It’s funny how one seemingly innocuous conversation can transport the memory back in time. One flippant remark from a man, who didn’t know any better, telling me that magazines and supermodels create eating disorders threw my mind back to the year 2005, where I sat in a room full of women with varied eating disorders, an NG tube tucked behind my ear.
That was a day of transformation, and the day that I knew I would battle my eating disorder (ED) until I took control of it, and not the other way around. Up until that moment, there was still a vague sense of denial surrounding my anorexia. For about a week, I suffered through a myriad of the questions by various therapists and psychologists concerning my eating habits. Sometimes, based on the oddness of the questions involved, I was left feeling pretty sane. Yes, in that moment I stood 5’8, and a ghastly 89 pounds dripping wet, but I really thought my eating habits, “weren’t that bad.”
See, in my mind I wasn’t anorexic. I was unique. Here I was “mastering” weight loss. I knew that the body could survive on one small meal a day. I knew how to maintain my weight, and what I had to do in order to lose even more weight.
I had won the battle against weight loss.
At least that was my belief up until the moment I sat in a small group, listening to the stories of other beautiful, emotionally bereft women. My narrow tunnel vision immediately widened with great certainty, and I understood one thing. I was not unique. I wasn’t even original in my habits and theories. In fact, nothing about my eating disorder was special, in any way.
Throughout the history of eating disorders, the behaviors are uncannily similar. Men and women who develop ED are not taught these habits, unless one person with anorexia shares tricks of the trade with another person with anorexia. Which is highly unlikely, because there is the need of control–which I mentioned in the previous post–and the instinctive need to keep your secret quiet.
The habits are inherent in the mind, when it is overrun with an obsession with food.
As I sat there, listening to the stories of these women who believed themselves to be fat, ugly, and unimportant in society, I started realizing that certain habits never change. Though we came from many different states and provinces, our minds in the form of an eating disorder thought distinctly the same.
And so, for all my mommies and daddies out there who are either dealing with a son or daughter strolling down the dangerous path of anorexia, bulimia, or varied eating disorders not otherwise specified, here is my noted list of the signs, symptoms, and tricks of ED.
Dieting in today’s society is normal, and even expected. Most people with eating disorders start off by merely hoping to lose a few pounds, get into shape, or hone a set of six-pack abs. So they decide on a diet plan, and are determined to maintain that rigorous diet. Variation is not allowed. There is absolutely no justification in “cheating”–at all–until a certain goal is met. Usually, people with eating disorders do not have a goal in mind, because the idea is merely to perfect the body.
People with eating disorders feel the need to be perfect.
The list of foods they will not allow themselves to eat grows constantly. But, if a food group is eaten that is not on the approved list, or even if an approved item has been consumed too fast, or in too great of a quantity, purging will occur.
Bingers differ slightly in that they will deny themselves certain foods up until a binge cycle happens. Some will even eat normally, or only slightly diet to make up for the binge cycle. When a binge occurs, the tell sign is suddenly missing large quantities of food, for no explainable reason.
Dieting will take a turn, and simply watching what food is consumed will not be enough. For instance, the amount of calories in a teaspoon of mustard is zero. The amount of calories in half of a pickle spear is five. Calories in an average piece of bread, seventy. Calories in a piece of cheese, eighty. Literally, I could spew forth all day, because it was how I–along with countless other people with eating disorders–survived on a daily basis. By counting every morsel of food that went into the mouth. Most people with ED will start fixating on grams of fat, grams of carbs, calories, or look for items that say, “low sugar, low fat, gluten free, fat free.”
Refusal to eat around people
Ever heard a friend, colleague, or child say, “No, I’m not hungry, I’ll eat later,” or “I don’t like that restaurant or type of food, and I’m not that hungry. I’ll just stay at home.” Or even, “I’ve got too much to do to eat right now, I’ll grab a bite later.”
Unfortunately, it might be a sign of an eating disorder. However, it could also be completely normal. The frequency of occurrence is what needs to be watched. Does that person frequently skip meals, preferring to remain in isolation? Does that person prefer to not eat around other people?
Will they eat much later, usually at night, when everyone else has gone to bed?
Anorexics that live at home tend to hide food wherever possible. In napkins, pockets, table linens, or even secret containers they keep in their laps. Some will make frequent trips to the trash can, or even bring a stack of napkins to the table. Some will pretend to chew the food, and spit it into their napkin, then transfer the napkin into their lap, or into their pocket. Others won’t bother putting the food in their mouths. Instead, they will push the food around the plate, and secretly move the food into the napkin, and out of sight.
Hiding food can also come in the form of keeping packaged food hidden around their bedroom, purse, backpack, locker, or school desk. Hoarding food is also a sign of an eating disorder. For some reason, when a person denies themselves food, or places restrictions on food, they begin to see food as a rarity, of which they need to place great secrecy in keeping. Odd? Yes. But not to an eating disordered individual.
Stomach aches, stomach cramps, acid indigestion, acid reflux, bloated belly, and other weird aches and pains in the stomach region are both real signs of an eating disorder, and falsified statements in which to get out of eating a meal.
Overexercising and secret exercising
Exercising thirty minutes to an hour a day is for wimps. Wait, did I just say that? Why yes, yes I did. See, when people with eating disorders exercise, they do so as if their very life depends on any ounce of weight gained from that bite of a carrot eaten the night before. Or the sip of water they drank at six in the morning. Even the idea of eating a juicy hamburger from a fast food commercial can spur an exercising spree.
