Double Take: Myths surround eating disorders
- on November 19, 2012
BY DR. WES CRENSHAW AND KATIE GUYOT
Katie: Anorexia nervosa whittled me down to 90 pounds when I was 15, putting my body mass index in the first percentile of girls my age.
I’m not proud of that, but I am proud to write that after regaining the weight I lost, I have achieved happiness and healthiness. I’m sharing my recovery story today for the sake of those who can’t yet say the same.
As an anorexic, I judged myself by how I looked, not by how I felt — though thinking back, I neither looked nor felt good below 100 pounds. I knew every fact about starvation and organ failure, but I couldn’t trust myself to act in my own best interest.
That’s where my parents’ support became the most important life preserver. They changed their own lifestyle to combat my fear of food, filling the house with healthy options and refusing to give up on me when I was, to put it nicely, being a brat.
My mother devoted three years to putting together an ideal recovery team — a doctor, therapist and nutritionist — while I sulked and shot off ungrateful comments about feeling like Hansel and Gretel being stuffed for the witch’s oven.
My mom and dad did everything right — which means they treated my mental needs instead of trying to force-feed me.
Understanding my anorexic traits, such as perfectionism and anxiety, allowed me to see that in my search for control over my body, I had lost control over my life. I chose to start eating of my own volition, and I will always be grateful to my parents for giving me the chance to make that decision for myself. I’ve never regretted it.
I’d be lying if I said I’m overjoyed with my body (few women are), but I have found a sense of internal health, so external health followed naturally.
Feel free to laugh at their simplicity — I still do — but my mantras have become, “Eat if you’re hungry,” “Nobody cares as much about your body as you do,” and my favorite, “Live.”
Dr. Wes: Hard to top that. When Katie did her interview in April, she shared this story and her willingness to share it. I found it remarkably courageous and insightful.
One important thing Katie notes is the collaboration of professionals in her case.
It’s always odd to me how people with anorexic kids take a referral for a nutritionist and think that will solve the problem, as if starving oneself to the point of insanity might have something to do with not knowing which foods to eat. Understanding nutrition is important, but anorexia and bulimia are not moral or behavioral problems, nor do they stem from a lack of education.
Another myth is that these problems stem from media pressure to be thin. Media images of teen girls with perfect bodies may well create an impossible standard of perfection, and some teen girls may fall prey to that, but parents won’t find all the answers there, either.
Eating disorders are complex, multidimensional problems. Their causes go much deeper than misguided body image, all the way to who and how young people imagine themselves to be.
They typically involve family and social dynamics — most often an incongruity between what one believes others expect and what one feels he or she is able to deliver. In fact, anorexics and bulimics most resemble cutters — teens and young adults who are so frustrated with their inability to resolve normal family conflict that they build up all their anger and then turn it on themselves.
This analogy also helps us understand why eating disorders require mental health treatment. Changing cutting behavior requires more than getting someone to understand the health risks of cutting. They simply don’t hear that argument. Likewise, anorexics have to deal with their core psychological conflicts before they can consume all that good nutritional information we’re trying to give them.
Katie’s experiences are a treasure for our readers in their honesty but also in the pathway they point toward change. In the throes of an eating disorder, a family often feels very helpless. Katie and her family remind us that things can get better when we search out and find the right pathways.
— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his new practice Family Psychological Services at dr-wes.com. Katie Guyot is a Free State High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to email@example.com. Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.