I suffered in silence and I recovered alone because in my mind I was never “sick enough” to ask for help.
As I began to share the story of my eating disorder, I grappled with what to call it. I struggled to call it an eating disorder, not because I was ashamed but because I felt like it didn’t deserve that label. In the beginning I used the terms disordered eating, and body image issues, but never did I say I had an eating disorder.
Media and diet-culture paint a very clear picture of what an eating disorder looks like: a pale white woman, with sunken cheekbones, dark circles around her eyes, and a protruding ribcage. This image is reinforced through movies, character descriptions, reality shows, and news articles. The portrayal of recovery is no different. All eating disorder recovery is shown as an inpatient treatment center where deathly-ill women re-learn how to eat, gain weight, and are eventually thrusted back into the real world.
This was the only image I had of an eating disorder and I certainly did not fit the criteria. Although I am an athlete I was never that thin. Nobody ever looked at me and saw someone sickly. I was never pale, frail, or emaciated. As a distance runner, I was one of the biggest girls on the team, further compounding the idea in my mind that I was not nearly thin enough to actually have an eating disorder.
To make matters worse, at the height of my disorder I gained weight, only fueling the illness more. As a competitive runner, I was dedicating countless hours every week to my sport, but really I spent those hours pursuing thinness rather than running excellence. When I wasn’t running, or doing core exercises in my bedroom, I was thinking about food. I obsessed over everything that went into my body. I sat in class shivering, while gulping down as much water as possible in attempt to stave off the hunger and convince myself that I didn’t need to eat lunch. When dinner time came, I would head to the dining hall with friends and I’d eat just as much as anyone else but later, overcome with guilt, I’d often cry myself to sleep. I tried so hard to starve, to burn calories, to become smaller by any means possible and I hated myself for failing. Despite my best efforts, I never withered away and so I never thought I could ask someone for help. There was nothing to help me with, I just needed to try harder.
Lucky for me, graduating college and leaving a competitive team culture, moving to a new city, and becoming friends with people who did not run started a slow change. It took time (a lot of time) but I eventually began to recover. The victories were small and few and far between, but overtime I started to climb my way out of the disorder. The higher I climbed, the more I recognized that even though I didn’t fit the eating disorder image, I had problem.
As a graduate student I began researching eating disorders and learning more about what defines an eating disorder, how they are diagnosed, and their prevalence. Reading through eating disorder screening tests used in research served as a self-assessment. I thought about how I would respond to the screening in the present moment and in the past. When I surveyed the questions through the lens of my college self, I finally started to believe I had had a problem. I still didn’t say I had an eating disorder, but I was on my way to acceptance.
In May, I shared my story with Runner’s World and this was the first time I called said “problem” what it was — and eating disorder. It was a difficult moment because I still thought that I wasn’t really deserving of the label and that I was never truly sick enough to call it that, but I was. This train of thought — the undeserving and not sick enough thoughts — are an example of the eating disorder talking. As I started to label my eating disorder, I felt a wave of freedom. Once I called it an eating disorder I began to recognize eating disorder thoughts and behaviors that I was still engaging in and finally started to work though them.
I consider myself very lucky to have found the path to recovery despite never seeking treatment but I can’t help but wonder, what if? What if I my idea of what an eating disorder looks like was more inclusive? What if I let myself I believe I was sick enough to ask for help? What if I asked for help and got treatment? How much sooner could I have started enjoying running, food, and life again?
The one thing everyone with an eating disorder has in common is that they always always always deserve help.
Ultimately, I don’t get to know the answer to those questions because I didn’t seek treatment. But hopefully, I can help others answer them by encouraging others to seek treatment. Eating disorders come in all shapes and sizes and they are always dangerous. There is no such thing as needing to be “sick enough” to ask for help. Being severely underweight is a sign of an eating disorder but it is not a requirement. Eating disorders are a mental illness and they physically manifest in different ways for different people. Eating disorders look different for unique individuals and they require specified treatment for each person, but the one thing everyone with an eating disorder has in common is that they always always always deserve help.
If you’re struggling with body image issues, disordered eating, chronic dieting, overexercising, obsessing over eating healthy, or whatever you’re calling it, please know you deserve help. Even if you don’t fit the image of an eating disorder, you very well may have one. AND even if you don’t have an eating disorder you still deserve help. So I beg you, reach out and find help, do not wait until you meet the criteria you’ve deemed “sick enough”.
National Eating Disorder Association Helpline: 800–931–2236
If you’re an active lady or lady health activist, coach, mentor, parent, or healthcare provider, let us know through our community form. If you want to share your story, get in touch with us through the form or by emailing Lane9Project@gmail dot com. If you just want to follow along, stay tuned hereand say hi 👋 on Twitter.