It might start with an hour, but soon the exercising progresses. One hour in the morning, followed by an hour at night. Then three times a day. Soon, it’s three ninety minute sessions, followed by crunches in the shower, leg lifts in the kitchen, and pilates at midnight. When living in an eating disorder, there is never enough time in the day to feel like the food consumed can be worked off.
Fixation of the scale
Scales are, quite possibly, the worst invention ever created for the human body. I will touch on that more tomorrow, when I talk about prevention and promoting healthy body image. For now, I’ll focus on what the scale means to a mind filled with ED.
One-hundred twenty pounds. Wait, my clothes are on. Let me try again. One-hundred twenty-two pounds. How is that possible? I haven’t eaten today. I drank a diet soda three hours ago. That was three hours ago. Diet sodas can’t make me gain weight? Or can they? Wait, how can the scale tell me I gained two pounds in less than a minute? DID I somehow gain two pounds in one minute? Let me try again. One-hundred twenty-two. AGH! My body betrayed me! Okay, okay, calm down. I’ll do fifty jumping jacks and try again. If that doesn’t work, I’m only eating two baby carrots for dinner.
Get the point? To a person with an eating disorder, the scale is the enemy. It holds all of the power on how that person will feel at any given moment throughout the day. At any given moment. In an eating disorder, the scale gets put to the test anywhere from five to thirty times a day. It wields all the power, and also holds the capacity to lie and derange the mind.
Diuretics, laxatives, enemas
These pills are common usage in the eating disordered community. They are the fastest way to lose any amount of undue weight, and make the number on the scale go down. Not only are they used, they are abused on a weekly, sometimes daily basis.
The lemon trick
The unknown fact about lemons are that they are a natural diuretic. Some people with eating disorders will use lemons in everything they eat, and drink, as a natural purge method.
Caffeine is also a natural diuretic, and also a known stimulant. Some people with eating disorders subsist on espresso and diet soda as a means of keeping the heartbeat up, and forcing the fluid that is put into the body to pass through faster.
Refusal to consume liquid
Some forms of eating disorders will have people who not only refuse to eat food, but they refuse all liquid, as well. Even water. Liquid adds weight, which shows on the scale.
Remember, the scale is the enemy, and people with ED fight to keep the number on the scale down.
Unusual or increased time for eating
The further one gets into the eating disorder, the more the mind derives ways to keep the body from properly absorbing food. One of these tactics arises when the mind realizes that the longer it takes to eat, the longer the stomach takes to digest. We burn calories when we eat. So, if a sandwich takes four hours to eat, basically the calories eaten in the sandwich has been equaled to the amount of energy the body used to digest it.
Remember yesterday, when I said eating disorders rely on strategizing? The process doesn’t have to make sense to the rest of the world, but it makes perfect sense to the eating disordered community.
Even people who purge will slow down the time that it takes to eat, especially if they are eating when their set time was altered.
Setting times in which to eat/drink
This is seen at any stage during an eating disorder. In restricters, eating before the mind allows will often bring on episodes of hysterics, or depression. In purgers, it will send them running to relieve their body of the unwanted food/liquid.
Refusal to sleep/Sleeping for long amounts of time
The longer the body stays awake, the more energy it burns.
The longer the body stays asleep, the easier it is to deny it food.
The need to cover up
Covering up will show up in a few ways. The number one way is in core body temperature. People with eating disorders are cold, all the time. The body doesn’t know what to do with all the crazy antics being placed on it, so the heart rate drops to conserve energy, making the body cold.
Long sleeve shirts, sweaters in the summer, two pairs of pants worn at any given time, heavy socks (especially when the extremities go numb), extra blankets at night, and heating blankets are all part of the wardrobe.
Now, some people with eating disorders use the extra layers for sweating purposes, to rid their bodies of unwanted liquid. I feel like I should mention that here, because it seems a fitting place.
Overusing the shower
How many showers are needed in one day? It depends on the amount of time spent throwing up in the shower.
Unless there is just cause, like the frequent bathing of a toddler, there is no other reason to take multiple showers in a day.
Disappearing after a meal
Purgers will disappear after a meal. It might take up to an hour, but at some point the very idea of having food sitting in their stomachs will have them making up an excuse to leave. Showers are generally the excuse. Or an ill-feeling stomach.
Not to say that isn’t normal for some people, but for the eating disordered community, purging is the easiest way to get rid of emotions. Common places for purging: showers, sinks, toilets, containers stashed under the bed, out the bedroom window, and even in the kitchen sink.
Obsession with food
People that deny themselves food become obsessed with food. When food is being prepared, they navigate toward the source like starving animals–because they are–and hang around until the meal is nearly ready. It’s then that feigned illness, or the sudden desire to get away from having to actually eat the prepared meal, occurs.
Eating disordered individuals will also talk about food. A lot. During morning, they will ask about dinner. At night, they will talk about breakfast. Some may even be excellent cookers and/or bakers, but will never actually sample their own food.
Others will drive around for hours, looking for places to eat, but eventually coming home empty-handed, never having the courage to stop and order food.
Defensive stance when it comes to eating
“What did you eat today?”
Was that a loaded question, or what? If the answer is defensive, comes across as angry or belligerent, or the question is completely evaded, start to wonder about the cause.
When does answering questions about food make a person upset?
When the person has an eating disorder.