NEDA Week 2013: Finding Compassion

Welcome to NEDA week. Each year, this week gives us a chance pay special attention to the problem of disordered eating in our society. Here at CR, eating disorders get quite a bit of attention throughout the year, but I like the idea of a week in which a kind of collective consciousness arises around the issue.

In the past, some of you have expressed a little frustration with the focus given to EDs on the blog. I totally understand that the topic doesn’t resonate with everyone, and I also know that there are countless other urgent issues in the world that also demand attention from bloggers and readers. But disordered eating just happens to be a problem I’ve encountered intimately, and as you’ll see in this post, I’m still very much in contact with it as someone who dwells on a college campus. So I feel both compelled and responsible to write about it. If you’d rather hang back for a couple of days and return to CR later in the week, when it’ll be business as usual, that is totally cool! For the next few days, in honor of NEDA week, I’m going to give some thematic focus to Green Recovery stories and to ED awareness here on the blog.

The other day, I was drifting through the Georgetown student center when I caught sight of a girl dividing her snack bar into little pieces. She would periodically pick the wrapper up and read the nutrition panel, then return to the business of sectioning the bar, picking a fragment up, staring at it, and putting it back down. As I watched this, I caught myself thinking “Oh god. Just eat the snack bar. It’s not going to kill you.”

People who have had eating disorders often see disordered behavior everywhere and in everyone. I’m guilty of it for sure, so when I see a behavior that looks suspicious, I do my best not to automatically project. Who knows what I saw that day: maybe the girl was simply distracted and playing with her food. Or maybe she really was engaged in the waltz of food restriction, the careful apportioning of calories and fat. Either way, I hope never to have a thought so dismissive as “oh god, just eat it. It’s not going to kill you” again.

Because the truth is that, when you’re wrapped up in an eating disorder, you really do feel as though one bite of something forbidden is the end of the world. Either you believe that it will do you physical harm—by poisoning your body with sugar, carbs, or fat—or you fear, consciously or unconsciously, that it will crush your sense of identity. When I was anorexic, my sense of self was completely entangled with my restrictive patterns. I ate less than other people, “cleaner” than other people. I had no needs, no wants, no bodily desires. When I was forced to eat, either for social reasons or because I was so hungry and tired of restricting that I surrendered to a craving, the identity I’d crafted was completely dismantled. “One bite” of food didn’t just evoke fears of weight gain; it threatened the abstemiousness upon which all of my self-worth rested.

No story illustrates this better than a meal I shared with my best friend, Gabi, during my freshman year of college. We were in the student center, and I was trying to skip lunch, as I often did, by citing a sour mood. Something was amiss with the guy I was dating, and I was too sad to eat, I said. The boy drama was real, but of course the desire to abstain from food had nothing to do with him. Skipping meals had become so much a part of my habits that I was horrified of doing otherwise. Gabi insisted I get something—just a toasted bagel, she begged—and I did it to please her. Halfway through our meal, she caught me tearing up pieces of the bagel and stuffing them into my napkin. I had hoped I could get away with throwing them out later.

This incident actually brought on some laughter—nervous laughter, maybe, but laughter nonetheless. This is not because I had careless friends; indeed, all of my friends knew that something was wrong with my relationship with food, and they voiced their concerns to me frequently. I didn’t deny it, but I wouldn’t go so far as to admit I had an eating disorder, either. At the time of this incident, none of my friends, Gabi included, could have known how fine the line would be between my disordered eating habits as a freshman and the full blown relapse that would come two years later, when I was a junior.

When I look back on that day, I’m more struck by my panic and horror at the thought of eating than I am by the humor Gabi and I shared after I’d been busted. I remember how I broke into an anxious sweat when encouraged to eat. I remember feeling as though my lofty goals for the day were about to come crashing down, and with them my sense of pride. I remember being furious at Gabi; I remember thinking that, if the price of eating was going to be a feeling of weakness and failure, I’d start making up excuses not to eat with my friends at all. I remember feeling pretty certain that just one bite of that bagel was going to destroy me.

