Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eating Disorder Awareness: The Good, The Bad And The Ridiculous

Sometimes people ease their way into the role of an advocate or spokesperson because they know a lot about a topic. Other times, they do it for the attention. An opportunity presents itself, and, despite what they said or did before, they slide through the open door and pretend to know what they're talking about. It generally doesn't bother me when someone does this, as long as she's not doing or saying anything hurtful. For example, when it comes to eating disorders, if you find or push your way into a position of being a mouthpiece on the topic, you probably shouldn't make snotty little condescending remarks about those who suffer or have suffered from an illness.

A few times now, I have witnessed people, including those who claim to be trying to raise awareness about eating disorders -- some who say they have never had one and some who have never had much to say about the issue before -- make statements about eating disorders being a form of cheating in sports. I find the whole idea wacky. I can't begin to understand why anyone who knows even a tiny little bit about the many forms of eating disorders would think this. In case anyone was wondering, struggling emotionally and physically with an often life-threatening illness is not a way to cheat in sports. There's no trickery or advantage, and it's most definitely not like inappropriately using an inhaler, thyroid medications, steroids or other PEDs to outright gain an advantage. My guess is that those who make these kinds of bizarre statements do so because they resent anyone in that grace period, or they are simply not informed about what it really is to have an illness that slowly breaks you.

Finding a period of relative success in a deadly game is not cheating. Self-harm is not and never will be seen as cheating by anyone who understands the mindset of someone with an eating disorder and the potentially damaging long-term effects of these kinds of illnesses. Claiming such nonsense does nothing but attempt to pile a bunch of unnecessary guilt onto the shoulders of those who have gone down that hellish path of achievement at the expense of health and maybe even sanity.

Of course, it should ease some of the upset when, at least in one case (and I'm surprised there has been more than one case) the statement comes from someone who at one time insisted, despite statistics presented to her, that eating disorders aren't as prevalent in elite athletes as people think. Her tune changed only after she needed a new platform, and while it's good that she has lived long enough to see things in a different light, it still seems she can't resist a dig here and there at those who struggle, calling us cheaters and implying our success isn't as well deserved or that we aren't as confident as "true" elite athletes. Ultimately, it's another one of those situations that shows more about the accuser than the ones being accused, but I get tired of people trying to discount the severity and the prevalence of eating disorders both in general and in elite athletes, especially when it's done by someone who only acknowledged these issues later in order to stand in a bigger beam of the spotlight. But, hey, at least we're talking about it, right?

No matter what side of the fence people are on or what they believe constitutes cheating in sports, what seems to be severely lacking in all of these conversations is recovery. In articles and online content in general, the focus of any eating disorder discussion appears to be on the dangers of, the symptoms of and who is susceptible to these illnesses. These issues are important, but it's an incomplete view of eating disorders if recovery is missing. Very few people address solution-based therapy or anything that would encourage a  more intense focus on what it takes to heal from the disorder. This needs to change.

We also need to stop lumping people into groups and ostracizing them. When someone says she's tired of seeing the "typical anorexic story" everywhere, that immediately puts an entire group of people down. There is no typical when it comes to individual stories. My journey through anorexia is as unique and personal as your experiences with bulimia or binge eating. My friend's pain related to being treated unfairly as an obese woman is as real as the suffering of anyone caught in the throes of his self-imposed food and exercise rules. We are individuals, and our stories differ, whether we suffer from the same or  different illnesses. There is no such thing as "the typical anorexic story," even when the plot looks similar on the surface. Remember, too, that many of us have suffered at both ends of the spectrum.

We all need a voice and to be acknowledged. We need to be inclusive and gently steer any talk about eating disorders away from the symptoms and toward solving the underlying issues. 

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