Binging and purging are at core of current pop culture and social media.
Binging means to watch all episodes of Stranger Things in one sitting, and purging is when you decide to finally delete dozens of old high school classmates from your Facebook account.
But for me, binging and purging will only ever be the methods to my madness; of my bulimia.
After a relationship ended abruptly in my second-year at university, I became suffocated with social anxiety. Despite being surrounded by friends, my low self-confidence and body image issues made me feel alone and isolated. My anxiety manifested itself in my desire to eat in secret, quickly snowballing into a textbook case of a bulimic's binge-and-purge cycle. When this wasn't enough, I began abusing laxatives and doubled or tripled the recommended daily doses.
Simple tasks like picking food from a restaurant menu or a trip to the grocery store or dressing myself in front of a mirror became painfully difficult. Any mention of food, weight, appearance, or fitness were triggers.
I was drowning; shackled to a ball and chain, thrown into water, and expected to swim.
Our culture is slowly shifting towards discussing mental health openly, but conversations about specific mental illnesses, like eating disorders, are moving at a snail's pace. On the heels of Bell Let's Talk campaign and National Eating Disorders Awareness Week in Canada, we're still riding a self-congratulatory high of "ending the stigma surrounding mental health."
Though the $6,585,250 raised for Bell Let's Talk record-setting, we need much more than a monetary figure to herald its success. Talking about mental health by dancing lightly around it is as ineffective as not talking about it at all. We need a two-way dialogue that digs into the frank realities of these illnesses.
We speak in platitudes about the "road to recovery" with eating disorders, like there's an easily-replicable strategy, like winning a board game. My recovery was a hellish game of snakes and ladders: I'd make progress and then have a setback and slide back to start. At work, I withdrew further into myself as I gave flaky excuses to cover-up my weekly psychotherapy appointments and support group meetings. I avoided parties with my friends for fear of triggers or rejection if anyone found out about my illness. Even as I made leaps and bounds in therapy, I still felt like I was barely treading water.
Each sufferer's journey is different, but each one of us is part of an alarming statistic.
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson are among some of the public figures who have come forward to share their experience in coping with an eating disorder. As much as reading their stories gave me the comfort of strength in numbers, I still thought that my circumstance was an embarrassment to discuss with even my closest friends and family members.
My concerns about how others might treat me if I revealed my disorder were -- and still are -- very real. There are still many who think that having an eating disorder is a luxury, or somehow glamourous. I've overheard women in gym locker-rooms bemoan that they wish they were anorexic, or "had bulimia." Far too often, eating disorders are the punchline in a TV sitcom, a meme on Instagram, or referred to as a glorified "New Year, New You" fad.
Let me say this: that there is absolutely nothing glamourous about jabbing your fingers repeatedly down your throat to vomit in a toilet, or hollowing out your insides like a jack-o'-lantern by way of laxatives. There's nothing funny about the fact that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among girls and women than any other mental health condition. Each sufferer's journey is different, but each one of us is part of an alarming statistic.
In a report of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women in November 2014, it states that "[a]t any given time in Canada, as many as 600,000 to 990,000 Canadians may meet the diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, primarily anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge eating disorder." According to the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders can cause a wide range of health complications including heart and kidney problems, gastric ruptures, high blood pressure, and death. Eating disorders can affect anyone -- men, women, teens, persons of colour -- eating disorders do not discriminate, but seeking treatment does.
My recovery wasn't smooth, but eventually, I came up for air.
I come from a middle-class family in the GTA, and so I could afford psychotherapy. My loving family and supportive boyfriend drove me to and from appointments, attended group therapy sessions, and endured the emotional baggage that comes with caring for a loved one with an eating disorder. This can't be said for all sufferers: what about those without the means or income to get to treatment, or those who live in rural or northern regions where specialized treatments are not as readily accessible? These questions of privilege need to be addressed in the context of mental illness discussions -- far more complex than just a once-a-year tweet and an accompanying hashtag.
If the Canadian government truly cares about the mental health of its citizens (especially its youth), they need to assess the benefits of investing in psychotherapy and treatment centres. In the long-term, it will improve the quality of our health-care system and our economy, to say noting of the emotional and psychological well-being of our friends, family, and communities. Member of Parliament Carol Hughes (Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing) recently called for a pan-Canadian framework and strategy to cope with eating disorders. I hope parliamentarians carefully consider a national strategy, given the renewed interest in funding mental health programs in this country. Let's not lose sight of why we started this dialogue in the first place.
It's been nearly seven years after my first bulimic episode. My recovery wasn't smooth, but eventually, I came up for air. Even now it's not easy, but I know my triggers and possess the ability to cope and deflect my symptoms.
