Note: I am not a mental health professional. My knowledge of this topic is from personal experience and books for the general reader.
I’ve suffered sporadic anorexic episodes since I was a child. I’m fifty-seven now, and happily, I can say the last two relapses were years apart. The most recent was in 2015, though, and I don’t know whether the monster will be back anytime in the future.
I become ill easily when I stop eating, and I can’t stand being ill. So, the anorexic stuff has never reached the point where I’ve been admitted to a hospital with a serious condition. That trait isn’t a strength. It just means the pull to make myself thin isn’t as strong as the pull to make myself feel well. Some other people’s eating disorders pull a lot harder than mine.
The last relapse was in the middle of 2015, shortly before I began this blog. I had published my first e-book, a novella which did not address eating disorders. The stress of promoting the e-book made me more of an obsessive perfectionist than usual, so I thought I’d relieve the stress by signing up at a gym. Oops. The formula for a relapse was all there.
Anorexia, bulimia and other personal issues which manifest themselves in bad eating patterns have root causes. They aren’t simple impulses to get thin, although many people with eating disorders consciously decide on a certain body type as a goal. They don’t necessarily stop when/if they reach the goal, either.
At least ten years ago, I read horrible, simplistic advice in a U.S. magazine marketed for homemakers. Although the person dispensing the advice admitted that a longtime eating disorder must be treated by a professional, the message in the article was that parents should turn the dinner table into a battlefield if they sense their daughter is becoming anorexic. That was promoted as an effective method for preventing more trouble down the road.
The magazine article suggested every girl in the beginning stages of anorexia was issuing a subtle cry that her parents take control of her as quickly and as rigidly as possible. The insinuation was that the girl had taken on too much independence in her life, and wanted her control taken away. The writer predicted a happy ending to this harrowing story, if only the parents cram food down the kid’s throat and infantilize her enough to break her.
Obviously, that magazine article was written to appeal to domineering parents whose behavior at home may have something to do with causing their daughters’ illnesses. The style of writing was the over-stimulating, anger-inducing crap that gets simple people riled up. It may have sold more copies of the magazine than usual, at the expense of the health of some young girls. I wondered if any suicides were the result of unsophisticated, selfish parents following the get in there and fight advice.
Early treatment is essential, but overbearing behavior from parents doesn’t constitute treatment. Family members need to learn supportive skills, and the education for that doesn’t come from commercialized publications that tell frustrated people what they want to hear.
If a young person has early symptoms of an eating disorder, the root problem (which could be a lot of things) must be addressed along with the nutritional problem. That requires a professional to evaluate each patient as an individual and respect the dignity of each patient. The patient’s trust must be earned, and careful judgment calls must be made with any contact with the family.
There is a control issue involved in anorexia. Often, the girl feels powerless because of the way individuals or societal influences have dominated her life. In the early 1980s, Pat Boone’s oldest daughter, Cherry Boone O’Neall, wrote an anorexia memoir which described overly strict, humiliating treatment her father inflicted on his daughters.
The title of Cherry Boone O’Neall’s memoir was Starving for Attention. The book described attempts by her parents (and an inexperienced pediatrician) to reverse her illness by getting tough. Her condition was still worsening at the time she married, and didn’t improve until after she and her husband found the right therapist. A photograph of her which appeared in a 1983 mass market paperback edition of the book suggested she was near death by the time she began eating again.
An eating disorder is an attempt to gain control, and one of the injustices in life is that our most desperate attempts to get control can result in more out-of-control situations. It’s a potentially life threatening, vicious cycle which does more damage when the right treatment is delayed.
Please click the link below to an article in The Guardian by Sarah Marsh, which describes why NHS England funding must improve before patients with eating disorders can make progress in moving past their health crises. The band aid solution of admitting a malnourished girl through the A&E Department, feeding her and then sending her home isn’t taking care of the problem.
Aside from money, there are other things which prevent people with eating disorders from seeking help. It’s addictive behavior, and the bizarre eating patterns become objects of denial the same way alcoholism or drug addiction is denied. Addicts don’t want others to see their stashes of empty liquor bottles, hypodermic syringes or junk food wrappers. Those embarrassments are difficult to bring up with a therapist, but it’s vital that the problems be discussed honestly and as early as possible. Temporarily cleaning up the surface symptoms and neglecting to follow up is not the answer.