Which is why, twelve years later, I should hardly be capable of dismissing the fear and panic that another young woman might be feeling as she ponders taking a bite of food.

When you’ve passed through an eating disorder, it’s tempting to sometimes lose patience with those who haven’t yet conquered their own demons. Having realized how much better life is on the other side of recovery, you simply want to scream “Snap out of it! Choose life! You’ll be so much happier once you’re free of this!”

But that’s not how it works, is it? When I was sick, I was at least vaguely aware of the fact that “normal life”—unfettered socializing, enthusiastic meal taking, no obsession with exercise or calories—was probably better than my anxious and obsessive existence. But what if it wasn’t? What if the things I knew I’d have to give up by getting better—my sense of control, my fragile body, the perverse pride I took in my capacity to (in the words of my friend Jordan) “survive for a year on nothing but cigarettes and Swedish fish”—might actually turn out to be even more precious to me than normalcy? I was so paralyzed by the thought of life without these emotional crutches that recovery didn’t often feel like a risk worth taking. And so I persisted, year after year, in avoiding it. When I did bounce back from my college relapse, it was more for the sake of my friends and family than for myself. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I was fully prepared to embrace recovery, and everything that came with it.

From the outside, eating disorders can be very ugly indeed. Viewed in different lights, they can seem unconscionably privileged, horribly narcissistic, or painfully myopic. They are a bit of all of these things; to this day, it mortifies me to admit that I used to throw away food when I knew full well that access to food is a luxury. When we see a man or woman who is dissecting a snack bar into tiny pieces or stashing a bagel into a napkin, our instinct is often to feel infuriated with the selfishness of the act. But it’s important for us—all of us, including those of us who have had eating disorders, but may have forgotten what they’re really like—to remember that eating disorders are mental illnesses. And they are the mental illnesses with the highest mortality rate in this country. It may seem preposterous for anyone to believe that one bite of a bagel, or one slice of cake, or one French fry, is the end of the world. But when your mind and body have been altered by an eating disorder, that feeling is completely real, and totally inescapable.

A great deal of attention is given to the cultural influences that underlie disordered eating: impossibly thin Hollywood starlets, runway models with skeletal bodies, magazine ads, TV messaging that invites us to take pride in ourselves and then pummels us with weight loss ads. I believe that all of these things contribute to the prevalence of disordered eating in our society. But I think it’s important to note that eating disorders not only responses to culture. If they were, most everyone would have them, and while I sometimes make a wise crack that practically everyone in our society has an ED, I realize that this isn’t true.

In the last fifty years, our understanding of mental illnesses, including depression and bipolar disorder, has progressed enormously. Though many people still do harbor the idea that someone with clinical depression can “snap out of it,” more and more of us have come to see that one simply cannot will one’s way in and out of mental illness. Recovery and management are possible, yes, but it’s usually necessary to acknowledge that a problem exists, and seek out professional help and personal support.

I’m loathe to make breezy comparisons between eating disorders and other mental illnesses; each affliction is unique. But I do believe that eating disorders merit the same kind of attention and care given to other mental illnesses, because they are too often dismissed as pathological narcissism.

As an interesting side note, it’s worth pointing out that some cases of disordered eating maybe be correlated with certain genes. In 2003, Dr. Dorothy Grice and a team of researchers studied 192 families in which at least one person had been diagnosed with anorexia, and at least one other with what is now referred to as an EDNOS (eating disorder not as specified). There were no genetic similarities common to the entire sample of subjects, but when the team studied the thirty-seven families in which two or more relatives suffered from anorexia nervosa, they were able to identify the possibility of a likely genetic linkage common to all of the subjects. Serotonin and opioid receptor regions were found to have a significant association to anorexia, and genes for the serotonin 1D receptor (HTR1D) and the opioid delta receptor (OPRD1) were identified on chromosome 1, pairs, 36.3–34.3—a region identified by the scientists in a linkage analysis of anorexia. I’m particularly interested in the fact that serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to modulate pleasure, is implicated in this study; many people with eating disorders ultimately develop “highs” from being hungry, and I was definitely one of them.

