We need to talk about functioning eating disorders

I don’t really want to write this, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I think it’s important. I have to practice what I preach, and one of those things is speaking out truthfully and openly about mental health.

It’s so much easier to write retrospectively, to look back at my past and remember the bad times and tell people what I have been through and what I have learnt. It’s much scarier to write about the now, but I know for a fact that there are so many people in my position or similar who keep quiet, hide away and cover up their ongoing battle with their own mind. I always go on about honesty being the best policy, but recently, I have left a lot of things unsaid.

In my early twenties, I was discharged from my second and last inpatient stay where I’d spent months being treated for anorexia and bulimia. For some, that meant I was better. Far from it. The body recovers before the mind; discharge is just the beginning of an upward hill, not the light at the end of the tunnel that everyone wishes it could be. Despite knowing this, as I packed up my belongings, I promised myself that I would not be back. It felt wrong at the time, but as a young woman in that hospital, I’d look at the older patients – married women, men with PhDs in Biochemistry, women with children and careers and people who depended on them – and I’d think to myself ‘I don’t ever want that to be me’. I did not want to be struggling with an eating disorder in my 40s or 50s, I wanted to live, not just exist, really live. I wanted to leave that ward never to return, I wanted to be completely recovered by the age of thirty.

At thirty years and fifteen days old, things could be worse. I haven’t been hospitalised since I made that promise to myself. I’ve eaten foods I never thought I could eat (and digest), I’ve travelled, ran marathons and worked full-time without having take to take any breaks due to illness or exhaustion. On the surface, I’m fine. But that’s what I want to talk about, and it’s something that we all need to talk about. It’s still there.

It’s 2016 and still so many people don’t acknowledge an illness unless they can see it, or at least see symptoms of it. Despite huge steps forward in mental health awareness, invisible illnesses are still ignored or missed or misunderstood. Mental health is still not seen or treated on the same level as physical health – and it’s having a detrimental effect on too many people.

The thing with eating disorders is that when we read about them or see them represented on TV, we usually see the extremes. We see skeletal people in saggy underwear, skin and bone, grey skin, hair falling out – and at the other end of the scale, morbidly obese people, immobile, being cared for 24/7, incapable of washing themselves without help, or even having walls of their homes knocked down to get them to hospital. They weigh either 4 stone or 40 stone. We see these because they are shocking, and shocking sells, and money makes the world go round.

When we hear ‘eating disorder’, because of the way they tend to be portrayed by the media, we automatically associate them with those extremes. What we don’t see is what goes on in the middle – the ones of us who suffer and struggle and live with eating disorders every day, yet manage to blend into the background.

People with eating disorders can have families and social lives and careers, they can be organised and high-achieving and pro-active, they can keep fit and look healthy and enjoy the odd treat… they can, and do, appear ‘normal’ (whatever that is). There are people with eating disorders who aren’t on death’s door, who don’t need or can’t access proper treatment because they aren’t severe enough. They have lives. They do function.

You’ve probably heard of functioning alcoholics and functioning drug-users – who do enough to get by but not necessarily enough to get caught out or for it to have a substantial impact on their life. It’s like that, the same even. There are people who restrict their calorie intake or overexercise or overeat or binge and purge, who impose rules and restrictions on themselves, who feel misplaced guilt and punish themselves for eating. Most people with eating disorders sit between the extremes and have to live and survive in a society which itself has an unhealthy obsession with weight and image, where food is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, where the only mental arithmetic we do is count calories and where we can’t get through a day at work without having everything we eat picked apart and analysed by everyone around us.

It’s no wonder why recovery from an eating disorder is so hard when you look at how screwed up society’s relationship with food and weight is.

I can’t say that this hasn’t had an impact on me and my recovery. I have slipped backwards and I do struggle with anorexic thoughts – not helped by incessant office talk – but I can’t blame that and I know I have to fight against this once again. Relapse isn’t failure, but I don’t want to be a functioning anorexic forever.

What am I saying? I don’t really know. I guess I’m asking those of you who don’t have eating disorders to be aware, be careful about the way you talk about food – it has a negative impact on more people than you would think, including yourself. And to people like me, who aren’t on death’s door but aren’t fine and dandy or ‘body confident’, you’re not alone, and I’m sure, I hope, there is something better for us to fight for. Don’t give up.


