I had a pretty eventful thing happen to me last week: I started my period after almost three years of nothing.
Thought #1 – OH MY GOSH! I AM SO EXCITED AND RELIEVED! I DON’T HAVE TO GET AN ULTRASOUND! I’M NOT PERMANENTLY BROKEN! WE MIGHT HAVE KIDS SOMEDAY!
Thought #2 – Oh no, Anelise. Oh no, oh no. This might mean that you’ve gained a lot of weight. Scratch that, it definitely means you’ve gained A LOT of weight. And now you’re going to bloat and feel miserable and WHY DID YOU WANT THIS.
And to be honest, it’s been really tough not to let the negative thoughts overshadow my positive ones. I am actively having to work at being okay that I’m okay. After praying about it for so long, I can’t believe that I am having such a hard time accepting that it finally happened. I wasn’t prepared to have such a complicated response.
And you, too, might be wondering: who gets stressed out by being healthy?
Someone with an eating disorder, that’s who.
I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about not being sure how to interact with someone with an eating disorder: What are “safe” subjects? Should you invite them to events with food? Can you comment on their appearance?
As someone with an eating disorder, and as someone who knows people with eating disorders, here are five tips on how to be a friend:
- Do NOT comment on our weight, and especially do not tell us that we look “healthy” (we will interpret this as fat).
As a follow up point, do not tell us we are being ridiculous about our weight and that we are perfect just the way we are. This is a mental illness. It is not rational.
- Do NOT comment on our food choices.
I am an ethical vegan; I don’t do it for weight-loss purposes. Recently, I was in a classroom, and the teacher wanted to know what kind of pizza to order. So, I asked if she could order a small cheese-less veggie pizza. This one person continually made comments–to the whole class–like What kind of pizza doesn’t have cheese? What is wrong with you? Are you worried about your weight? I was mortified. And then, when the pizza arrived, said person made such a big deal about having to “see” this pizza, like the pizza and I were some sideshow performance at a carnival. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. And the LAST thing I wanted to do was eat.
In that same vein, a lot of people are surprised by my love for cooking. But honestly, cooking has been such an important tool for me to learn how to be friends with food. When I was in the worst stages of my eating disorder, I was obsessed with anything sugar-free, fat-free, basically calorie-free and tasteless. I was missing out on such an incredible part of life! Now, I still won’t eat junk food, but I also won’t eat processed food. I focus on good, whole, plant-based nourishment. It’s therapeutic for me to work all day baking a loaf of bread or harvesting vegetables from our garden and then to be able to eat them with my husband at dinner. I feel proud of the way it tastes, of how it’s nourishing us. So, the lesson here is, don’t make assumptions! We all cope and heal and grow differently.
- ALWAYS invite us to events (food or no food); just don’t pressure us to eat.
A lot of us with eating disorders have anxiety disorders as well, and the “what if they make me eat x or y” fear will do nothing but worsen what is supposed to be a fun event.
- TRY NOT to talk about people’s body sizes in front of us.
Eating disorders thrive on comparison: you to me, me to her, me to me of two years ago, etc. When I hear that someone either looks really thin or like they’ve put on some weight, I immediately do a comparison in my head–one that could potentially trigger an episode of starvation.
- TRY NOT to judge us. Please. We’re hard enough on ourselves already.
To those without ED’s, and anorexia specifically, we can seem like the most self-centered, vain people in the world. But trust me, anorexia is never about looking a certain way. It’s about control and a distorted sense of perfection–one that is achieved through abstention.
If you’re not able to accept that eating disorders are mental illnesses, educate yourself (here is one example of a whole lot of great memoirs out there). The most recent statistics shared by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported:
At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S.
Every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
We can’t afford to continue to treat eating disorders like a taboo subject, especially among Christians. I promise you that we exist.
If you have a story about mental illness—whether personal or concerning a loved one—please consider sharing your experience. Even if you aren’t at a place yet where you feel comfortable disclosing your name, the church body needs your voice. Let’s shine a light on the darkness, together.