So I don’t usually post much about work on Facebook but I figure this is a place where a large amount of people can be reached. This is going to be a novel I can already feel it lol OH NO IT’S HAPPENING AND I’M MAD SO STRAP IN.
I’m a Dietitian working in the field of eating disorders, and it has been the most rewarding job of my life. It has also been the most emotionally taxing thing I’ve ever done.
Eating disorders are the number one deadliest mental illness. Every day, I see people muster every bit of strength they have to fight these life-threatening diseases. I see people feeling completely and utterly broken, hopeless, done, sick. I have seen people dance, laugh, scream, and curl into a ball in defeat, all in a matter of an hour.
I see people cry of happiness over their victories in treatment, only to cry of sadness and guilt immediately after. I watch their face shift as they realize this “success” in treatment is (in their eyes, right now) their greatest failure.
Anita Johnston, author of “Eating by the Light of the Moon,” said it perfectly. She describes a person falling into a river. Imagine it is storming, and they are drowning. They are terrified. They grab onto a log in the water, and it saves their life. The storm calms, the water level slowly drops, they are safer now.
Their friends and family are on the shore, waving to them to come in. They try to swim while holding the log, but it is too big and powerful, and it’s holding them back. They cannot swim to shore with the log in their arms. They cannot get to where they want to be while holding the log. But they don’t want to let go of this log. Why would they? What if the storm comes again? What if they aren’t strong enough?
They will occasionally let go of the log, to try. A wave comes and they get scared, and grab on again. One day, they summon the strength to tread water for 10 seconds before they grab back on. Another day, they make it to 30 seconds. Eventually, they make a lap around the log before fear launches them back into its’ clutches. Little by little, they gain confidence in their strength to make it to shore without the log.
One day, a long while later, exhausted and close to giving up hope, they let go of the log and begin to swim. They swim as hard as they can, until they reach the shore. They no longer need the log to feel safe. They are ready to rebuild, to renew, to create. They are free. I’m paraphrasing and putting my own spin on it, but that’s the general idea.
The log in this analogy is the eating disorder, as it has served a purpose for everyone struggling. Control, escape, accomplishment, success, identity, communication, fear, numbing, punishment, coping. These are only some. They are also often biological/neurological/genetic in etiology. The rushing river is life, the shore is recovery.
I was inspired to write this post when I overheard someone in the line at Starbucks speaking about how “selfish” and “stupid” their girlfriend was for going into another eating disorder treatment center. “She’s skinny, I’ve told her that so many times,” they said. “What does she have to worry about?” “It sucks for me because I’m never going to see her.”
Eating disorders are not a disease based in vanity or a desire for a certain aesthetic. Their symptoms manifest in food, eating behaviors, and body image, but they are serious, life-threatening mental illnesses and are not to be made light of. They are never alone or without an underlying issue.
A couple years ago, I had a client who was on the 80th percentile for weight on their growth charts, and dropped to the 5th percentile in less than a year. At one point in her treatment, when she reached the 20th percentile, her doctor told me she was “medically fine now” and no longer needed treatment, and I needed to step away from her care and let them “take it from here.” “MEDICALLY FINE”……..LET YOU “TAKE IT FROM HERE”…….oh hell no. My brain exploded.
This teenager was more depressed than they had ever been, not getting their period, heart rate 38 bpm, losing full chunks of hair, and was well on their way to osteoporosis. That doctor no longer answers my phone calls (lol that’s fine good riddance sir) but the child is fully recovered because thankfully, their family trusted me.
How do we validate the seriousness of a condition if many of our medical providers, the very people we trust with our health, are telling some of the sickest people that they are “medically fine?”
How do we help people who are feeling so deeply sad and hopeless feel seen and heard, if we are viewing their disease as “selfish” and “stupid?”
How do we slow the development of these diseases when the “wellness” industry based in pseudo-science is promoting restrictive dieting in our youth? IN OUR CHILDREN.
Why was my 13 year old client congratulated on their “willpower” when they brought a bag of raw broccoli to their own birthday party in lieu of cake?
I am writing a Facebook novel right now because this is important.
I will be going to doctors offices donating the book “Sick Enough” by Dr. Jennifer Gaudiani in hope that someone will read it. I speak to health and PE teacher meetings for Fairfax and Loudoun County public schools about how to safely communicate health and nutrition information tochildren and adolescents, in hope that someone will hear it.
I feel like that isn’t enough, though. Which is why I’ve resulted to a social media post, because realistically more people can be reached this way.
“What is the take-home message?” You may be asking if you have made it this far. I’m glad you asked!
1. Be mindful of your words. Be mindful of your judgements. You never know what people are going through.
2. When communicating nutrition information to people (especially personal trainers, health teachers, and health professionals who are new to working with eating disorders) focus on what to add instead of what to take away.
For example: “did you get some fruits and vegetables today to give your body the vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals it needs?” Instead of: “do not eat sugar. It is bad.” Another example: hypertension. Research shows that increasing potassium in the diet is effective in lowering blood pressure. Yes, some people need to be careful of the salt shaker and high sodium foods. However, isn’t it lovely that we can talk to them about what they should include vs. what they shouldn’t, and improve their lab values without promoting dichotomous, black and white thinking about eating?
3. Stop demonizing foods, labeling themas “good” or “bad” and putting a moral value on what people eat. Food is supposed to serve two purposes: nourishment and enjoyment. That’s it. You are not “bad” because you had a dessert. You are not “good” because you ignored your basic biological needs by cutting your calories in half.
4. Let’s stop downplaying eating disorders and simplifying their complex nature by telling people they are “fine.” Let’s listen to people when they talk. Let’s keep comments about people’s bodies in a locked vault, stored in the depths of hell. Let’s help people who we believe to be struggling get help. Let’s check in with people who are exhibiting disordered eating behaviors, rather than asking them what their secret to weight loss is. Let’s stop food shaming other people.
5. Understand that eating disorders do not have a face. They do not have a shape or size. They are not only restrictive eating, or purging, or binging. They come in all shapes, sizes, and forms and manifest in many different behaviors. Men, women, non binary, it doesn’t matter. Eating disorders do not discriminate. You cannot look at someone and determine whether or not they have an eating disorder.
6. Most importantly, let’s talk about mental health, because it’s important.
Thank you for coming to my ted talk ?
Edit: To everyone who has reached out to me, thank you. Below is a link to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website. They have a lot of informative resources, along with a treatment finder to get help in your area.
Prosperity Eating Disorders and Wellness Center in Herndon, VA (where I work) has a free family/friend support group for those who have loved ones with eating disorders at 5pm on the first and third Monday of every month. Anyone is welcome.
We also have a comprehensive team of therapists, dietitians, and a psychiatrist/medical director. We have a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) and outpatient services. We offer art therapy, yoga, and acupuncture. If you or a loved one are struggling, give us a call or visit our website.