This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. In recognition of it, one student has written about her own experience about being a friend to someone who has anorexia.
I passed a sign this week that said one in five people at university will be affected by a mental health problem; I could not shake this off for the rest of the day. I do not know if it was the fact that it was the number five or if it was because over the past three years five of my friends have had anorexia. Maybe it was the fact that a few hours later I got a text to say that one of my friends was going into hospital or that it is currently national eating disorder week.
Whatever the reason I decided it was time to talk. I have never had an eating disorder, so I will never fully understand what my friends are going through. But that does not mean I have not tried. I have read books about and testimonies of sufferers. I have tried staring at the food on my plate imagining that I was afraid of it. And I have tried talking to my friends. None of these have given me the exact answer that I was looking for, but they have given me things to think about.
Firstly, I have realised that there simply is not enough information out there; we desperately, desperately need more education on the subject. When I was at school we were taught about eating disorders but in a way that presented them almost as a choice. As though, if we were smart about it, it would not happen to us. This brings me nicely onto my second point: Eating disorders are not a choice! I’m going to repeat that; they are not a lifestyle choice. They are an illness.
When my first friend became anorexic, my other friends and I would spend hours trying to work out what we could do to help her. A year later, one of the friends with whom I had these conversations, who had said the same things that I am saying now, was also diagnosed with anorexia. Nothing has ever made the truth that anorexia is not a choice so painfully obvious for me.
There is something peculiar about the discussion of eating disorders, though, and about anorexia in particular. We seem determined to glamourize them. Or at least that it how it appears to me. A few months back, I was with one of my friends who happens to be naturally petite and who does not have an eating disorder when a woman turned to me and said: “You need to take your friend to the hospital. I think she has anorexia.” This gross invasion of privacy was unfortunately not the worst part of the conversation. She carried on speaking and eventually said: “I wish I had anorexia. I mean, look at you [to my friend], so petite. I wish I was super skinny.”
Why do we glamourize anorexia in this way? You would never hear someone say “I wish I had bipolar disorder” or “I wish I had schizophrenia,” and yet people say this about anorexia. Each is a mental illness. I hope that society changes the way it perceives eating disorders and that individuals will not allow themselves to be part of a society that glamourizes them.
Eating disorders affect nearly half a million people in the UK, and the number of children and teenagers seeking help for an eating disorder has risen by 110 per cent in the last 3 years. For all these reasons and more, I want this year to be the one when people resolve to start conversations about eating disorders. I want you to resolve that this will be the year in which you educate yourself.
When one of my friends was suffering from anorexia, someone told me: “You just need to sit her down, tell her she’s too thin and force feed her.” I was astounded by his lack of comprehension. He failed to recognize the parasitic hold that the disease has on its sufferers. This was not his fault; it was a direct result of a lack of education and a lack of conversation. We cannot be overeducated in the face of this, nor can we have enough conversations.
Let us start to have those conversations.
And if you do happen to know someone that is suffering from an eating disorder or any other mental illness, please remember that your friend is still in there. It is a bit like having an invisible broken leg; they are going to need your help and support to get up sometimes, but they are still the same person.
Speaking from experience, it is important that you do not allow yourself to be afraid of this illness. I have definitely been guilty of this one, but when you do start to talk about it and face it head on it loses some of its mystery and power. Together we are so much stronger than eating disorders ever will be.
Eating disorders’ greatest ally is our silence.
I think that the problem is that, while most people know that they should say something to people that are suffering, finding the right words can seem impossible. Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule of what you should say. Anorexia is different for every person. What helps one person may not help another at all. When I was talking to one of my friends who is recovering from anorexia about this she said: “However hard it it is to say something and however brutal you feel you are being, you have to say something. The chances are that they are longing for someone to say something to them because they can’t speak up for themselves. It’s not the person that you are telling, it’s the eating disorder that you are telling to piss off. You are helping someone by talking to them. You’re being mean to the eating disorder, not to the person.”
We do not just need to talk to people who are suffering. We need to talk to everyone about anorexia so that people begin to understand this illness more. Despite this necessity, though, it so often remains a whispered conversation. something that we are afraid of mentioning in polite conversation. We are so paralysed by fear of saying something and doing something wrong that we stay silent and do nothing. If I have learnt anything these past three years, it is that speaking up is always the better option.
We have to act. We have to talk. We have to be there.
We need to start talking about eating disorders. They are not a choice. They do not discriminate. They are not isolated incidents. And they do not get talked about nearly enough.
No one should have to go through what my friends have gone through. The time to act is now.