The fact that scientists are discovering such correlations is no reason for despair; countless illnesses with genetic underpinnings respond to treatment, mental illnesses included. I also don’t mean to minimize the role of society/culture in ED genesis, or the role of one’s family history, inner life, and experience. But getting back to the larger point of this ambling post, which is the necessity of compassion toward those who are suffering, I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that eating disorders arise from a complex mix of culture, personal history, genetic predisposition, and numerous other factors that we have yet to fully understand. Such awareness may help those who don’t know much about EDs to recognize them as the urgent afflictions they are. Eating disorders aren’t just extreme diets. They are illnesses that demand attention and sympathy, even when they are perplexing or frustrating.

In other words, even when we want nothing more than to take someone by the shoulders and tell her that the fragment of food she’s obsessing over won’t kill her, we’d do well to remember that her fears and anxieties are very potent, and feel very real. We should remember that she is suffering. Certainly I, of all people, should remember this.

So, as NEDA week begins, I’m vowing not to forget how acute the struggles of ED life were for me once upon a time. I’m remembering that one doesn’t just choose to be so afraid of food that it feels perfectly reasonable to divide it into tiny pieces and then try to confiscate it. I’m reminding myself that the benefits of recovery weren’t always obvious to me—indeed, for thirteen whole years, they escaped me altogether. I’m hoping that one thing I write—or one comment left on this blog—will prove to just one reader that recovery is worth it.

Most of all, I hope that you all have, or are on your way to having, a true understanding of your own value.

Have a great night,


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Categories: Food and Healing

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  1. PS: It infuriates me that anyone would complain that you focus “too much” on eating disorders.

    1) Your posts on EDs aren’t really that frequent. What, one every few months, maybe? They even seem to have decreased in frequency since the early days of your blog.
    2) Even if your blog were entirely dedicated to EDs, it’s your blog! Do yo thang.
    3) Those folks have no empathy and clearly don’t recognize the seriousness of the issue.

    That’s my rant. Good on you for being a generous and benevolent blog host, but if it were me I’d smack ’em.

  2. Thank you for so accurately describing the fear that accompanies anorexia! As you know, I’m still very rigid about what and how much I eat, but that anxiety has shifted, if not dissolved somewhat. I remember clearly the first time I sat through a college class (the *entire* class) worrying about how long I could live on (an unhealthily low) X calories a day and how many calories were in my scone. After the class, I turned to my friend and confessed my wasted hour to her. I was afraid it was the start of something kind of awful, and it was.

    You reminded me to treasure the progress I’ve made. 95% of the time, I write off that progress, whine about how I still haven’t found that effortless, long-term system of caring for my body, and forget the fear you described. But today I’m going to do a little happy dance and remind my husband how happy I am (haha – and how happy HE should be) that I’ve come so far.

    I berate myself sometimes for still being fixated on my body – which I think makes me less present to my relationships, but HALLELUJAH I’m not the girl I was in college. I couldn’t be a decent wife or Chihuahua mama if I were.

    Much love, Gena! You continue to inspire.

  3. Phenomenal post, Gena! Thank you very much for admitting such a private and sensitive part of your past to us, as well as informing and reminding us that EDs did not form by choice but a legitimate mental disorder that deserves just as much attention as any other type of illness or disorder, regardless of mental or physical. Recently, I heard a very ED-like behavior from a childhood friend of mine in another country. That girl’s behavior reminded me so much of anorexia that I was dumbfounded that no one around her, not even her parents, noticed it. They just thought she was “extreme-dieting” (which I’m surprised they even accepted it). Then again, her native country is a place where mental disorders are not the top prioritiy so her behavior was simply dismissed. When my friend saw how alarmed my response was from that story, she admitted she never realized the level of seriousness that behavior was and it was the first time she ever heard of anorexia… It just pains me to see that this country does not value one’s health over anything else… I hope this changes and I really hope posts and blogs like Choosing Raw will be able to reach to children like this girl and help them to the light of life!

