To Control Or Not To Control: Eating Disorders & Why They’re About More Than Just Food

The idea for this article stemmed from one too many personal anecdotes. I suffered from a severe case of anorexia nervosa for two years of my life (which seemed like an eternity). Today, I’m recovered. But, when I was really ill, I can’t even count the number of times people around me asked why I can’t just eat. I’m telling you… That line was literally on repeat.

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To be honest, I don’t really blame them for not understanding because eating disorders are probably one of the most complicated illnesses to understand. If you’ve never dealt with one first-hand or seen a loved one go through it, it seems absurd that a person would have such a hard time practicing one of the most natural & innate human needs: EATING.

But the truth of the matter is that for someone with an eating disorder, eating is more difficult & fearful than common human emotions, like physical pain or heartbreak because eating means we betray something we worship & love. In the same way that one would feel horrible about mistrusting or hurting the one they love, we feel horrible when we betray our eating disorder.

Eating is hard because we anticipate the guilt we’ll feel after it & suddenly, the disorder convinces us that it’s not worth it. It’s hard because our eating disorder teaches us that we don’t deserve to eat or nourish our bodies. It teaches us to praise starvation & deprivation & to feel good when those “needs” (or lack thereof) are met. Eating is hard because it means we fall off track & that we fail. It means we run the risk of the numbers, pounds, measurements, weights & grams not remaining exactly where they are. It means we lose control.

As you can see, there’s a reason why these behaviours become so natural, deliberate, common & impossible to stop. Eating disorders are not so much about food & eating as they are about CONTROL. Not eating or engaging in other disordered behaviours surrounding food is the vehicle by which we obtain & maintain control.

The most common eating disorders in the DSM-V (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual) are anorexia nervosa, binge-eating disorder & bulimia nervosa. Although these disorders most certainly differ by their signs & symptoms, they all have one thing in common: this pressing need for control.

Are you surprised? You must be (Don’t worry, I’m not offended).

Most people that I speak to about my experience & recovery from anorexia are quite taken aback when I tell them that my eating disorder wasn’t so much about food, being “thin”, societal pressures or body image. While being constantly bombarded with filtered, photoshopped & digitally altered & manipulated photos of what we are taught to deem as “beautiful” people, most certainly doesn’t help our case, eating disorders are a lot more complex (And I, for one, actually hated the way I looked & could not bear to look at my withering reflection in the mirror).

In fact, this preoccupation with media blaming is one of the main reasons why society underestimates that many other factors contribute to the actual development of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are mental illnesses, not weight disorders. They are the by-product of a combination of biological, socio-cultural, familial & psychological factors. Some can pinpoint a moment in time or an event after which the disordered thoughts & behaviours began, while others cannot.

 I know, you’re dying to ask. Why on earth would someone want to engage in self-destructive behaviours, right? We’re all about self-love & self-care these days, aren’t we? I would hope so. But, take it from me when I tell you that we don’t WANT to engage in those behaviours, we NEED to & no matter how badly we want to stop, we CAN’T.

In retrospect, when I look back on my disordered thoughts at my rock bottom, trust me when I say that if it were so simple as to JUST EAT, there’s nothing in the world I would’ve wanted more than to do just that.

Let’s dig a little deeper. Controlling food or engaging in disordered eating behaviours & rituals, such as skipping meals, excessive dieting & restricting, vomiting, binging & purging or overexercising) provides victims with a sense that they can cope with emotional distress & underlying issues or life experiences that are beyond their control. Victims learn to find safety & security in their eating disorder, so much that the eating disorder becomes the “comfort zone”.

The truth about eating disorders is that unless you get to the root of what’s allowing the disordered thoughts to permeate your mind & take over before you can filter or weed them out, you can want to eat all the food in the world, but a force more powerful than you will always find its way in.

