Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Trigger warning: this post discusses anorexia and the lived experiences of someone that was suffering from anorexia
Usually, the purposes of my blog posts are to use science to give some insight about how we can be healthier and live better. However, there are certain topics that are neglected or misunderstood by the scientific community. In such cases, it's sometimes better to turn towards lived experiences, in order to better understand topics like mental illness and eating disorders. Learning about the experiences of others not only allows us to better understand these diseases, but also work to de-stigmatize them and become more empathetic and understanding towards those silently struggling around us.
In this post, I am interviewing my friend Eva, who has been in recovery for anorexia for the past two years. She bravely approached me saying that there's so much that society gets wrong about anorexia; and that she wanted to share her story in order to help individuals understand what it's like to be suffering from this mental illness. I was really keen on doing this interview, because if I'm going to talk about healthy eating and nutrition, I cannot neglect situations in which the pursuit of "healthy eating" becomes dangerous and unhealthy. Further, I was shocked to learn that, of all the mental illnesses, anorexia has the highest likelihood of resulting in death (if you don't believe me look it up for yourself).
I hope this interview is as eye-opening for all of you as it was for me.
1. How does anorexia start, or how did it start for you? Were you unhappy with your body or was it something else entirely?
When I was in middle school I was very thin; and I ate whatever I wanted without gaining weight. But to be honest, when I was a teenager, I developed a more complicated relationship with food. I remember that I had already tried some diets with my friends at the age of 15, but I was always in control and didn’t see it as « dangerous » to my health. However, I realized later on that I had the conception that eating would make me fat and being fat is bad. As long as I lived with my parents, I ate what my mother prepared, but I often felt guilty when I ate "too much" or "too unhealthy". However, I loved eating so much that this guilt didn't stop me from “stuffing myself” with cakes and chocolate! The guilt came after and I knew how to cope with it, it was part of my daily life. When I talk about this with friends, it’s noticeable that this guilt related to food is felt by many people but to different degrees. For some, it is non-existent, for others it is omnipresent or there from time to time. Between the diets and guilt, I ended up completely messing up my hunger signals. I was constantly hungry; and I was already in a habit of restriction long before falling into anorexia.
Moreover, I am French, and I think that the French customs related to meals have not helped. Here in France, you have schedules to eat. We are quite far from the intuitive eating model that I discovered in Canada. Here in France, you have a sweet breakfast in the morning, a savoury lunch at 12 p.m., a sweet snack at 4 p.m. and a savory dinner at 8 p.m. It's pretty much like that for everyone; and to my mind we don't really listen to our hunger signals. We are told “It's time to eat”, so you eat without really thinking about if you're actually hungry or not.
Regarding my body, I think I was totally normal. Not thin, not fat, but no matter the image in the mirror, I never accepted my body. Some doctors said that my anorexia could be explained by my father's abandonment when I was a child. They said my brain thinks “he did not love me, so I do not deserve self-love”. To be honest, I don’t know if they are right, but anorexia is unique to everyone and I think the past plays a big role.
One day, tired of living in this permanent guilt over food, I decided to make a resolution: to lose weight. Losing weight to feel better in my body and to stop being a slave to my food-related guilt. And this is where things started to get seriously complicated. I removed chocolate, bread and cheese from my diet. It worked really well, and I lost weight. Everyone congratulated me because the first pounds lost looked good on me. But as I took more and more ingredients out of my diet, I was losing pounds every week; and the more weight I lost the more satisfied I was. I continued, and people started to worry, but I was in a cycle, it was already too late.
2. What were some of your habits, rituals or rules for eating, exercising, etc.? Does everyone with this eating disorder follow these same rules or do they differ between people?
Slowly, I developed "rituals". First, it was just about the products I ate: no bread, no chocolate, no cheese. Then I took out other foods like sugar, fat, and carbs of my diet. Then I limited the sources of protein. At the end, there were only vegetables (the least caloric) and a piece of fruit in the morning that were “allowed”. But that was only the food part. There were a lot of other habits that gradually came into my daily life.
First of all, the schedules: fixed times for meals. I was not allowed to eat at other times. Then there was the time spent to eat a meal: each bite had to be savored and a meal had to last at least 40 minutes. I got used to make small bites to make the meal last as long as possible (in order to have the feeling of having a real meal when I only ate 2 or 3 bites). The worst came when I started to isolate myself to eat. I only ate when I was alone and could not eat in the presence of other people. That was the worst because I felt so lonely, but it was impossible for me to ask for help.
Rituals are one of the most important symptoms of anorexia. Not everyone has the same but we all have them. For example, I know people who cannot eat carbs when me, I could eat them. There are people who have to eat very quickly, others very slowly. For a lot of anorexic people, there are also rituals around sports and activity, but I didn't have any. It depends on the person.
