I used to think I had it all together. I was getting straight As in school, had lots of close friends, and was dedicated to my cross-country team. So it came as a total surprise when seemingly all of a sudden, I was sick. At age 16, I developed an eating disorder, but it went undiagnosed. I kept living in a constant state of denial, until I somehow came to my senses at 19.
Now, at age 22, I've realized it's OK to struggle, but it's not OK to ignore it.
When I started college, I noticed people around me seemed to care about a lot more important things than their calorie intake. They were happy—and I definitely was not. It took a while for me to get on the road to recovery, and I wouldn’t say I’m entirely over my eating disorder (ED) yet.
But now, at age 22, I've realized it's OK to struggle, but it's not OK to ignore it. Eating disorders are serious business, and while I was never nearly as sick physically as others are, my mental health took a serious hit. After learning a lot about mental illness, recovery, and myself, here are the biggest misconceptions that I want clear up about eating disorders.
1. People with eating disorders must be super skinny.
Being thin can be a sign of an ED, and often it is a major giveaway of anorexia. But that's not necessarily true for bulimia, binge-eating disorders, or orthorexia. An eating disorder is not inherently a physical condition; how you look can be a symptom, but it isn’t the core of the problem. You can be heavy or light, tall or short, muscular or lanky. None of those things represent your relationship with food, exercise, or your body.
I was in-between on the spectrum. At the height of my ED, my body still functioned, and I didn’t necessarily look "sick," even though I was extremely skinny. Now I’m healthy, but most people would still call me thin. My mind, on the other hand, wasn't well at all—I was constantly obsessed with eating fewer calories, running more miles, and just being less in general.
2. You have to hit rock bottom to develop an ED.
From the outside, I was succeeding in every aspect of life—in school, with friends, on the cross-country team—when I started to get sick. But in retrospect, maybe this was the problem. Risk factors for eating disorders, especially those that involve restriction, include perfectionism and negative emotionality (a.k.a. the opposite of positive thinking)—both of which I suffered from. Research Review: What we have learned about the causes of eating disorders - a synthesis of sociocultural, psychological, and biological research. Culbert KM, Racine SE, Klump KL. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry, and allied disciplines, 2015, Jun.;56(11):1469-7610. I was putting so much pressure on myself to succeed and be “perfect,” which required a ton of effort and control, that subconsciously I felt the need to control my body too.
3. Eating disorders only happen to people with poor body image.
I never thought I was fat or unattractive. I didn’t suffer from particularly low self-esteem or body-image issues. But I was terrified of admitting my disorder to anyone because I was afraid I’d seem vain and stupid. In reality, I think it was just a coincidence that my anxiety and control issues manifested themselves in food and exercise. I did see my thin body as physical proof that I’d successfully avoided food. But now I realize that obsessing over my food and exercise was just a coping mechanism for the overwhelming sense of anxiety I felt about other things that were actually out of my control.
Once I started to recover, I was endlessly thankful to my body for being able to withstand everything I did to it.
Even at the height of my disorder and at my lowest weight, I didn’t necessarily think I looked attractive. I was pretty aware that I was scarily thin. The real sickness was that I thought because I could starve myself, I was better and stronger than other people. It never had to do with hating my body or the way I looked. In fact, once I started to recover, I was endlessly thankful to my body for being able to withstand everything I did to it—and for coming out stronger on the other side.
4. Eating disorders can be compartmentalized or ignored.
Nope. Eating disorders demand every second of your attention and take over every aspect of your life. I scheduled my study time immediately after cross-country practice so I wouldn’t have time to eat. I avoided my friends at lunch so they wouldn’t notice I threw my food away. I cried hysterically when my mom asked me to come down to dinner until she let me stay in my room. The number of things I missed out on because I was afraid of food is actually unbelievable to me now.
5. You’ll get better when you just learn to accept your body.
Behind every eating disorder story there’s almost always a unique and real issue, which you need to talk to someone about. At this point, I can tell you exactly what my problem was: I desperately wanted to be in control because I felt screwed over in other ways that were totally out of my reach.
After watching people I loved go through really painful times (divorces and unhappy marriages, crippling mental illness, and financial instability), happiness seemed unattainable—a goal that no matter how much I tried, I couldn't guarantee I would reach.