  4. Hi Gena,
    This post articulates so honestly and expertly my feelings and thoughts on my own experience of anorexia, thank you. This post says so much of what I would like to express to my family/friends. It is a difficult subject to speak on with clarity to those I love and I am very grateful to you.

    all the best,

    • I am so glad you could relate, Phe. You’re not alone. Be well, and I hope you draw strength from this community.

  5. Awesome, Gena,
    I love that you’re composing posts like this. I’ve been struggling lately with how much to talk about my own ED struggles and how they impinge upon everything else; struggling particularly with the question of how much of anorexia/bipolar to include in my creative writing. This says so well why it’s such a hard question: serious people still believe that serious mental health conditions can be snapped out of!
    My naturopath says a psychotic episode is like an asthmatic having an asthma attack; i.e. no stigma applicable…but then he talks about the ED more as something to be let go of and replaced by a different coping mechanism.
    Thank you for your beautiful storytelling and commentary.

  6. “Most of all, I hope that you all have, or are on your way to having, a true understanding of your own value.” OMG Gena, that line just kills me. I walk such a tightrope of feeling that my value is diminished greatly if I am not walking the walk of “clean” eating and also knowing that I am not a number on a scale that that my friends and family really do love me no matter what my pants size is. It would probably sound nutty to someone without an ED, but these thoughts are in my head each and every single day. One of my favorite quotes is “The battle for life is the battle for sanity” and I believe that to be true. It’s a battle.

  7. This is such a beautiful post Gena, and I applaud you as always for your wonderfully writing style that somehow manages to cover all the bases. I don’t get over here often enough and really enjoy reading your thought provoking posts such as this, so don’t stop! Thank you for your honesty and insights, I am certain they will help more than just one 🙂

    • Thanks, Shira. And god, likewise for blog reading — I don’t often enough get to visit my colleagues’ blogs, yours included, these days! Thank you so much for reading.

  8. Gena, these posts are some of the most important work you do. You can always see that in the comments section! It’s easy for me to have compassion for people with EDs because I still have problems with body image and sometimes obsessive thoughts about body image and food. I’ve never had as much compassion for thin-framed people with EDs, though, because it just doesn’t make sense why a person would care that much who already was able to be thin relative to others. I have a lot of empathy for larger people with body image issues and for anyone with binging problems. But emotionally I understand the fear of fat or becoming larger can be terrifying for any person of any size.
    This community is so unique and I never cease to appreciate its beauty, and appreciate you for creating it. Even though I’ve found my food groove for now, it’s a very anchoring space for me to check in with every now and then, especially when you talk about body image, which is where most of my ED-shadows manifest.

  9. Great post, so well written, and I have to say, particularly relevant to me at this point in time. I am, now, struggling to normalize my eating, after a week of horrific, beyond the point of pain binging, that was itself brought on by months of restriction. I will add that the restriction- which became increasingly obsessive -came about shortly after I gave up alcohol last fall; while I never planned it that way, it’s as if I was substituting. It’s funny. It was studying neuroscience, and all the biological underpinnings to alcoholism (I found the research into the effects of prenatal stress on fetal brain development particularly illuminating), that has helped me to stay sober this time around. I’ve come to believe that it’s nothing personal; my brain is simply wired to crave alcohol no matter the consequences. And after my recent eating mayhem, I definitely believe this is the case with eating disorders as well. Now I’ve gotta try to fix myself- seriously, anyone, any advice?

    • You know how much it means to me — truly — that I’ve helped you in some way. And I am SO, SO proud of how far you’ve come, Melissa.

  10. Ah yes, the perverse pride that comes from living a year on smoking cigarettes and Swedish fish… or, in my case, surviving 8 hour retail shifts on a single non-fat mocha. Your post is a good reminder to stay strong and learn from the past. Thank you for your honesty, and your encouragement.