I'm not a picture-perfect success story. After all, perfection was what I craved in the first place.
My bulimia no longer controls me. I didn't drown. Many aren't as lucky.
If you, or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder, please visit National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED), or the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). These resources were invaluable to me.
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Psychologist and wellness coach Ann Kearney-Cooke told The Huffington Post that it's often frustrating when a friend bails on plans to hide their disordered behavior, won't order anything when you're out to dinner, or talks incessantly about hating their body -- but that any intervention has to come from a place of compassion. "Otherwise, it just won't work." Kearney-Cooke told HuffPost. "[He or] she will feel bad and probably withdraw from you."
Find a quiet, comfortable place to have a talk with your friend when you're not distracted by other things or rushing around to various obligations. Don't have the conversation over a meal -- try having a cup of coffee or going for a walk. If your friend is struggling with food, mealtimes may already be a source of extreme stress for them, so try to avoid adding to that.
Present the factual basis for your worries -- mood changes, lack of appetite, situations where he or she has avoided food or has binge eaten. Be as specific as possible without sounding accusatory, for example saying: "It seems like you often throw up after we eat together" or "your diet has become very restricted."
Explain why you are worried, and how your friend's behavior affects you. Judith Brisman, a psychoanalyst, Director of the Eating Disorder Resource Center and author of Surviving An Eating Disorder: Strategies For Family And Friends, recommends using "I" phrases like, "As your friend, I feel like you might be in trouble," "I feel like I'm losing you" and "I would love for you to talk to me." These avoid putting blame on your friend while helping them understand your concerns
Bring up a variety of options such as speaking to a therapist, seeing a nutritionist or entering a treatment program. Come prepared with a list of treatment options in the area (the National Eating Disorder Association website offers numerous resources) and offer to accompany your friend to his or her first appointment.
Many people struggling with eating disorders are unable or unwilling to admit that they have a problem. Knowing that they're not alone in worrying about their bodies or having control over their lives can be a source of comfort. Dr. Brisman recommends comparing stories about body image and self-esteem, giving your friend a chance to open up.
Many people struggle with disordered eating, but don't fit the diagnosis for specific diseases like anorexia or bulimia, leading them to believe that they don't have a problem. This is especially true for men. Even though the number of men suffering from eating disorders is on the rise, people are less likely to notice disordered eating behavior in their male friends and loved ones. "Men suffering from eating disorders often don't realize they have one," eating disorder survivor and activist Matt Wetsel told The Huffington Post. "In recovery culture, the focus really is on women." Try to avoid putting labels on your friend -- instead, stress that you're concerned about certain behaviors he or she is engaging in.
It's important for someone struggling with disordered eating to hear that you know how hard it is and realize that recovery takes time, but that you're certain they will overcome this. "It sounds really simple, but it can be really profound," Dr. Kearney-Cooke says.
"Don't feel like you've made a mistake when the person blows up at you," Dr. Brisman advises. "It might be inevitable... you're talking to the part of them that doesn't have a voice." End the conversation by letting the person know he or she can reach out to you at any time for help, and raising the topic again in a few weeks' time if you see the disordered eating behavior continue.
While no one wants to feel like they're "tattling" on a friend, there are times when it's appropriate to bring in another party. Dr. Kearney-Cooke recommends raising your concerns with the friend a final time before asking for help, saying something like: "I really care about you and your health, so i'm going to contact your sister/ boyfriend/ roommate."
Ask "how can I support you?" -- and really hear what your friend has to say. Know how much or how little the person recovering wants you involved in the process.
Knowing what he or she is working towards will help you be a better friend and supporter along the way.
"The best stories I have heard have been when friends have visited friends in treatment centers," Dr. Brisman told HuffPost. "They go out for walks and my patients report that it is the only time they are at the treatment center that they are not thinking about food or bodies. It reminds them that there is more to them than just their eating disorder."
The NEDA website has a specific section for family and friends of sufferers. Available resources include facts about disordered eating, ways to talk to a struggling friend about his or her problem, recovery stories and confidential discussion forums.
Fat-talk or extreme dieting in front of a friend in recovery is counterproductive -- instead, speak openly and without judgment about food and dieting. Dr. Brisman recalls one patient of hers who was relieved when her friends didn't tiptoe around those subjects: It was moving and helpful to her that her friends actually were straightforward and down-to-earth about food-- they asked her what she wanted for dinner, what they should buy. Their openness made my patient feel comfortable and stopped her from feeling like she had to be secretive or ashamed.
As much as you care for the people around you, their health is never in your hands. If you are struggling to support a friend, don't be ashamed to reach out for help for yourself, too.
Need help? Call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.
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