Beyond the Skin
Don’t be fooled by someone’s looks, lifestyle or smile. Mental illnesses aren’t written in capital letters one’s forehead – actually they are often a dark shameful secret hidden at all costs, unlike some physical illnesses, which makes it harder to heal from.
I had one shameful secret of my own for 5+ years. I, along about 1 million Australians, was suffering from a mental disorder that triggers body dysmorphia (that means when you see yourself very differently to how you look), very low self-esteem, and anarchic eating behaviours. I had an Eating Disorder (nicknamed ED) that took different forms at various stages of the illness.
According to the Butterfly Foundation, 1 in 24 Australians have an eating disorder (including men, women and non-gender specific people), that's about 4%. Obviously, this number doesn’t take into account the people in denial, not diagnosed. What are the signs of a disordered eating behaviour? How to know if someone is obsessed with their body image, the food they eat? How to unveil a harmful relationship with oneself?
As you go on reading, if you think somebody you know may be struggling with an ED, try not to blame or put a label on what they feel, that will only reinforce the patterns, the shame, the need to control and most often than not prevent the healing. Don’t tell them a quick fix, or what to eat, or that they are simply beautiful beyond the skin – they won’t hear you. Instead ask questions, show them the way… Recovery is a very personal route.
Here are some interesting myths about Eating Disorder that will help you understand the issue.
6 years ago. I was at my skinniest, I had reached the lowest weight of my adult life. I had gotten rid of so many clothes, replaced my wardrobe with ‘taille 34’, a French size 6. The absolute reward! But it wasn’t enough, of course, ce serait trop facile. I was convinced I had to get skinnier, to reach 48kg - my ideal weight, cause obviously I was still ‘un peu trop grosse’ – a bit too fat. It was traumatic for my body-mind to spend months, years eating in a very restrictive way, then binging until my stomach was sore, then punishing myself with protein only diets, or raw vegan foods, or excessive exercising. It felt like a never-ending race towards self-acceptance. A battle I was constantly failing at, though never tired of it. But the irony is, from many years I was simply unaware I wasn’t well! I was totally disconnected with my sense of Self and didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. Today, I am 95% recovered (do we ever fully recover? I still have to be aware of the signs of relapse, and it is easier than ever. I still have to watch my inner dialogue towards myself, but I no longer have self-sabotaging patterns, I enjoy food and the company of those who share it with me. I have lots of brain capacity for things that matter to me, and I feel in love with life. I actually feel at ease with who I am, inside and outside. It took me a good 2.5 years to recover, from the day I reveal what was happening (way after I realised I had an issue) and asked for help to free myself.
In this article, I share with you the signs and symptoms of an ED, and how to recover.
The alarming signs of the body-mind
If you think something may not be right with you, listen to the wisdom of your body. It is always telling you if you are safe, or not.
Can you sleep well? Do you suffer from heartburn? How well do you digest your food? How often do you go to the bathroom? Are you avoiding social interactions when they involve food? Is your skin dry, red and lacking glow? Or overly oily? Do you have a libido? Have you lost your period? Are you feeling anxious thinking of a catch-up with friends? Do you have days you want to hide at home so no one can see how you look? And days when you feel you look ‘right’ and want to show it off?
For me, it manifested as follow. I wasn’t diagnoses by my family or a doctor. I read an article about BED (Bing Eating Disorder) and I recognised myself in the behaviours. It didn’t stop me at all! But it planted the seed…I realised I had lots of digestive issues (couldn’t do number 2 very often…), high acidity in the gut, heartburns, insomnia, depression, social anxiety, red and dry skin, soft and shrunk breasts (felt empty and light), amenorrhoea (no period) and my eyes weren’t as green as today. I was avoiding eating out with friends if I didn’t know what I could eat, I often looked up the menu, almost every time needed to choose where to go. I was a perfectionist in all areas of life, and controlling my environment to feel okay. I was constantly thinking of food, of my size, and comparing myself to others and tracking my size, and my food consumption. I had days I would fast (eat only bananas though I don’t like them). Days I would get all the chips, desserts and comfort foods I wasn’t allowing myself to have, to eat by myself, hidden, from the packet, at a very fast pace. I would exercise as a reaction to what I had eaten or in hopes I would lose this or that. I could never receive a compliment, to the point I would literally not hear them (I’m not joking!). I had a period I would try to purge (I wasn’t very successful at this though, which made me feel every more worthless).
Can you relate to any of this?
The symptoms you may recognise in people you love
The Butterfly Foundation shares that a research into Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa specifically has identified a number of personality traits that may be present before, during, and after recovery from an eating disorder, which include:
Core low self-esteem
Traits associated with avoidant personality disorder.
