How can I speak out about eating disorders?

I discovered firsthand how anorexia can creep up on you. Now I want to warn others

Published May 5, 2011 1:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My weight was never an issue -- I ate what I wanted, when I wanted. I enjoyed chicken wings at birthday parties and indulged in ice cream every night before I went to bed. So when I was diagnosed with anorexia my senior year of high school, everyone, including myself, was caught off guard.

Junior year I decided I wanted to lose five or 10 pounds before prom. I began making "healthier" food choices, or so I thought. I cut my portion sizes by more than half, eliminated almost all fats from my diet and bought a membership to my local gym. My parents were proud of my decision to work toward a fitter lifestyle. However, at my physical examination in August 2009, their attitudes changed. I had lost over 25 pounds in less than two months and I was at risk of being hospitalized.

After that day, my whole life changed. Each week I was required to see a nutritionist and a therapist, both of whom aided me in realizing the severity of my illness. Though anorexia nervosa is commonly thought of as a physical disorder, the psychological issues are what drives a person with the illness to fear weight gain and possess a distorted self-image. Unfortunately, I suffered tremendously from this aspect of the illness and it took me a very long time to realize how I was actually abusing myself.

Now, almost two years later, I am finishing my freshman year of college. I continue to visit a doctor and receive therapy each week in order to monitor my weight.

As a result of my eating disorder, I have acquired a more realistic outlook on life and a greater appreciation for myself and my peers. I strive to search for the beauty in each day and I am currently working to ignore the small things and to focus on the bigger problems I face. Despite my optimism, my peers are not always as hopeful. They are not aware of my past, making it difficult for me to stay focused on recovering. I find that most 18-year-old girls are more concerned with what is on the outside rather than what is on the inside, and it really hurts me to hear others talk about themselves negatively.

It took an eating disorder to make me realize my value, but that is not a healthy way to come to a realization and I would never wish this illness upon anyone else. I want my friends to appreciate themselves for who they are and all the positive things they have to offer, but I know this is a lot to ask.

Honestly, I am at a standstill. I want to use the knowledge I have gained from my past to help better the future of others, yet I do not know how to do so. In what way should I deal with situations about body image and food? What could I say that could make others realize it does not matter what the number is on the scale, as long as you are happy? How do I put an end to all this "fat talk"?

Downhearted Optimist

Dear Downhearted Optimist,

You survived a life-threatening illness. Having survived, you look around and see signs of that same illness among your peers. You know firsthand what it can do, and you would like to prevent others from going through it. You also learned something -- you learned that our attitudes about food and our own bodies play a role in the disease. Those attitudes are affected by media and by family and peer groups. So you would like to change people's attitudes in order to save lives. That makes sense.

You could do some good by speaking out in public about your experiences.

You may find opportunities at your college, or through a national organization such as NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association. Your story is a positive one, and you express yourself well. You could help people that way. You can also talk to friends about it.

When you talk to your friends or the people in your dorm about such important and sensitive issues, you must be ready for resistance. Your motives may be misunderstood, and people may be afraid to hear what you have to say. They may think it's not a problem that can affect them, or that you are wrongly accusing them. They may not be ready to hear what you have to say.

Being ready to hear it, as you found for yourself, takes time. Even those of us with serious diseases and personality disorders resist knowing the true extent of our disease. I found this out firsthand when diagnosed with a sacral chordoma, a very rare cancer. Even though I was a good researcher, when it came to this topic, I was blocked. The force of this block surprised me. I was not even aware that I was in denial. I went into a kind of mental fog. Afterward, looking back, I was shocked at the power of my own will not to know.

So I fully understand how people who may have an inkling that they have a disease will resist learning more.

On the other hand, we can never know when someone who is worried about something may be listening intently and making silent choices to do something about it. This happens sometimes when we are talking about addiction or alcoholism. Sometimes a person who is concerned he might have a problem will be helped by what we way without our knowledge. So it is good and important to talk about these things. I'm just suggesting that you be strong and prepare for resistance and conflict. Certain people you think are on your side may turn against you. They may not want to hear it.

Food and body image are threatening issues. In certain cases, a personal connection may actually be very helpful. So do talk about these issues with friends and people close to you. Just prepare for resistance. And also seek out audiences that actually want to hear your message. There may be church groups or political groups who would like to hear from you.

Have you considered writing a book or pamphlet about your experiences, and making it available online? How about starting a blog?

Good luck, and congratulations on facing this deadly and terrifying disease.

Creative Getaway

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By Cary Tennis

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