I got tired of feeling powerless, of watching people I loved struggle and end up helpless and unhappy, so I reached for something I could control: food and exercise. This reasoning didn’t even occur to me until I was recovering, but maybe it would have if I’d talked to literally anyone in my life about my problem at the time.
6. No one notices that you’re struggling.
I thought I was really sneaky. I wasn’t. My friends turned a blind eye, probably because they knew I would snap at them if they’d said anything. My mom has a very hands-off parenting style, but she absolutely knew something was going on. My coach noticed I was losing weight, but I was still running just as fast so didn't say anything to me. I was smug and proud that no one could tell I had a problem when I think most people at least suspected it.
When I finally came to my senses, I told one of my first close friends freshman year of college. My hands were shaking because I was afraid he would shrug it off. He’d only known me for a few months, but he wasn’t surprised at all. He listened with a very serious look on his face, wiped my tears, and told me it would be OK. And eventually, it was. My only regret? That it took me so long to admit my problem and open up to others.
7. Asking for help means you’re too weak to handle your issue alone.
This was my biggest fear and the most stupid myth I ever told myself. But guess what? No one cares. No one thinks you’re cool when you refuse to admit you have problems. When you do open up to others, they’ll just think you’re human. And all that’s going to come from the interaction is a genuine human connection you’ll probably be glad to have.
All that’s going to come from the interaction is a genuine human connection you’ll probably be glad to have.
Trying to beat a mental illness alone will just make you lonelier. For me, one of the worst side effects of the ED was the isolation. I thought no one understood me, that my friends didn’t really know me, that I was the only person ever to suffer from something like this (obviously untrue). Not only was I dealing with an eating disorder, I was also struggling with feelings of perceived alienation.
8. No one will be able to relate to your struggle.
You'd be suprised by how many people actually want to help you. No, not everyone will understand exactly what you're going through. But everyone has struggled with something, and especially if they love you, they will do everything they can to empathize and help. Part of the reason I never told anyone what I was going through was that I assumed they wouldn’t get it. Since then I’ve learned a lot about how beautiful and unique people are—and how much they can surprise you.
9. An eating disorder only affects you.
This was one of the hardest things for me to realize (and write about). Problems don’t just exist in your own personal bubble. My little sister, whom I love more than anyone, certainly noticed that something was wrong. We went through a lot of hard times as kids together, but instead of reaching out or leaning on her for support, I turned inward.
What I had no idea I was doing, though, was impressing my own unhealthy habits on her. Maybe I was subconsciously demonstrating my actions as the only way to get through pain, or maybe it’s because the tendencies that cause eating disorders can be genetic. Either way, my sister took to not eating, not really talking to anyone, and sleeping for most of the day for a year or more.
Today, thankfully, she is vibrant and healthy and completely herself again. She got over the awful example that I set for her, but it sure as hell taught me how much my actions can affect others—even if I don’t mean for them to.
10. One day, you'll be completely, 100-percent recovered.
I’ve spent so long trying to teach myself “balance” and I still barely know what that means. If I go out to dinner and everyone gets a drink, I get uncomfortable and wonder what they think if I don’t feel like a glass of wine. If I decide I want to eat some chocolate, I’ll end up devouring the whole bag just because I can. It takes a lot of effort to actually practice moderation.
What I’ve had to come to terms with is that there is no “right” way to be. Is it right for me to order that drink, to finish the dessert? No, but it isn’t wrong either. In learning to get over my eating disorder, I’ve had to learn to actually listen to my body, not just try to force myself to be one thing or another.
And some parts of my disorder still stick around. I've memorized the calories and macronutrient breakdown in almost every food—I can't un-learn that. My first instinct when I pick something up at the store is to look at the nutrition label. If I haven’t exercised, a little voice in the back of my head insists I don’t deserve dessert. I sometimes still have internal panics if my friends spontaneously decide to go get ice cream or burgers.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m so, so much better. But there are little, subconscious things that become ingrained when you practice them so intensely for so long. I can’t "forget" how many calories are in a chocolate chip cookie or how many I can burn on a short run. Simply put, there’s no "cure." All you can do is try to be better every day than you were the last.