“Disordered eating is the single most important indicator of onset of an eating disorder. Disordered eating is a disturbed pattern of eating that can include fasting and skipping meals, eliminating food groups, restrictive dieting accompanied by binge eating and excessive exercise. Disordered eating can also include purging behaviours such as laxative abuse and self-induced vomiting.” says the Butterfly Foundation.
Also according to the Butterfly Foundation, “while moderate changes in diet and exercise have been shown to be safe, significant mental and physical consequences may occur with extreme or unhealthy dieting practices.
Dieting is associated with the development of eating disorders. It is also associated with other health concerns including depression, anxiety, nutritional and metabolic problems, and, contrary to expectation, with an increase in weight”. Personally, my ED started (or got revealed) after I started to diet. I followed a friend in what was supposed to be ‘a way of life, not a diet’, in which we had to restrict food groups for certain hours of the day, watch portions size / weigh the food and calculate the results taking our measurements and weight…Sounds very much like a diet to me now! This started the vicious spiral towards more diets, more often, more drastic.
Disordered eating can result in significant mental, physical and social impairment and is associated with not only eating disorders but also health concerns such as depression, anxiety, nutritional and metabolic problems and weight gain.
Here is a quick check list to check if you or someone you know may have an ED
Do they need to control where you meet? What time? What to eat?
Do they make comments on how much you / they eat or have eaten? Do they look around at people’s body shapes, and looks or plates? Do they body shame people? Do they feel present when they eat or do they feel nervous? Do they stop eating when they are full or keep eating totally absent, until there is nothing left to see like their stomach is bottomless? Do they ask you or someone to remove the food / temptations away from their sight? Do they cancel meal plans last minute with the most creative excuses? Do they always come to the parties or events already eaten? Do they pretend to eat but only play with the food ie. move it around? Does much of your conversation with them involves their state of health and/or body shape? Are they often on a diet, fast, cleanse, or ‘cut’ (the new word of diet)? Do they only feel good when they feel ‘skinny’. Do they eat a variety of foods or only a few restrictive foods (ie. only eat the white of the egg).
Ok, so how do we recover?
Recovering is a long, individual and strenuous journey. Staying unwell is sometimes ‘easier’ as, although unsatisfying, the ED has become the ‘comfort zone’. When I was unwell, I felt trapped, and I couldn’t feel successful in any areas of my life, because a good 70%+ of my thoughts turned around my body, and my food consumption. Though, I knew how it worked, and what to expect. I had the feeling to be ‘in control’. That loss of control, can trigger stress, nervousness and anxiety.
Taking the first steps towards treatment can be challenging, and like for any change, it asks a lot of courage and perseverance. Some people may still be in denial about their problem, while others may feel like they have their disorder under control, even when they don’t. Some people may start a process and then find they are ‘better now’ and stop.
As established above, the causes of ED are various, complex and unique to each individual. Therefore, to fully recover, one must heal all dimensions simultaneously (emotional, mental and physical).
I am not a doctor, but taking my own recovery as an example, here are the steps I would suggest:
1. First, let go of shame. Tell the truth, to yourself first, to others then. Shame is what holds back the person suffering from ED. The shame to not be or look adequate, to not be as ‘in control’ or ‘perfect’ as they look/ pretend to be.
2. Then, ask for help. Recovering by yourself will be harder and longer, if possible at all. Again, because it is an illness with complex roots, it would be best to ask for professional help – if possible from someone who gets it, who has recovered themselves.
3. Work out the causes as you also solve the consequences. Healing the problem at its core is vial (what happened mentally and emotionally to develop a coping mechanism such as ED) but it is also good to reduce the consequential behaviours – aka finding a way to nourish the body-mind, re-balance the amount, variety and frequency of food intake.
4. Be patient and compassionate, it may take months to years to fully recover. But as you get better, even a tiny bit, you will be able to be much happier. If you may relapse, you will never go back to the same darkness.
5. Create a support network. Share your recovery program with people you trust, so you are accountable to them, and they can check in with you on your progress. Set regular intentions, and check in with yourself. Reward yourself when you have followed your recovery plan, inject lots of self-care and self-love rituals, and give yourself compassion when times are difficult.
After trying on my own to recover, which really was more trying to hide more cleverly while still controlling my weight and shape, I finally put together a holistic program including Nutrition (with Ayurveda), Yoga (mindful movement), Psychotherapy (understanding the roots) and Meditation (binding everything together).
Happiness isn’t in the shape, colour or size, it’s in the uniting ease in the mind, body and heart. Life is too short to be at war with ourselves. It’s not easy, but you will never regret saying bye to Ed. No, I can’t fit in a size 6, but I feel strong, capable, and in love with life.
If you too are struggling with body image issues, obsessive relationship with food, or destructive self-talk, ask for help, talk to someone you can trust, reach out to one of your teachers you trust, contact the Butterfly Foundation. Recovery starts now.