Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Once More, With Feeling


One thing to remember is that not all professional athletes have all the answers. In fact, nobody has all the answers, especially answers that relate to you. I'm not going to single anyone out here, mostly and unfortunately because I've read quite a few similar derogatory takes on eating disorders in the running community. I'm just looking to make a few points that I've probably already made in previous posts. What I would love to see is a shift in how people view eating disorders, a shift away from the thinking that all you need is to be mentally strong to overcome or avoid them and toward the understanding that these are complex illnesses. People are either born with a predisposition to developing them or they're not, and those who are not generally have a difficult time understanding the illness itself and its possible treatments.

What's most upsetting to see is anger misdirected at strangers struggling with a potentially life-threatening illness. From my experience (and I get that one's own experiences should never be used to justify the way things are in general, but here I go anyway) anger at someone suffering usually comes from those who have a distorted image of who they actually are. In other words, those who criticize are often struggling themselves, if not with some kind of actual disorder, mentally or emotionally. Concern for another rarely comes in the form of harsh public criticisms. When it does, you can usually trace it back to something deeper in the person speaking out.

It's becoming more popular for runners to speak out about their struggles with eating disorders. This is a good thing. Altra did a beautiful job with The Weight of Mountains as the company profiled three runners who opened up about their eating disorders. It's not that those who haven't had an eating disorder shouldn't discuss the topic or aren't at risk; it's more that those who haven't might want to be more careful about how they approach the subject. Those suffering from any mental illness need to have a safe environment in which to open up, and taking an arrogant tone with them is not constructive.

I've already addressed the Strong Not Skinny hashtag and why I think it's misleading. Now, I'm seeing patronizing comments and posts about those who struggle with food. When you speak about those who suffer from mental illness in condescending terms, it seems odd that anyone would then question why more people don't open up about their struggles. As a community, we need to be more compassionate and understanding when it comes to those who are going through adversity.

One thing I want to make very clear is that nobody outright chooses to get an eating disorder. Someone can choose to engage in certain behaviors, but an eating disorder develops because of many factors. There are genetic and environmental influences at play. Life experience can contribute to the development of an illness. The onset of the illness has more to do with an effort to self-regulate than any outside goals, though weight loss for any reason can be a trigger itself. However, having a life-threatening disorder is not a way to cheat or cut corners in life or in running. If anything, having one makes everything more difficult. The emotional, physical, and mental strain is tremendous. I have also addressed this previously.

Rachael Steil has done a good job of addressing the fact that eating disorders are not a choice. She reminds us here that these are psychiatric illnesses and that those who choose to address the topic need to select their words carefully. Putting anyone down for the struggles they endure is not helpful.

Along the same lines as eating disorders not being a choice and recovery not coming down to willpower, threats of injury, illness, and even death don't usually work to motivate someone into eating more or differently. Try telling a smoker about lung cancer and see the person's response. Anyone who believes that people make a choice to become anorexic in order to achieve athletic success and should just eat more and train differently to overcome it when it spirals out of control isn't someone who fully understands eating disorders. Great healing needs to occur before someone in the throes of an illness can begin to think about change.

We are not mentally or emotionally weak. We have to be strong in order to survive the hell that is an eating disorder. Many people can't even face us and the severity of what we endure. Having an illness doesn't mean we are lesser beings or not as strong. Our brains are wired differently. You can't compare a person who has a healthy relationship to food to one who doesn't. Just like I can't tell an alcoholic to stop drinking when I know nothing about what caused his addiction, you can't tell us to just eat healthy and get over it without knowing anything about our individual stories and the root issues that need to be addressed before healing and then recovery can occur.

More than anything, I'm really angry that people choose to speak in such condescending ways about those who struggle. Carelessness when it comes to addressing these kinds of illnesses can lead to misunderstandings about both the causes and the treatment of eating disorders. It's hard enough to overcome the stigma of mental illness; we don't need added negativity about what it means to have a disorder. It's great, really wonderful if your genetic makeup, life experiences, and choices allowed you to sidestep an eating disorder. Be grateful, but don't go on to belittle those who had a different life experience.

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