I have anorexia. I used to be so afraid of saying those words. I still am. But what I am even more afraid of is what will happen if eating disorders stay in this category of mental illnesses that are too taboo to talk about. This silence is what shames sufferers and keeps them sick. It keeps them from getting the life-saving help and support I have been so fortunate to receive. So here I am, picking my battles, and saying the words. I have anorexia.
I am not writing this column for sympathy or attention. No, not at all. I am writing this column because this week, Feb. 23 through March 1, is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. The theme of the week sponsored by the National Eating Disorders Association is “I Had No Idea.” Quite fitting, I must say.
I had no idea my need for perfection and to impress would eventually lead to me trying to contort my body into the thinnest possible form.
I had no idea that by trying to selectively numb my unpleasant emotions by restricting my food intake and over-exercising, I would completely lose touch with the pleasant ones.
I had no idea that keeping silent would force me to get so lost in my illness I would have to spend two months in University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, missing the excitement of the last weeks on campus before winter break, eating a hot dog on a psychiatric inpatient unit with other patients for Christmas dinner instead of enjoying it at home with my family, and having to explain to my professors I would miss the first several classes of my final semester of college.
I am sure many had no idea that their bubbly RA, enthusiastic tour guide, and overly-prepared classmate was suffering.
I am sure many have no idea nearly 30 million people in the United States struggle with an eating disorder.
I am sure many people have no idea anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. I spent a long time not believing this, thinking it was an over-exaggeration. Then a dear, sassy friend, Cathy, that I spent a month in the hospital with, lost her courageous battle with her eating disorder on Feb. 17.
And I am sure many people have no idea that it is okay to not be okay. And it is okay to talk about it.
Eating disorders are not first world problems. They are not evidence of shallowness or of someone dying for attention. They are not an indication of one’s past, have nothing to do with how intelligent someone may or may not be, and have little to do with appearance.
Anyone can suffer from the self-hatred and self-destructive behaviors that are all symptoms of eating disorders whether it is anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or an eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS).
People with eating disorders do not deserve to be treated differently. Eating disorders are legitimate and need to be recognized as so. These illnesses are not jokes or insults. Those suffering deserve attention and the chance to speak out without stigma.
If you are struggling with disordered eating or negative body image, don’t be afraid. If you had the flu, you would go to the doctor, get some medicine, and do whatever you needed to do to heal. So tell someone.
Own your story. Tell your story. Because it is yours. If we do not share our stories out loud, all we will do is suffer in silence.
To learn more about and support awareness of eating disorders, visit http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org or contact the St. Ambrose Counseling Center at (563)333-6423. Walk-ins are welcome at the counseling center on Friday, Feb. 28 from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.