  11. Thank you, as always, for writing such thoughtful posts! I always look forward to hearing your perspectives on EDs, and for me, this post couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite being in recovery, there are always bad moments where I look to fall into my old habits, and knowing that there are others in the same boat always helps.

  12. I love you. Beautifully written. Your word choice of “confiscating”, in terms of confiscating food/nourishment/sustenance/life from oneself, is so perfect as to be momentarily breathtaking. xo

  13. Great post Gena. I am one of those people for whom ED doesn’t really resonate, however I do appreciate learning more about the issue. Although I’ve never had an ED per say, I do understand food/body issues to a certain point. My mother has always had a weird relationship with food and her body image. (I remember seeing her binge eat and knowing even as a child that this was stange behavior. Also, she’s always been strangely proud of her “weight loss accomplishments” after an illness such as meningitis and even cancer.) I have children and I am very aware of how closely they observe and how my behavior around food, among other things, effects them. Thanks for increasing my awareness of this important issue.

  14. thank you so, so, so much, Gena.

    this could not have come at a better time.


  15. This is one of your best posts to date. Thank you for sharing these bits of yourself. I think you’ve made the topic accessible to both those who are struggling with EDs and those who have little knowledge of this subject.

    Your example of holding back judgement and exercising compassion is a great one. These are practices which I think everyone can benefit from whether they have had an ED or not. I know I have to stop myself sometimes from thinking such judgmental things or being condescending towards someone that doesn’t “know what I know”. On the flip side, it sucks to be judged when people don’t know your experience. Neither person benefits from those negative thoughts or words. A little bit of compassion and consideration does everyone good 🙂 Thanks for that reminder.

  16. Gena, your genius way of marrying fact with heart never fails to blow me away. You always seem to find a unique way of discussing familiar yet still-potent topics (i.e. eating disorders, animal rights); and I love that you bring in your own opinions without being biased. Thank you for that.

    But I would like to extend an even bigger THANK YOU for being so open and honest about eating disorders here on your blog. I know that topic is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is one that I hold very dear, as I have been struggling with anorexia on and off for the last 15 years. These days it has manifested as more OCD-like behaviour (not necessarily having to do with food or exercise), so I also appreciate you pointing out the links and comparisons between other types of mental illness. I often cannot tell the difference between my ED and OCD “voices”.

    I could gush and rant forever about you and mental illness, respectively, but my point is that you are BRILLIANT. I honestly don’t know how you manage to juggle all of your commitments without skipping a beat (at least from what I’ve seen!), while still managing to put self-care first and foremost…but man, if that isn’t recovery, I don’t know what is.

    Thank you for being you, and not being afraid of that 🙂

  17. what a phenomenal post, gena! i usually have a hard time reading longer posts(my brain wonders), but this post had my eyes glued to the screen the entire time. such inspiring and insightful words. thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  18. Gena,

    What a thoughtful and thought provoking post. It brings back some long-ago memories. I suffered from an eating disorder several decades ago when I was only 13. Though the acute period was short term—only a few months—it affected me for many years and, honestly, I have to say it still does a little bit in my attention to what and how much I’m eating and how my body looks. One comes out the other end changed, don’t you think? I am not a doctor or therapist so when I refer to the “acute period” perhaps I am self-diagnosing. What I mean by that term is that it was only a short period that I was underweight and severely restricting my eating. It is kind of hard to remember what I was feeling and thinking then because it was so long ago, but your descriptions feel familiar. I had a sense of accomplishment when I got through a day eating very little. You don’t write about this, and maybe you didn’t experience it, but I experienced social isolation because I was no fun to be around. I lost friends during this period.

    The possible genetic basis intrigues me and may offer some explanation for my family. My older brother also was briefly anorexic and my younger brother had problems with substance abuse, including opioids. I don’t understand the science of it but it sounds like opioid receptors play a role in a person’s susceptibility to an ED and perhaps some people with that gene are susceptible to substance abuse. Thanks for an enlightening post.

