seriousness of eating disorders

Why “down-talking” the seriousness of eating disorders doesn’t help recovery 5


seriousness of eating disorders

“There, there, it will all be okay,” are exactly the words your ED wants you to hear.

When one tells a person with an ED to recover when they are ready, one mulcts them of time spent ED free.

I had this fantastically enlightening email conversation with a reader today. Let’s call her Jennifer. We were going back and forth over some questions about recovery that she had for me. She is an adult sufferer and had come to a point in her recovery path where she realised that her ED—while mostly manageable and camouflaged to the onlooker—was still hugely in control of her life.

That’s a story I know all too well.

Anyhow, what really stood out to me was when she wrote me this:

Hi Tabitha,

I read your email and then abruptly “marked as unread,” telling myself I’d come back to it.  Your words scared me. Because you were talking to ME, not my ED. And there is something about an ED that seeks out and clings to any kind of enabling or affirming words (The “Recover YOUR way in YOUR time” brand of support that I don’t think really moves a person to action.)

I like this girl a lot already—that’s an incredibly perceptive response, don’t you think?

She understands that there are words her ED wants her to hear.

She understands that her ED doesn’t want her to take action now.

She understands that her ED prefers it when people tell her “There, there, it will all be okay … “.

I don’t mince my words. And I certainly don’t pussyfoot around ED stuff. What prompted that email from Jennifer was what I wrote to her last week:

… This is very real. No shit your eating disorder can ruin your life, your relationships, and your body. I am happy that you are scared as it is this fear that his going to help you do this. I lost ten years to Anorexia. I lost ten years of knowing people. I lost ten years of my family and friends. I lost ten years of laughter, happiness, emotion. The thing that is most important is that I only lost ten years—not 12, or 15, or 20, or more. 

You know, you want to be able to take a family vacation without obsessing in your head so much about what you are going to eat that you miss out on all the conversations and being present with your husband and little girl. You want to be able to go over to friends house’s for BBQs and actually be present and listen to them rather than being fraught with anxiety about what might be served. These things are the things that add color to life, and I cannot tell you how much richer my life has been since the obsession and thoughts stopped. 

No shit your eating disorder can ruin your life. No shit your eating disorder can kill you.

I don’t think that there is enough of this in the ED world. I hear so much of the “Recover when you feel ready,” and “take it at your own pace,” and it infuriates me because it belittles what an ED can do to a person—speaking down to EDs is another form of making them sound like inconsequential character flaws that aren’t all that important.

An ED is not to be treated like a work-in-progress personal-improvement plan such as trying to get better at speaking in public or trying to be better at getting rid of wardrobe clutter.

I understand that people like to be comforting, but there is a time and a place for everything. Anyone who is suffering from an eating disorder needs a very realistic understanding of what they are dealing with. If they don’t have this they cannot recover. If you want to be kind, don’t tell an ED sufferer that it will all be okay and they can recover when they are good and ready. The longer a person has an ED the harder it is to reach full recovery—so be kind by pushing them to do it now. This is serious shit!

Here is how I went on to explain that to Jennifer:

… I think that mollycoddling an ED in the way that we speak about them is very common, but I think that this is also very dangerous. It shows the extent to which people do not understand how deadly EDs are. 

For example, it would not be okay for a Dr or anyone else to say to someone diagnosed with cancer “It’s okay, take your time and recover when you are ready.”

Basically, talking down to EDs is one of the things that enables them. That’s why I will tell you the scary truth: you will only ever live a half life unless you abolish your ED. And that is the best case scenario. Worst case is that it will kill you. 

I’ve had those conversations too. Mostly with my parents, as I was at my worst pre-hubby. But I’ve had them with him also in relapses. Him telling me that he was not attracted to my thin body was GREAT for me. Yeah it hurt at the time, but it motivated me to fight harder. 

I’d love to hear your own thoughts and feelings on this one.

Have you any experience of your ED or your child’s ED being talked down to by a treatment provider?

Do you think this type of ED lessens the sense of urgency and necessity of treatment?

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About Tabitha Farrar

I work as Head of Marketing for a software startup in Boulder. As a recovered Anorexia sufferer, I advocate for proper understanding of eating disorders in my spare time. On that note, I wrote a book about my own journey into eating again called Love Fat.