26 thoughts on “We need to talk about functioning eating disorders

  1. Great text written with the help of the best technology : the human heart. I’d never thought about the rough path existing in between the extremes of eating disorders. Whoever you are I wish you peace and health. You are doing the best to be a better person in every ways.I always think of a great Literature teacher that used to say :
    – ” Whenever you feel guilty for something you did, do it over and over again until the day you won’t feel guilty anymore. That works !”

  2. Thank you SO MUCH, every word here is true and resonates with me. I was never hospitalized but my disordered eating stole a lot of my 20’s from me. No one realizes this though, simply because I finished school, worked full time, maintained my relationship with my boyfriend, etc. I wish that more people did not hesitate to bring this subject up and discuss concerns with loved ones. Thanks again!

  3. I wonder whether nearly every human has some amount of disordered eating?

    I don’t know if I can say I was anorexic. I was never hospitalized and though I have had periods of a month to a year when I struggled since this time, age 11-15 would be the only time I would class myself as possibly having had an eating disorder (even then, I had a small spate of normality in the middle which maybe saved me from requiring intervention). I was never ill, but my hair fell out, my periods stopped and I’d wear a belt which I’d pull in tight underneath my school uniform. In my head I was thinking a 16 inch waist would be alright. It sounds ridiculous when I type it now.

    My experience was that the only way out was to make the decision myself. I danced back then and my dancing teacher and a maths teacher made comments. Quite pointed, certainly not caring kinds of comments. And I definitely did not want to be noticed, which this was. This unwanted attention and the knowledge that my GCSEs were coming up made me decide I just had to make a change or I was going to do awfully in my exams. Which could then mean awfulness forever as far as I saw it. So I changed. And initially doubled my weight in the next year or so. Likely not the best way, but at least it ended it. Maybe, that I was able to do this means that my situation wasn’t technically an eating disorder at all. Whatever it was or was not, I definitely had an issue. I remember the years of sitting alone in the playground when it was pouring with rain, feeding the entirety of my miniscule lunch I’d made myself to the pigeons rather than have anyone see me throwing it in the bin. Waking up at 5am to practice violin and piano… and so I could say I had eaten breakfast already when others woke up. Trying to eat as little as possible in the evenings amidst all the activities I did then.

    I think I eat normally now (I say this and I did just now eat two large galaxy bars…! haha! And mmmmm!!!) but I will never escape the thoughts entirely, not only about what I eat, but when I hear other people speak about food. And I always know I have the possibility to go back there. I do not think I would go there now in normal circumstances. But if a time of great stress comes upon me, I know that’s how I’ll most likely deal with it, because that’s a thing I can control. It happened when my Dad died (I did not go to the extremes I had at 12, but I still felt myself slipping.) And though I never feel the urge to go back there in normal times now, I know that it is a place that once and if I get drawn into it, it will not be easy to claw back out of.

    I work with children and have been so saddened by the number of children’s reactions to food – such as the idea that they would never ever eat chocolate and their favourite foods are apples and grapes. 5-year-olds are being taught they should never eat certain foodstuffs. How can this be right?

    I feel like the way to a healthier society is to stop focussing so much on what foods people should and should not eat. Decades ago there were surely less restrictions and people were generally I’d imagine healthier and more able to just eat food. Food is about filling your body when you are hungry. In normal terms, you shouldn’t ever have to cut out some foodstuff due to fear. But it seems to me we live in a world where it is normal to teach even little children to be restrictive about what foods they consume.

    Of course, there are some who can cope with this and still be healthy and happy… but if not promoting a generation of eating disordered people, I do think such a way of educating about food is likely to help trigger such conditions in those who were perhaps already predisposed to such.

  4. Thank you for this post. Thank you for speaking out and sharing. This is me, too. I struggled with a functional eating disorder from ages 12 through 17. I struggled alone, with little support, because I was functional and not rail thin and on death’s door. Some people close to me knew I wasn’t okay but they didn’t understand the effect of the eating disorder on my mind. They thought they could tell me–once–to “snap out of it” and eat something and I’d be fine. I wasn’t. Finally when I was 17 I kicked myself out of the darkest parts of that hell. But thirteen years later, I still struggle with body image. I feel that eating disorder lurking in the back of my mind, threatening to rear up whenever my anxiety peaks. It’s a battle, always, to remain in control even when I’m functioning. So thank you for sharing your story. It helps to know I’m not alone.

  5. Yup, good points, well raised.
    I’m not sure what a “normal” relationship with food is these days, everyone is on a diet, there’s an obesity crisis and EDs are on the rise… I don’t think anyone is doing too well, what proportion of the population can maintain a healthy weight without too much hassle?

