It is often assumed that people with eating disorders are narcissistic, vain and overly competitive. Of course, some people fit these stereotypes, but as I learned in treatment and from my own experience, eating disorders can emerge from a fear of hurting others. It did not take me long to connect this with my own tendencies–when I am angry at someone I care about, I become overridden with guilt and am unable to express my anger, so instead, I either starve myself, thus starving my emotions out or eat and then purge, thus purging my emotions. I am beginning to realize that my fear of hurting those I care about is hurting me. Instead of expressing my feelings, I rely on my relationship with food and my body to blow off steam, which has led me down a dizzying path of sore throats, fatigue, vertigo, weakened immunity, increased risk of falling, decreased focus, lack of motivation, hair loss, dry skin, heart palpitations, skewed hunger cues, headaches, muscle aches, binge episodes, irritability, dehydration, blurred vision, slowed digestion, and depression. How vain of me! Clearly these symptoms are not “glamorous” enough for vanity to be the cause of eating disorders. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that often have multiple triggers that may include family dynamics, social anxiety, traumas, depression, low self-esteem, genetics, guilt, inability to express emotions, OCD, or fear of losing control.
My inability to express emotions in particular has recently come to my awareness as a major trigger. Starting at the age of eight years old, I was self-conscious of my stutter. Being that I feared that people would make fun of me, I limited my verbal communication in school and only spoke when the teacher asked me a question. While at that age, my peers were accepting, as I reached middle-school-age, I had trouble making and keeping friends. I only had a two or three friends that I relied on for all of my socialization, however, as I got older, we grew apart.
Suddenly, I had noone to talk to about my crushes, noone to cry over heartbreaks with, noone to laugh over inside jokes with, noone to go on ice cream dates with, and noone that I knew would always be there for me. As a result, I sought out to “better” myself. This included exercising excessively and severely restricting my caloric intake. I convinced myself that I was not upset by essentially starving myself. I was also overwhelmed with guilt because I felt like my anger was unwarranted, after all, it is normal for friends to drift apart. The more guilty I felt, the less I ate and the more I exercised. I remember running on the treadmill for 90 minutes on the highest incline fueled by a measly 900 calories, and at one point, I actually was underweight and not long after, I contracted the flu and missed over a week of school. After seeing a therapist for a few months (about my social issues and depression, not my ED), I began to be more sensible about my diet and gained some weight back. Throughout high school, I struggled socially and arranged my schedule so that I would not have to sit in the cafeteria alone. This meant no lunch for me. Although I was well within a healthy weight range, I soon began to use laxatives, exercise compulsively, and force myself to throw up, however, this caused me to gain weight because my body was in starvation mode. I would not admit it at the time, but I was still angry at my former friends and I felt lonely. Channeling my energy into abusing my body took my mind off of my loneliness the way some people binge eat for comfort. I could not hurt my friends, so instead, I hurt myself.
College was a rude-awakening for me. While I did not have many friends in high school, it had always been comforting to know that I went to school with the same people since sixth grade. Now I felt lost. When I feel lost, I tend to grab onto the safest thing as if I am drowning in the ocean and I grip onto a buoy. I met someone who reminded me of my former best friend, and decided that he would be my friend. There was only one problem–I was looking for a best friend, but he was only looking for a casual friend. As this occurred to me, I felt worthless, like noone liked me. As a result, I began eating under 1,000 calories a day and exercising every other day. I did this to stop myself from blaming him–he was nice to me: whenever I needed anything, I knew he would be there. I felt bad for being angry, so I took the anger and waged a war on my body. I blamed myself; I blamed myself for my lack of friends in high school, I blamed myself for needing more assistance than most people, I blamed myself for stuttering, I blamed myself for being angry, I blamed myself for being “fat,” and I blamed myself for not being good enough to be his friend.
Now I see that I was clearly wrong. Firstly, some people already have enough friends and are not interested in having more. Sometimes people even have different definitions of friendship, so he might not have even realized that I was hurt. I have no idea why we had different perspectives on our friendship, but I cannot worry about that; I need to worry about myself and my recovery. I have also learned that self-destructing does not solve my problems. I need to express myself whether it is through conversation or writing instead of trying to starve or purge the emotions out of me.