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5 thoughts on “Why “down-talking” the seriousness of eating disorders doesn’t help recovery

  • Rachael

    Hi Tabitha,
    Your comments are very true. EDs are not to be messed with. They require urgent treatment sooner rather than later. I wish I had not spent 9 years as a young recently married woman trapped by anorexia. But despite efforts of those around me, I refused to get help. That is one very powerful aspect of the illness. Anorexia is always in denial. “There is nothing wrong with me” is the mentality of the sufferer. Deep down they may know or feel that they are unwell, but the illness refuses to allow acceptance of this.
    Due to the control that ED has over the mind, the best way to approach a sufferer is to drop little hints and plant seeds in their mind that there is a better way of life. One that is not governed by food restriction and strict exercise regimes. Loved ones have the ability to make an ED sufferer “see the light”. Health and happiness are not a reality if you have an ED. They prevent a person from living. There is existing, and there is living! ED is merely existing and it is definitely not a life. Sadly, many people give up the existence by giving up completely, that is if the illness does not kill them anyway. But loved ones can help a sufferer.
    If a person is loved, then there is hope. Keep hinting away and make the ED as uncomfortable as possible. Bake cakes and take it out for dinner! Show the sufferer that there is a better way to live and not to be afraid of it.
    Who cares if you decide to eat that piece of cheese or not go out running today? You will still be loved!
    Also, don’t let the lies and crap you see in the magazines and television fool you. Body image is not the only trigger for ED, but it does play a role. I always remind myself that models and actors must have the shittiest lives. Imagine living or, I should say, existing, just to stay looking a certain way so that you can do the work you love? Is it worth the money? I doubt it. When do they get to enjoy it? No wonder their relationships break down so often. Many celebrities must be under the control of ED. There is no possible way that they live full, happy and guilt free lives. If they are not working, they are working on their appearance to ensure they keep getting work. That can’t be enjoyable. Surely!
    Anyway, my main point is to anyone who knows and loves an ED sufferer, show them a better way and keep dropping those hints. Be direct but never give up and don’t back down. Be tough. It will get through. If you are a parents of teenagers, drag them to the therapist. To husbands, wives and friends of ED sufferers, drag them out for dinner!

  • Adult anon

    This response is very honest and right. Of course it is. However, it’s not as easy as comparing it to cancer and I actually find myself surprised I’m saying this after a frosty conversation comparing my adult ED to cancer with my mum, especially as I lost my dad to cancer. Yes, it’s deadly and needs treatment. Yes, it should be treated with that sense of urgency and insight. But because it’s mental as well as physiological, it’s doing it at the time it will hit the target of acknowledgement with the best shot. For me, my husband had to keep telling me I looked like a concentration camp prisoner to know I needed help snd to accept it. He refused physical contact and I became weak. A mixture of factors meant I faced a time I had to reach out, like being threatened with day service at the ED unit. I suppose it’s the constant pressure to keep that loved one knowing it’s not right, not acceptable, aware of the dangers and some realistic consequences/ threats thrown in to majestic them truly see if they are going yo face up to things. This might be sooner than later rejected or, like he, take a while till the penny dropped and really dropped.

  • Kay

    I’m devastated that this thing is going to kill me. Anorexia (with bulimia) has slowly eaten me alive for a little more than 20 years & I can not live with it any longer. I’m more motivated to change than I’ve ever been; I wish I could eat, nourish myself, participate in life, recover/rebuild my personality & be holistically healthy. But wishing does not translate into action. I cannot manage to make the changes & in fact being in treatment (for about eight months) has magnified and thus compounded the problem. When I’m being asked what I want to eat as swell as where when and how I’m trying to scream PLEASE TAKE CONTROL for me PLEASE DONT GIVE ME A CHOICE as the eating disorder intercepts my choices and imposes starvation.

    This week I have to decide whether to continue treatment and thus come up with my next step or to simply switch to health monitoring while I do “my own” thing. I don’t think this is a real choice as my ed won’t allow me to take the healthy step & I’m extremely isolated due to the chronicity of the problem so there really is no one to step in and provide that external pressure. Heartbreaking though it is I’ve had to accept that my only real hope is for the rest of my journey to be short. I do, however, hope that you and your contemporaries succeed in radically transforming the nature of and attitudes regarding treatment for future generations. I also hope that something my experience can impart even a tiny piece of information to help effect that change. At least then it won’t have been entirely in vain.

    Thank you for creating your blog, it provides geaat comfort. Please keep agitating for change.

    • Tabitha Farrar Post author

      You are right, your ED will not make the right choice as far as you health is concerned.

      You are wrong in thinking that you have to obey your ED. Continue treatment. That is your only option and it is not a question that you should be consulting with ED on. Whatever ED wants you to do you have to do the opposite. You CAN recover!

    • Helen

      Kay, you know deep down what the right thing to do is and so don’t let the ED win at this. You know that being left ‘to do your own thing’ will just lead you straight back to hospital care in no time at all and a crisis situation.
      Take the help you have now and can you discuss with your treatment providers the nature of the treatment you are receiving – stay in treatment for longer but try to find ways with your treatment team of making that care provided work for you this time. We have to believe that it is never too late to recover and I believe as Tabitha says you CAN recover!