Overcoming the Obstacles on the Road to Recovery

I?ll admit it. I?m not the world?s best science columnist. I started out trying to write about eating disorders, but from a scientific perspective rather than a social one. I should have been able to do it?researchers have made fascinating insights into the psychological and biomedical aspects of eating disorders?all I had to do was write about them.

However, I cannot divorce myself from the strong feelings that this subject elicits in me, thus I am incapable of analyzing it from the antiseptic perspective of science.

Though it defies my job description, let me trade science for emotion this week because, while my ideas do not originate in case studies or journal articles, I consider them valuable nonetheless.

An eating disorder, whether anorexia, bulimia or some variant, is a psychological problem just like depression.

While genetics and brain chemistry play a role, we must remember that these factors could never be solely responsible for an eating disorder. Many drugs are capable of reversing chemical imbalances in the brain, but no psychological problem is ever caused by the lack of a drug. A chemical imbalance is the result of emotional distress. It is not the other way around.

Young women especially become depressed for many reasons: low self-esteem, family problems, abuse and stress are just a few. A candidate for an eating disorder is any person who finds herself mired in such a problem and is looking for a way out?a candidate is any person who desires to take an active role in improving her situation.

For many women the initial problem has to do with family, friends or self-esteem. They imagine that things would be better if they could simply be a more desirable human beings.

We all have a picture in our heads of the ideal human?someone who is strong, intelligent and beautiful. The standard of beauty that American society accepts tends to be exhibited by only a fraction of the population, thus most women who want to liken themselves to this standard must significantly change their appearance to do so. This almost always means losing weight.

Remember that one facet of the human ideal is strength. People who desire to lose weight also desire to have control over the process. An excessive need for control can drive many women to become anorexic or bulimic.

Eating disorder sufferers consider it a show of strength to be able to actively drive their weight to an unhealthy minimum. At first this may be true, but long time sufferers are anything but strong.

While women may consciously decide to engage in eating disorder behaviors, the decision to continue them is less a choice than a requirement. Depression is often the cause of an eating disorder, but eventually the disorder becomes the cause of further depression.

Once engaged in the behavior, it is almost impossible to stop. The average recovery time for an eating disorder is five years, and many women never recover.

Expecting an anorexic to start eating again is more ridiculous than expecting a crack addict to give up cocaine. The addict could at least be deprived of drugs. Deprivation only helps anorexia to thrive.

Suffering through an eating disorder is absolutely horrible, and merely reading about it cannot teach you what it is like.

Understand that while some women are convinced they are happy as anorexics or bulimics, most sufferers are kidding themselves if they don?t admit they want to recover.

Consider the way humans react to danger. When your safety is directly threatened, you can rely on the strength of your body and the sanity of your mind to help you escape harm. But when the evil that threatens you originates in your mind and causes your body to become frail, where do you get the strength to rescue yourself?

Imagine for a moment the fear that comes when you know that your own mind is sabotaging you. Consider what it means to be human. We must feed our bodies before we can even attempt higher activities. When a woman recognizes that she is incapable of eating normally, what is to stop her from feeling that she has failed at being human? Imagine the pain of thinking that you don?t deserve to belong to your own species.

An eating disorder is often the worst thing that will ever happen in the life of the person who suffers it. In the worst cases it is the thing that will end that life. Because of this, society has an obligation to care.

While individuals suffer eating disorders privately, they have effects that are felt socially. Anorexia and bulimia go against all feminist ideals. They make women physically, mentally and emotionally weak and gravely overemphasize the importance of physical appearance.

Many people blame the media for the pervasiveness of eating disorders. Yes, the standard of female beauty advocated by the media can be damaging, but to place responsibility on the media for a serious social problem is counterproductive.

Parents who blame their daughters? illnesses on television and magazines make it easier for themselves to deny their own involvement. The excuse of the media draws attention away from the real roots of the disorder, which usually include family problems and other issues that the sufferer must resolve to achieve recovery.

Trying to help a friend get over an eating disorder is a noble and necessary exercise. To beat it alone is nearly impossible, and sufferers depend on strong, trustworthy people to support them during recovery. An emotional disorder can be cured with an outpouring of emotion. This does not mean setting up meal plans or pushing antidepressants, it means being a friend who listens.

While it is hard to tell when one achieves recovery, one measure of health is being able to talk?or write?about the experience. Every former sufferer wishes to help others who are still suffering.

I hope that in this column I have contributed to discussion and understanding that will make things easier for someone who still has healing left to do.

Ashley welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].