  19. Such a great post, Gena! I think that this is an important article not only for former eating disorder sufferers, but also for family and friends who might not understand the psychology behind an ED. I will absolutely forward this to my parents so that they might view the disorder from a different perspective.

    As someone who initially suffered from anorexia and now experiences periods of extreme binging, I often (erroneously) categorize myself as somehow inferior to anorexics who struggle with restrictive tendencies. Our patriarchal society encourages women to be chaste, delicate, and unassuming–all qualities I ascribe to anorexia nervosa. On the other hand, compulsive overeating can be perceived as gluttonous behavior that should only be reserved for sexual arousal (i.e. the image of a lingerie-clad woman stuffing down hot dog after hot dog). I hope that, when I do fully recover (and I will!), I’ll be able to extend compassion to persons suffering on all areas of the ED spectrum. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming Green Recovery post that addresses binging. xoxo

    • And I look forward to sharing it! I’m glad you’re coming to see that that distinction is erroneous. The manifestations may differ, but I tend to feel that eating disorders are all expressions of similar kinds of suffering.

  20. Gena, thank you for being a strong voice advocating for recovery and reminding us all to have compassion for those who are struggling. As someone who considers myself to be recovered from anorexia, I struggle with knowing when or how much to share about my own past… I still fear the stigma, even though I am personally proud of the work I put in to recovery, and feel passionately about the need for a cultural shift in the understanding of all mental illness. I look forward to following all that you have planned for NEDA Week!

  21. I do tend to have humongous compassion and very little judgment towards or impatience with others with anorexic behaviors, even after years of recovery. (I do have to work on suspending judgment around LOTS of other behaviors around food, whether its eating in movie theaters – the horror – or *cleansing.*) I think my compassion is rooted in my own experience: recovery did not come quickly or easily to me; it’s something I embarked on very reluctantly, after nearly a decade of restrictive eating. Of course, I feel a tremendous sadness when I encounter someone in the throes of the disorder, because I know the joy of recovery, and in particular, of eating (the irony!), but at the same time, I can still remember the peculiar satisfactions that my eating disorder gave me (so many people, even in the green recovery series, recount their eating disorders in harrowing terms, but my ed was a source of serenity … a kind of anchor), and I can absolutely understand the unwillingness to give them up. I might have comprehended, intellectually, realities such as *body acceptance* or *intuitive eating,* but I could never have imagined they could be my realities.
    One thing I did miss very much during my eating disorder (and this seems not to be the experience of others) was the ability to eat more. Yes, it’s true that I enjoyed the semi-starved state (and to this day I work best on an empty stomach), but I also enjoyed food (my own habit of cutting things into tiny pieces, etc., was all about making the food last …), so I was always in my mind making a kind of trade off. I too have memories of pretending to eat, hiding food, especially while eating with others, at non-designated times, but way more memories of not allowing myself to eat (because I didn’t want to be seen as weak, or to see myself that way). It’s really hard to explain, but it’s like both the eating AND the not-eating required “effort.” Starving wasn’t easy for me, it was always a matter of Herculean discipline. I sometimes think I only recovered because I ran out of stamina! Thank God it’s turned out to be so great because I no longer have any discipline to speak of – I could not starve myself again even if I wanted to.

    • Elizabeth, thank you for sharing an experience which has always shamed me and made me feel like a “failure” with anorexia. I have to remind myself that OF COURSE not eating is hard. And to be honest anorexia – coping with difficulties by denying oneself food – would not be in any way effective if food was not important and desired. It requires no willpower or discipline to forgo something you don’t want and so would be incapable of giving you the “high” and sense of achievement Gena refers to.
      Sorry for a somewhat rambling inarticulate comment from someone who is actually still suffering but I just HAD to respond because I have always felt so lonely with that exact struggle

      • I relate to both of these comments; starving was always a challenge for me. I actually went through a phase where I was taking Tylenol PM to sleep every night because the hunger pangs were keeping me awake — they were relentless, and it was never effortless, even when I felt proud of it.

