THE HALF-LIVES OF EATING DISORDERS
April News from Aimee Liu
January 1, 1970I do believe there are many lucky souls who, with the help of excellent treatment and open, supportive, and generous families, spring from their eating disorders into thriving lives without harboring a trace of their old compulsive behaviors. But I also know from personal experience and observation – and from the more than one hundred letters I’ve received since my book Gaining was published last month – that most of us with histories of anorexia and bulimia graduate instead to what I now call the “half-life” of eating disorders. That is, we may quit starving, bingeing, and purging on food, but we still restrict and torment our appetites for food, love, sex, and comfort in other ways that make us suffer – and sometimes make our loved ones suffer. This is especially true when the eating disorder has gone untreated or, worse, unrecognized.
The “half-life” (a phrase with more than one meaning here!) may take many forms, and it may change over the years in response to shifting circumstances. To give you an idea what I mean, I’d like to share some of the stories I’ve received from readers who have given me permission to post their letters. Many come from people who were never diagnosed or treated, yet all have lived by the fundamental “code” of eating disorders: I must be perfect, and to be perfect I must make myself suffer.
"When you spoke of nail biting and anxiety and hiding behind a computer so you didn't have to speak to your husband, it was if I was looking in the mirror. My major conversations with my husband take place via email. I love the man to death and I know he loves me, but I am afraid to talk to him about things that bother me. My fear of his disapproval is so strong that I
can't fight through it. I want to have the perfect household, where everyone is content and happy. I stuff my anger and frustrations and eventually end up punishing myself for them."
"I'm 59 years old. I appear successful at a writing vocation, marriage and emotional health. I have accomplished a lot coming from the family I came from but anorexia has returned to nip at me. Eating disordered thinking with all the different behaviors had been a part of my life since my teens. I've never been hospitalized but I was in out-patient groups and spent years in therapy. I thought I was over it though I recognized how rules and believing in 'perfect' still dominated my life. I overcame so much to get where I am. My husband's health began to deteriorate several years ago which he has faced quite bravely and I also got breast cancer (which luckily was caught in the early stages). My anxiety kept growing and my restricting grew a pace. I felt crazed--what was going on? How could I be so troubled at my age with all the luck and goodness in my life?"
"Through medical school I really thought that I was cured but when my marriage ended at age 30, I went on "the divorce diet". Though I got back on track within 15 months, I buried myself with work, children and a busy academic career. When my research took off last year and I started getting national attention within my field, I freaked right out. My weight had steadily risen, not helped by having 2 children in 11 months. I am quickly approaching 40 and resorted to old coping strategies...exercising impulsively and restricting… I am hardwired to be anxious, but I recognize now that I can be in control of my interaction with the world. I have to exert myself and stop being passive in this world. But first, I need to figure out who I am and what I want to be...sounds so silly to hear a recently promoted associate professor say that."
"My breaking point happened about a month ago when I started counting calories...something I promised to never do again. I became obsessed and the day my husband asked if I'd done the laundry and I hadn't, I started shaking violently and screaming at myself for failing him as a housewife, failing my son, anxiety had taken over and I was smack in the middle of my demons."
"I have been "recovered" from anorexia for 10 years now, but still sense remnants of the disease in my daily life. I volunteer with the Massachusetts Eating Disorder Association leading groups for those currently battling the disease. During one session a woman in the audience raised her hand and asked me how I knew I was recovered. I stumbled a bit, not actually knowing how or when I knew, and momentarily pondered the validity of her question. Was I fully recovered? I told her that I knew when I realized I had stopped thinking about food obsessively and was able to put my energy towards "normal" behavior. But later when I got home, I kept thinking about her question. I still struggle daily with perfection issues, high anxiety, body image distortion and inability to make decisions. I started thinking that perhaps although my weight and eating habits are normal, my disease has not fully disappeared, and maybe it never would. Maybe it was a part of my being, pumping through every vein of my body like blood."
"i am always on the verge, even having had counseling, and would like to set a healthy example for my son. i know you were looking at families, temperament and genetics - i wondered if you had come across any
families who also had bodybuilders? i use over-exercise and restricting to control my weight, and my younger brother has gotten as big as a house as a
bodybuilder. we have talked that it is the reverse of what i do. i was trying to disappear, and he was trying to get so big that my dad would have to see him. he was once in counseling, and then when asked to give up compulsive lifting while they were working
together, he instead gave up counseling. it breaks my heart when i look at him. his bodybuilding is all consuming. when he is getting ready for a
competition he often can't hold down a job because of all the eating, lifting and cardio. i am certain he is sterile from the steroids, and he has even taken things like thyroid medications without having a thyroid
condition… i worry for my son and if i am setting him up for a life of anxiety about his body, his grades, his talents...he is six months old now, and i was able
to put on just enough weight that the fertility drugs could work, and i put on just enough that he was healthy. and then i had postpartum anxiety disorder after he was born. i think he will be my life long lesson in flexibility and spontaneity, things i have just never been good at."
Today, I not only reject the code of perfection through suffering; I have finally come to see that neither self-imposed suffering nor perfection serves any meaningful purpose. Liberating ourselves from this code, I now realize, is key to graduating from the half-lives of eating disorders to full lives as whole, vital, healthy human beings.
As the letters above show, changing such a core belief is easier said than done. But it CAN be done! Self-awareness is the first step.
We can indeed be all that we can be, but we cannot be what someone ELSE is! And why would we want to, anyway? Our uniqueness is what makes us interesting, complicated, vital human beings. But it takes courage and calm -- and patience -- to become acquainted with one's true self. It also may mean pushing away those forces -- be they family, culture, fashion magazines -- that attempt to define us from the outside. When we know ourselves from the inside-out, when we are securely "self-centered" in the best sense of that term, then our lives become full.
I wish you love, courage, peace, and the richness of life --