3. When did you realize that you had an eating disorder?
I realized very early, but it took a long time to accept it and to decide to fight it and recover. My family and friends tried to tell me that I had to react – that I had to recover - but I had only one idea in mind: losing more weight. The biggest problem, here in France, is the way that anorexia is considered (or rather, not considered) by medical professionals. Anorexia is only seen as a mental disorder and is treated with a protocol: having people isolated in hospital and feeding them. This is very summarized, but the idea is that there’s a real lack of knowledge around anorexia and doctors really fear this illness because they are quite lost and don’t know how to react.
I saw 5 doctors and all of them said I had to stop school and go to the hospital. However, there was no room in the hospital, so I had to wait at home until I had a place. I knew that school was my only way to recover. I was one of the best in my class and I had the opportunity to go to a famous university in Canada. It was a dream of mine to go to school in Canada; and I was not being allowed to go because of my anorexia.
I begged my mum to trust me and let me go. I know it was the hardest decision of her life, but she eventually allowed me to go, despite my very dangerous BMI. However, looking back on it, I think that this decision saved me. She trusted me; and I had to honour this and try to recover. Then, when I came back in France 4 months later, I began my real recovery.
4. What do you think is the biggest thing that people get wrong about anorexia?
People don’t realize that anorexia is not about food. People told me “but, you just have to eat to recover?!” Yes, if it was so simple, I think anorexia would not exist ;). Anorexia is about controlling. Controlling food, yes, but also controlling schedules, controlling weight, pushing beyond your hunger. It’s being every second, every minute, every second under control. People don’t realize that anorexic people are victims of their disease; and do not have the option to get out easily. The problem is that people would never tell someone who has cancer that it's their fault, but with anorexia, people sometimes say that we are responsible, that we just have to push ourselves a bit to get out of it, but that's wrong. Anorexia is a real mental illness, you would never tell a schizophrenic that it is their fault, it’s the same for anorexic people.
5. Why do you think anorexia is misunderstood?
Anorexia is a different disease in each case. There are not really any fixed symptoms; and above all, no specific treatment protocol to apply. It takes awareness, it takes patience; and a lot of kindness. I think it's very frustrating for people being around anorexic people - because the thoughts are so irrational that it's very complicated to be able to understand. But people have to be tolerant. Being tolerant and understanding is the most important thing that I can think of. Even if anorexia is not understandable, it’s really difficult for people suffering from it. Tolerance is the best way to support them.
6. Tell me a little bit about your recovery, how long have you been in recovery? And what is your biggest piece of advice for someone else in the process of recovering?
My recovery journey was really long. There were so many stages and twists and turns. I tried, I fell, I got up. Recovery is not easy, it takes a long time. Routines and habits have to be broken; and people have to act against their thoughts. When your brain tells you that you shouldn't eat, it's very hard to go against those thoughts and eat, but during recovery, you have to. You have to eat, and more difficult, you have to eat more than everyone else.
It’s really difficult to feel so different in this society promoting healthy food, healthy lifestyle, and diets. I really had the feeling that I was in “another world”. When all my friends talked about diets and healthy food, I had to eat chocolate, sugar and fat (a dream you would think haha? But in reality, it was a real nightmare!).
Accepting to gain weight was really hard, I gained so much weight in a few months. But slowly, my brain understood that it was good for me; and I slowly accepted the weight gain and I learned to cope with it. I saw myself as fat, but I know that I am not. I suffer from dysmorphophobia and I accept it. It took me over 2 years to recover; and I'm not sure I can even tell if I am 100% recovered. I sometimes still have restrictive thoughts; I know all the calories in each food and even if I live normally, it’s impossible to erase what I have lived.
But, anorexia has brought me a lot of things and I try to take all the positive sides from it. Recovery has taught me to be persevering and patient. I also realized the value of life; and the fact that some “friends” are not as trustworthy as I thought. I think I am much more tolerant toward myself and less demanding. I learned to listen to my body and my brain and to accept myself as I am. The looks of others no longer matter to me. Recovering allowed me to achieve an inner peace that I did not have before.
My best advice for people suffering from anorexia is to realize that it is a real disease. It is important to be aware of what is happening and to not feel ashamed. Being anorexic is not shameful. There is a life after anorexia; and it is only a bad period that must be overcome. It’s important to ask for help and above all, they have to eat and gain weight. There is no secret. Eat, eat, eat until the body feels safe again. After anorexia comes peace: no more anxiety, no more stress, no more hypothermia, no more declined invitations with friends because of food. Recovering is hard, you will cry and suffer, but it is worth it.
Resources and Help Lines:
National Eating Disorder Information Centre Toll-Free Help Line: 1-866-633-4220
Kids Help Phone: text CONNECT to 686868
Eating Disorder Hope: https://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/
Eating Disorders Association of Canada: https://edac-atac.com/
National Initiative for Eating Disorders: https://nied.ca/