  22. Gena, thank you for this post and for your commitment to giving voice to the stories of healing and recovery from EDs. Thank you for being so brave and honest in telling your own story, and in revealing a less-than-kind thought you had. This kind of honesty is the way to break the shame and silence around this issue, which is a key to healing both individually and culturally. I hope someday to have the strength to follow your example.

    After just receiving the news today of the untimely death of a college roommate of my sister’s (who struggled with an ED as well as addiction), I am reminded now more than ever of the deadly nature of these illnesses that are all too often written off as a simple pathological excess of privilege or narcissism. Thank you for all you do. I am confident that even now, years before you’ll actually have those two magical letters after your name, you are saving the lives of countless human and non-human animals.

    In fact, the root of the word “doctor” means “teacher”. You are already a great teacher and way-shower to so many. I’m sure I speak for a great number of your readers and friends when I say that we truly love and appreciate you for your courage, your compassion, and the gifts you share with all of us.

  23. Thanks for your post. I think you make some really positive points, and I wholly resonate with your overall message to find compassion for others’ eating habits. But I do want to point out a couple of potentially stigmatizing aspects of your post. First, the assumption that eating disorders skew to anorexia and bulimia. Compulsive eating and binge eating are also disordered eating, and people who have gone through those have good reason to be mindful of how they’re eating. Perhaps cutting up food into squares etc. is a means of slowing down to eat and notice what the food is. (Or perhaps it’s anorexia.) Compulsive and binge eating are much more prevalent in our society. I don’t think we’ll address obesity and its health consequences until we address the underlying emotional issues we have societally with our relationship to our food. My overall point is one that resonates with what you’re telling everyone every day — eat real food and eat it to nourish you. Second, solid research suggests that when people suffering from mental disorders are further stigmatized when they are told there is a biological basis for it. In the evidence you’ve demonstrated, there’s merely correlation, not a basis. It’s worth being nitpicky about, but I’m a health scientist, so sorry if I’m being overly pedantic! Last point, It’s important to avoid creating a false dichotomy between mental disorders with or without a biological basis to suggest that one is more “real” than the other. What creates a mental disorder is a series of symptoms that a person experiences that are outside a norm created through a cultural/societal consensus. Anyone suffering from a mental disorder is really suffering from it, and in that sense, it’s real.

    I realize this sounds like a lot of criticism; I don’t want it to belie my respect for your post overall and its excellent points and the amazing service that you do for so many people with the excellent work with Choosing Raw!

    • Hi Clare,

      No offense taken at all, and in fact, I’m grateful for the constructive criticism of someone who has studied health science. I’m pre-med right now, but I’m far from totally understanding how to work with and cite research, so I’m always glad when a pro gives me some guidance.

      To respond to your points:

      First, I certainly didn’t mean to assume anything about the relative commonality of different types of EDs. I tend to write about anorexia here because it’s the form of disordered eating from which I suffered most prominently, and that’s basically when I focused on it in this post. I will admit, I do tend to assume that cutting up and pushing around food are hallmarks of anorexic behavior, but you’re right to say that they aren’t necessarily. Because I realize that it’s important to address all types of disordered eating, I’ve asked several times for more Green Recovery submissions focused on binge eating disorder and compulsive eating; the one I’m posting tonight or early tomorrow is such a story, finally!

      Second: I see your point about stigmatization. But I do think there is a widespread assumption that eating disorders are willed, conscious behaviors driven by narcissim; I think people often regard them as extreme diets, or cycles of attempted diets and subsequent bingeing. So my point was to emphasize the fact that eating disorders are not so simply explained. I’ve always found the account of eating disorders as a form of mental illness to be very persuasive, and it fits with much of what I have witnessed. There may be a stigma attached in using that language, but in my opinion I think the way eating disorders are dismissed or trivialized or assigned blame in our society is a far greater problem.

      I’ll definitely change “basis” to “correlation!” If you have suggestions on how to articulate it better, I’d be all ears.

