Instead of continuing my internship at the National Institutes of Health this summer, I spent weeks attending post-meal therapy, waking up at 4 a.m. for blood pressure checks, and meeting women connected to me more deeply than I can articulate. I was in inpatient treatment for an eating disorder, which had been developing and worsening for the previous three and a half years. This coming week (Feb. 21-27) marks National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, and I can personally speak to its importance.
One of the most important facets of eating disorder awareness is an understanding of those who suffer. I’m a woman who is a) straight and b) white, and I enjoy all the privileges that come along with those traits – including studies that show a societal understanding that a “person like me” typically contracts this illness. But so many voices remain unheard. Eating disorders affect all races and all ethnicities – in fact, rates of eating disorders in minority cultures parallel those in white culture. Eating disorders afflict straight men, grandparents, those in the gay community, athletes, and young children. At the end of the day, as with any addiction, eating disorders exert a kind of force that can only be described as gravitational, pulling those genetically and psychologically susceptible into their orbit – with no regard for stereotypes.
Apart from being the deadliest of psychological illnesses, eating disorders are among the least understood. People blame “the media,” as though those suffering from eating disorders are no more than sponges, reflexively responding to the sight of thin actresses. They’re seen as extreme diets, which implies a level of triviality and choice that does not exist. But the causes are hardly as clear-cut as some psychology books or after-school public service announcements would have you believe. In truth, the causes for eating disorders are as varied as the sufferers they afflict. The commonly known reasons are as follows: low self-esteem, poor body-image, underlying depression and/or anxiety. But I have also met individuals who starved and binged and purged for altogether different reasons: as responses to the most extreme traumas and as methods of the most violent self-annihilation. I have met people who cannot even name a reason for why they did those things. “It just felt natural, it felt right,” they say.
It might seem like there’s nowhere to go from here – like it’s a dead end. But eschewing simplifications and embracing complexity doesn’t mean admitting defeat. In fact, it entails just the opposite. It involves the simplest and most difficult thing any person can do for another: to listen. Based on my personal experience and on the experiences friends have shared with me, by far the best thing a person can do is to avoid lectures about “the media” and reminders that “real women have curves” or pleas that “life is too short” for this kind of thing. Instead, allow them to talk, and allow yourself to listen. One of the deepest human desires is to be understood, to be known, and empathy and knowledge are the greatest tools for doing just that.
In her groundbreaking anorexia and bulimia memoir “Wasted,” Marya Hornbacher writes, “There is never a sudden revelation, a complete and tidy explanation for why it happened, or why it ends, or why or who you are.” It is a deeply human impulse to find a “why” for everything, a justification or a rationalization for its existence. But for outsiders reading this, I hope I have highlighted the incredible value of your simple, nonjudgmental presence. And for anyone who is suffering, I hope I can imbue in you a sense of hope, a feeling that your loved ones could begin to understand you, too.
GW’s University Counseling Center offers appointments addressing eating disorder concerns. For people with eating disorders, or for people who know someone with an eating disorder, many resources exist online. Renfrew.org provides information as well as treatment options, and something-fishy.org provides a treatment finder for locations across the United States and internationally.
The writer is a junior majoring in psychology.
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