  6. Wow, this really has me wondering now. I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, I have been assessed but it was unclear and my therapist said there was furture testing of I was interested but she didn’t think it was necessary. I am a recovering self harmer and an addict. I’ve always had a problem with eating what’s considered 3full balances meals a day, then one year I binged on donuts and icing and gained 50lbs in 6months. I obviously decided I needed to watch what I ate and lose weight. 2yrs later I not only had dropped the weight but probably 15to 20more than I should’ve. I went from being ‘obese’ to right on the border of being under weight. A lot of people talked behind my back, some confronted me. My answer is always I’ve been tested, I’m not I just don’t like to eat like normal. I eat to survive bc it is necessary. Anyway I’m 8months pregnant now and although morning sickness has passed sometimes when I eat, which is almost never enough, it seems as if my own thoughts and feelings about the food makes me vomit. I don’t force myself to vomit, it just happens sometimes when I’ve thought about what nasty unhealthy processed stuff I put in my body. and I still literally have hunger pains before I will eat. I recognize it and the other day I was trying to explain it and I said I feel pregnant with with anorexia. I’ve gained a pretty healthy 32lbs and as far as I know my baby is very healthy. I want to nurse him when he’s born but I also want to go back to eating a little less and not feel hungry all the time. I know if I nurse I have to try my best like I do right now bc he’ll still get his nutrition from me. But sometimes I just don’t know if I’ll be able to. I don’t need the label of an eating disorder, I have so many and I’m an addict so it’s best for me to just be aware of all of my addictions together and work on them but what if I am a functioning anorexic? How do we know the difference between counting calories and exercising to be healthy or to starve ourselves?? By the way I’ve never been into extreme exercise and I don’t actually count calories regularly but I’m aware that not pregnant I probably never eat more than 1500 or less a day. Thank you for sharing your story, I wish you the best with your recovery.

  7. Well said! I have been ‘functionning’ with an eating disorder for 14 years now and the day to day battle is exhausting.

  8. Well at least I’m not the only one. It’s about 6 years since I was like a skeleton and people do think u r ok because weight is back to normal. But I still have a unhealthy relationship with food, count calories, only allow myself to eat if I’ve exercised, don’t eat meals and hate eating in front of everyone. My cpn was shocked when I told him all this. Eating disorder was not on his list of things wrong with her. But it’s a daily battle

  9. Thank you for sharing this very well written piece. My daughter is currently in a psychiatric unit fighting anxiety, depression and an eating disorder. She is one of the people you talk about and for the last 12 months, has struggled to accept she might have an eating disorder because she is not 4 stone. So important for us all to be mindful of this. Well done for speaking out.

  10. I am in near tears after reading this. This is how I have felt for so many years and always thought I was alone. Thank you so much for writing this.

  11. Eating, and food in general, can, for me at least, be part of the whole self harm thing.
    Some days I wont be so bad that I will cut myself but not eating properly, or at all, somehow serves the same purpose. Though at what I think of as a ‘lower’ level.

    in the end its the same thing, I dont eat in an attempt to either punish myself or to take my mind away from the emotional thoughts and feelings – hunger is rather good for that.
    the other side of it is of-course the post fast binge, telling my self that because I haven’t eaten for two or three days I have to make up for it – usually with the worst food possible!

    All rubbish, its still part of the same self harm cycle, and one that while the medical profession is happy to acknowledge the cuts on my wrists as self harm, and provide some help, no thought was given to food and eating at all.

  12. With hindsight this is the life I lived for over a decade whilst proclaiming myself ‘recovered’.

    Bravo for writing this brave and honest account Ilona. It will help others to feel less alone and I hope it will be an important step in your own true recovery also. X

  13. Thank you for writing this. Just because my problems no longer impact my ability to function, does not mean that are no longer significant. The diet talk, the comments on my weight and what I eat are still unhelpful. We deserve better…

  14. This article is so well-timed for me, too. I think I’m a “functioning” disordered eater, still monitoring my caloric intake, in spite of being the same healthy weight for two years now. All the time, it feels like I’m teetering along a line, trying to live in the middle, despite how uncomfortable it is. It’s a total minefield, this relationship thing with food and exercise. It’s so hard to judge what is “normal” in a world with such screwy ideas about what we should/should not be doing, thinking or eating at any given moment. Add to this the tendency for people to comment upon getting smaller, and ignore you when you get larger…

  15. To me you will always be more than somebody just ” functioning ” we fight the fight together as a family xxx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s