By our therapist, Jenna, for Eating Disorders Awareness Week
When I tell people that I work with eating disorders, I’m often taken aback by their responses. Chatty cab drivers make comments about ‘vanity’, friends ask about how I can ‘cure’ someone from their ‘obsession’ with being thin, even clients question whether they are ‘deserving of my time’, because they believe the numbers on the scale define both their level of unwellness and their sense of worth.
It saddens me how little us human beings understand about the conditions that plague us. But I can’t, and I don’t, blame any one person for the stigmatisation of eating disorders or any other mental illness. Our individualistic cultural landscape contributes to a collective avoidance of vulnerability, that infects our understanding of human suffering. For the most part, we seek to distance ourselves from pain – especially that which we cannot understand or whose cause is unclear. In turn we end up distancing ourselves from those enduring it.
I think we crave the sense that somehow we are different to those who appear the most vulnerable in an attempt to feel stronger than, and somehow above, our own suffering. Unfortunately, in that process we position vulnerability as something negative and shameful.
But I don’t blame anybody for thinking this way.
It’s a lot easier to see the world in black and white terms than it is to try and grasp the reality that we are complex beings with an incredible range of emotions and infinite ways of making sense of them. It’s scary to think that we cannot ever truly understand the full complexity of human suffering — so we do the best we can to quell our fear of this unknown with the tools we’ve acquired through life.
Those suffering with an eating disorder are no different.
The women that I work with have done the best they can to try and make sense of their emotions and their fear of the unknown. Their behaviours around food, and thoughts about their bodies, served them well by numbing and distracting them to the point that they perhaps stopped registering any kind of suffering.
But, as human beings, we require suffering to remind us that we alive. And so, eventually agony over the size of their jeans, which foods were safe to eat, or how to change the numbers on the scales become their primary problems, and the eating disorder becomes the ‘only’ solution to their suffering — or at least that’s what it tells them. It feels a lot safer when we think we have a source and a solution to our suffering – and that’s what eating disorders provide.
What I hope to have conveyed here is that that eating disorders are about so much more than an obsession with being thin. Moreover, the women that I work with are not vain – thinking only of themselves and their appearance. They, like all of us, are grappling with a fear of suffering and of the unknown. They are different, however, but perhaps not it in the ways you might imagine. They possess an incredible ability to empathise with others – to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes and imagine what an other could be feeling. In fact, I’ve seen how they are so empathic that they often get confused about what pain actually belongs to them, resulting in overwhelming anxiety that distances them from social connection.
The bottom line is that the women that I work with are more than their eating disorders and the stigma that surrounds them. And I hope that we can all continue to challenge the stigma around vulnerability and suffering – far beyond Eating Disorders Awareness Week.