      Finally, it certainly was also not my intention to imply that there are strata of mental disorders. I’m glad you brought that up. I’m going to think of ways to amend accordingly.

      Thanks for the feedback —


  24. Oh Gena. You’ve done it again, and what I wouldn’t give for you to take me by the shoulders and tell me that things can get better. Rationally, I know that they can, but there’s nothing entirely rational about being caught in the throes of depression and overexercising/ED behaviors. I’m currently struggling myself, although loathe to admit that I am, and appreciate your candor and honesty.

    At the end of the day you have to want help, you have to reach out and make yourself vulnerable to that uncertain future. I suppose you have to decide if you want something more than you have. Easier said than done, but you articulated that well. Thank you again for your voice.

  25. As someone struggling with an eating disorder, and on a waiting list for an in-patient hospitalization program, I also want you to know how much your blog and your posts mean to me… and all those who are struggling, or not. Each Green Recovery post speaks profoundly to me and always gives me a sense of support, understanding and hope. I so wish this family of mental illness did not succomb so many of us, but it does, and we need people like you taking the time and heart to reach out and share their experiences. Not to mention your salivating meal posts…they constantly drive me to create beautiful, healthy meals and give my body what it needs. So I am glad you are taking this week to put more focus on this subject, and I know many, many others are as well. Thank you for everything!

  26. My gosh, Gena…I think this post is one of my all-time-favorites; in fact, it so precisely and eloquently summarizes what an eating disorder feels like from the inside out that I see it’s great potential for even greater widespread impact than that of this fabulous community you have assembled and so bravely lead. To that end, I hope you’ll consider submitting it to a national news outlet, such as the Huffington Post, etc. as your unique personal vantage would raise still much needed awareness on this incredibly complex, misunderstood illness. All current sufferers and critics of sufferers would benefit tremendously from your hard won knowledge and insights. Most importantly, your powerful combination of facts and personal testimony could very well motivate those in the throes of this illness to take action to reverse their slide, or in the case of those who harbor disdain for sufferers, extend kindness and support toward sufferers.

    Beautiful work, Gena!

    • And, as ashamed as I am to admit considering how deep and frequently this illness has derailed my life, I recognize myself inhabiting the judging onlooker role you so perfectly recreate as well.

  27. Oh Gena! I love this – I really do. Your words are so well-researched and respectful… but so honest! I admire your candor and your poise always 🙂

    I finally sent over a green recovery post of my own… it involves a little more strange, sparkly imagery than yours… but such is my life!

    Thank you so much for hosting this series, even in the midst of what’s sure to be an incredibly busy time in your life! <3

  28. I so appreciate you writing this. I especially hope that those less familiar with eating disorders read as you have a real way with words and comprehensively explain some really important points which I’m sure will be an education to many and help encourage compassion towards sufferers. I find the possibility of a genetic basis to eating disorders particularly interesting too. Look forward to reading other posts in this series this week.

  29. As someone who has only recently come to acknowledge her own BED (hence the anonymity despite having commented here multiple times), this post resonated so deeply. Especially this: “But that’s not how it works, is it? When I was sick, I was at least vaguely aware of the fact that “normal life”—unfettered socializing, enthusiastic meal taking, no obsession with exercise or calories—was probably better than my anxious and obsessive existence. But what if it wasn’t?”

    I remember talking to friends years ago about how much my food behavior (which, at the time, I didn’t even see as disordered, just yo-yo dieting) was wrapped up in my identity. They didn’t understand it at the time but neither did I. Reading those sentences though…I felt all the pieces fall into place.

    I for one appreciate the ED-focus here. It was one of the many reasons I finally had the courage to acknowledge that something was wrong and that I needed help beyond what I could give myself. So thank you for this, and every Green Recovery and ED-focused post. Because, for some of us, they are the gentle, loving nudge we need. xo

    • Oh man. Thank you, K. Thank you, and you have my encouragement and pride at acknowledging your ED and moving forward, toward recovery. I’m confident you’ll get to where you want to be, and I am so happy that this blog has had a small roll in it all.