle. Then, finally, I pictured her screaming at me and my parents that she hated us; that she wished we would stop torturing her by trying to keep her alive.
It’s not a pleasant picture, that’s for damn sure.
However, there is a naive preconception that eating disorders – such as anorexia and bulimia – are choices made by young women in the vain pursuit of validation. We are all bombarded daily by images of what men and women “should” look like and how only a certain body type will make you famous, successful or loved; so it’s easy to see how we’d all assume eating disorders are just about trying to look like a magazine cover. But so much more is going on. Unless you have been in the presence of an anorexic individual you cannot preempt the level of self-conditioning that has shaken all recognisable signs of personality out of them. If you were to spend time with both the anorexic and their family you would find yourself co-inhabiting an air slicked with tension (don’t even get me started on the mood at Friday night dinners). I speak from personal experience but remain solely an observer, affected at the fringes of a battlefield that no one can survive unscathed, just like so many of us are.
It is worth reinforcing that, as an illness, anorexia is not bound by gender and can levy its sadistic gaze upon any who stray under the ‘low self-esteem’ geographic of a psychologist’s notebook. It seems to me that rather than being a search for a personal sense of physical attraction it is an exertion of control: the lifestyle is an assurance of one’s power over oneself. If I were to choose not to eat at the dinner table, I would also pick at my food and compress it to make it look smaller; if I were to be sick while under strict, close-contact supervision I’d secretly vomit into a bottle hidden up my sleeve.
My point: if there is a will, there is most certainly a way to utterly control your own self-destruction.
All I can offer as a thesis on eating disorders is what I know as an audience member to someone destroying themselves. You can see the conflict in the eyes of an anorexic person while their actions are absolute in their conviction. I think the main problem for anyone suffering with the condition is the depth of their emotional intelligence, as a weightless sense of anguish can be a driving force towards this brutal mode of self-discipline and control. They still know in the darkened sea of their minds that what they’re doing isn’t right; that it’s damaging to them and those around them, but that sea is deep and full of monsters. Drastic action is required if a defence is to be mounted.
What is there to be learned from or done about individuals with these conditions? Short of wrestling them into submission and inducing a state of wellness, at least if only for a brief time, there isn’t much else we can do other than withholding our judgements as best we can. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the easiest task if even their own sibling can only harbour contempt in lieu of nurturing love. But, ultimately, without an environment of understanding and strength, a sufferer of an eating disorder can have all the outside help they need yet come to no avail. It is certainly what’s on the inside that counts most.
When it comes to anorexics, their friends and in particular their families, there tends to be a disconnect with reality. This disconnect tends to be self-enforced i.e. nobody wants to acknowledge what’s actually happening. The anorexia sufferer wants to be left alone and their loved ones don’t want to believe that the person they care for is destroying themselves. It’s a vicious circle, really, that’s akin to watching the Titanic hitting its iceberg in slow motion. But here’s the question: should I or anyone else feel bad talking about it?
Because if we don’t talk about it the eating disorders win, and the person you love loses. When it’s happening there, right in front of you, you should not and cannot act normal about it. Use your words to remove the stigma and help save as many lives as you can. Yeah, that’d be a great start.
By Christopher Irvine