Friday, 1 May 2009

OverRated: Dealing with Eating Disorders

"I'm a fully grown women. I have two children, I have a job, I'm studying. I'm a sensible person so why do I do this when nobody is around? And Im so terribly ashamed of it, so ashamed of it."

On BBC1 this week and currently available on iPlayer was the programme Desperately Hungry Housewives. The story of several women and their eating disorders which showed up when they were adults rather than teenagers.

Two in every 100 women are bulimic but there are not the same support networks as for anorexics because they are not going to starve themselves to death. The sight of the speaker above Dettoxing the walls and floor of her bathroom in case she should leave any sign of her affliction for her children to find and her shame in so doing was very upsetting.

The woman who recounted her struggle with anorexia, which developed whilst she was pregnant with her second child was also very distressing, as were the accompanying pictures. Her terror that she might have affected her child through her actions but was totally unable to control was heartbreaking. But, even though he was born and grew up perfectly healthily, she still felt the need to starve herself, snacking on a single cashew nut. Through cognitive therapy, this woman seemed to be recovering but it was still clearly touch and go, judging from the charts she was keeping of her BMI, which put her dangerously close to anorexia again.

The third subject used bulimic methods to further her anorexia and her children had all gone to boarding school because she had been unable to look after them when she weighed so little. Her doctor saw her regularly and had threatened to take away her driving licence if she went below a certain weight. Her reaction to the news that she had put on a few pounds was very familiar as was watching her feeding everyone but herself or 'binge' on a some snacks before disappearing off to get rid of them.

In most of these cases, their husbands were oblivious to the problem for many years. This is part of the problem. The secrecy. The deceit. And the fact that it is often allowed to continue "unnoticed" when the spouse does know because it is too difficult to have a confrontation on the subject.

I know from my own experience that, if my husband did suspect, he ignored it rather than have to deal with it because he just didn't know how. He couldn't link my emotional unhappiness with this physical manifestation. He would cook me food but he was unable to empathise with my inability to eat much of it. It was totally beyond his comprehension to equate an unconscious decision to starve myself with a lack of affection.

But, also, family and friends. If they did question me about my decreasing size, I fobbed them off with some tale of how I was eating but working out a lot or that I'd had a stomach upset or some such. People are scared to push the matter for fear of making it worse.

From the stories showcased, it is clear that anorexia is often not about body image per se but about control in the face of difficult emotional times. Control is the key word. But it's about self-control too. Almost a cry for help. A plea that the people closest to you will notice and give you some attention, perhaps?

Treatment is difficult. Forcing people to eat is not really the way to do it because all these women equate full with fat.

For me, it was someone separate from my family taking the time and showing the care to stay on the phone whilst I ate some soup. The first day, it took almost two hours to finish the cup but he stayed on the line until it was gone. The second day was almost as long. The third day, I managed a piece of bread as well. It was the first step on a long road back to understanding the reasons why I did this thing.

Acknowledging and addressing the causes through talking about it openly on this blog was also hugely important. And then an even harder path to try to resolve those causes which, five years on, I am just putting into practice. It is a very frightening thing because, suppose I'm wrong and the actions that I'm taking now prove to be incorrect and I fixated my complete recovery on a fallacy? Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to take that first step and hope that it turns out to be upwards rather than downhill again.

It was a difficult programme to watch, even for a recovering anorexic like myself, because in the cold light of day, it seems such a stupid thing to do. Whether it be not eating all day and then stuffing yourself with a whole packet of Frosties and another of biscuits, washed down with lots of liquid 'because it's easier to throw it up when it's wet. When it's dry, it can get stuck.' Or just not eating at all and trying to pretend that everything is ok, even when you look like one of the survivors of a concentration camp in the Second World War.

I just wonder why it is that we start doing it in the first place? Is it a twisted gene that makes some susceptible? Or some misplaced synapse within the brain?


It is a wasteful and thoroughly horrible thing and I'm sure there were lots of people shouting 'Just eat something' at the television.

Eating disorders that require starvation or purging are just beyond the comprehension of most normal individuals.



Loving Annie said...

You really DO have to be in someone else's shoes to completely understand... Empathy matters. It hard to get where anyone gets when they are acting out in pain - and takes discipline and ongoing courage and a willingness to heal no matter what in order to recover...

justme said...

It IS something that is hard to understand if you don't suffer from it. I didn't see the programme (when do I ever!) but it sounds as though it was well done.
I agree with Loving Annie. Empathy matters.
Your blog has been an excellent way for you to come to terms with and control your 'condition', but it has also been great for helping people who don't have the same problems, (although do have other ones!), understand what it is like for you. You are brave and strong and honest with yourself. You will be ok.

TROLL Y2K said...

Really well-written. I didn't know or had forgotten that these ailments came in adult-onset versions.

having my cake said...

Annie - Empathy is crucial, but so is honesty. You cannot blame someone else for the illness. You have to step up and recognise what it is within you that makes you behave in this way.

justme - Ruf says it is a 'mal-adaptive coping strategy'. His knowledge of psychology has been instrumental in helping me to unlock some of this.

Troll - Thank you. I didn't realise that it could hit in later life when a person is supposed to be capable of coping in a more rational way.

Lady in red said...

I did see the program and it made me think of my friend when I was in my late teens. we planned to share a flat but my parents forbade me because they thought it would be too much responsibility for me(she was 22 I was 19).

I do have days, sometimes several consecutive ones where I don't eat all day. The longer I go without eating the easier it becomes not to eat then I scare myself that I could tip over the edge. Then when I make myself eat I can't stop. I have never made myself sick though but I am very conscious of how easy it would be to go down that route.

I don't know how it feels to have an eating disorder but I do understand how easy it is to start and how difficult to stop. I am sure I heard yrs ago that Jane had died in her 20s which makes me so sad she was such a bright young woman.