Yes, it’s true, most eating disorders start out in an attempt to gain & maintain control over nutrition. Nobody intends to or consciously chooses to develop an eating disorder. But, that attempt to gain & maintain control over nutrition is most often the mind’s subconscious way of responding to a loss of control in other areas of our lives. The solution? Controlling the only thing we feel we could: what goes into our bodies (or rather, what doesn’t).

How did mine start? All my life, I was a perfectionist. I was the girl who had EVERYTHING (& I mean, everything) mapped out & under control, whether it was my straight-A law school transcript, my friendships, relationships, work & family life. Everything just worked & always seemed to fall into place.

But in 2013, my mom got very ill & I lost control. There was no longer anything we could say or do to change the way her illness had degraded. I knew I was going to lose her & there was absolutely NOTHING I could do about it. It was heart-wrenching to grasp the idea that my best friend in the entire world would be taken away from me.

When it happened, I failed to grieve the loss because I internalized the pain & suffering. Years later, it came to the surface. When it did, the guilt, shame, self-hate & the realization that sometimes in life, there are things I can’t control, kicked in. I found comfort in finding control over the one thing NOBODY could ever take away from me: food. I used that control in order to compensate for the loss & welcomed my eating disorder with open arms, without even knowing it at first. Until one day, I realized that I had welcomed, loved & worshipped something that ultimately wanted to kill me. That was my turning point & the moment at which I realized that I was an addict.

That’s the scary part about eating disorders: what begins as a method of controlling a difficult situation evolves into an addiction (what I like to call: the point of no return). Eating disorders are addictive in nature. In the same way that an alcoholic, drug addict, smoker or gambler can’t just stop drinking, using, smoking or gambling overnight no matter how badly they want to, we can’t just stop being bulimic or anorexic.

Addiction is defined as “any compulsive, habitual behaviour that limits the freedom of human action”. It is caused by the attachment, or nailing, of desire to specific objects. Key word: “behaviour. Why? Because action is essential to the addiction.

The action or object of desire for a person with an eating disorder is food, but the eating disorder doesn’t develop because of food. Food becomes the integral part of the way we cope with life. For the bulimic or the person who suffers from binge-eating disorder, it is the consumption of food. For the anorexic, it is the deprivation & restriction of food. For the emotional eater, it is the pleasure or calming feeling that food provides. Every single one of these behaviours & compulsions has something in common: self-induced limits on the freedom to eat in a normal, healthy & intuitive way in order to deal with pain.

Today, I’m recovered. But it took a heck of a long road to get here. I truly never thought I was worthy enough to get to a place where I could fix my relationship with food & learn to eat intuitively: to eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted & whenever my body craved it, without feeling like I was betraying something or someone. I never thought I’d be able to get to a place where feel in control of my mind & body. But I’m proud to say that I did & that it’s possible.

One of the most important things I learned on my journey towards healing is that it’s not enough to simply address the symptoms of an eating disorder (whether they are physical, mental or emotional) or to sort through the most recent, obvious causes for the disordered eating patterns or behaviours. You have to dig deeper. You have to get to the root. And when you do, you don’t just refill the hole or cut the root. YOU FACE IT.

In order to truly recover, of course, I had to eat & nourish my body. But, recovery is about a lot more than just weight restoration. I had to unearth the deep roots & underlying issues that caused my need for control. I had to seek therapy. I had to see a grief counsellor to properly grieve my mom’s passing & accept it. I had to work on myself. I had to recognize that there were certain people & things in my life I had to get rid of in order to find true healing & freedom. I had to almost relapse. I had to have really good days, but also really horrible ones. I had to find balance & mental stability. And I had to learn the most important lesson my recovery taught me: I don’t always need to be in control of everything to be successful, worthy, happy & loved.

Today, I’m still the ambitious girl I always was. I still like to feel in control every now & then (because let’s be honest, who doesn’t?). But, I’m also perfectly content & accepting of the fact that I won’t always be able to control every aspect of my life & that that uncertainty is actually what makes life so beautiful. And that’s a lot more than I can say for myself a year or two ago.