Hello Everyone! Last week I blogged about the Eating Disorder Anorexia Nervosa. This week I’ve interviewed someone who is recovering from the disease and I thought she’d be able to give us some insight into what an Anorexic goes through and what some of the triggers are that set the whole process in motion. Please welcome Laura Yochelson.
1) Laura, thanks so much for giving me this opportunity to interview you. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Hello Everybody! I’m currently a senior at American University in Washington, DC. I will be graduating in one month with a B.S. in health promotion. I am also certified as a personal trainer. I’m also writing a fiction book, somewhat based on my experiences with an eating disorder. I have a blog available on my website http://www.laurasusanneyochelson.com
2) When were you first diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa?
I was first diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa just before I turned fourteen, the summer of 2003. The more obvious signs, like wanting to lose weight, had been there for at least a year. This is all before I had ever gotten a period or grown into my full shape as a woman.
3) How did Anorexia Nervosa manifest itself in your life? How did it all start?
Obsessions and compulsions started when I was eight. Basically, I had what I’d call “bad thoughts.” “Bad thoughts” are basically obsessional thoughts, sometimes involving numbers. Voices told me irrational things I had to do in order to make myself safe and protect my family. Such as touching a doorknob three times, counting the letters on signs, and washing my hands often to stay clean.
I had a lot of problems with my mouth and needed a good amount of orthodontic work. Specifically, I had to undergo speech therapy beginning at twelve. I was taught to practice exercises around food religiously, such as chewing a certain number of times before swallowing and having to eat certain ways to train my tongue so it didn’t push my front teeth forward. This is how the rituals began specifically around food. The idea of eating less food however, mostly came from diet advice from the running coach, that summer of 2003. When I was thirteen going on fourteen. I knew about dieting though, from people in my family.
4) How did you hide your disease?
I hid my disease at school, but I could not hide it from my family. Everybody in my family was ashamed though; it’s not like anyone wanted me to be open about my Anorexia Nervosa. And why should they? I was and always will be so much more than that.
At school, I isolated myself. Arguably, though, this is because I am very driven, I wanted to get my homework done, and did not want to waste time investing in relationships that felt unsatisfying to me. My friends and I were for the most part very competitive. My friends were not the best influence, so it might have been even better that I tried to hide my disease and myself. Since, it’s not like anyone in the school environment was going to show me much compassion. Plus, I didn’t want people feeling bad for me or trying to control me because this so-called disease was taking over me. I already had enough of that at home and with doctors.
In conclusion: I didn’t want to go public with Anorexia Nervosa. It’s not that the disease made me that way, even though that’s how a lot of people see it. I was only 13-14 and did not know who I was (just like almost everyone else at that age); having “Anorexia Nervosa” I don’t think I tried to hide anything more about myself than most kids do. It’s not like people didn’t notice I was wasting away; you can’t really hide it, you can just pretend to be okay when everything isn’t. I acted that way mostly because I didn’t want to be more of a burden than I already was.
5) What behaviors should parents and family look for when someone is trying to hide their disease?
This post may be potentially triggering for those suffering from eating disorders, but I think it’s important for parents to read!
If a kid is purposely skipping meals as a first sign I think that’s too obvious. Too obvious anyway, it would be a bad anorexic, who in being so extreme would break down too soon, to get deeper into an illness and end up losing to his or her extreme diet. That’s what you see in movies on eating disorders—the girl says she’s going out with friends and skipping dinner at home again and again. Not to be harsh, but this is a poor example that is oversimplified and makes the parents look dumb for not picking it up. Most parents I hope are smarter than that.
My family rarely ate dinner together; so it wouldn’t be a sign that I was missing dinner. Everyone in my family had strange eating habits. (e.g. my Mom ate cereal, my sister ate at 4 PM and my Dad traveled.) It was more like I skipped treats. I didn’t deserve food that tasted good. I got rid of small things; it started with small things that people around me were very impressed by. For example, no ice cream after running practice. Who needed the empty calories anyway? Not eating out because everyone said it was healthier to eat in, and again why waste the calories indulging? It was very much this rationalizing process…and also magnifying in my mind how BAD any one particular food was for me…like that food would kill me.
I was greatly influenced by the running coach and learned about specific ways to eat. For example, only eat pasta before a race to carb-load. No cream cheese; only lean white meats, low fat milk etc. It was a slow process more of eliminating foods and then eating less and exercising a lot.
I began eating a lot of the same foods I thought were safe and became scared of food. A person with Anorexia is scared of food. They’re ashamed and afraid of their bodies and that’s why they don’t eat. Because then who knows what the body would do. Would I ever get full, and if I did what desires, especially sexual desires would come up if the body were fed.
That said, look for fear. Not necessarily worry, but a fear for survival. And a great shame surrounding oneself and an uncertainty of identity. Anything that would shake up a person’s identity makes it much easier to collapse into an eating disorder.
6) How long did it take for you to get your disease under control?
It wasn’t black and white like in control, out of control. It was more like you let me work out talking to Mom. I’ll eat. You try to control me. I’ll control myself right back at you.
Then it’s like you get to a point where it seems like there’s no choice because my digestion got so bad I couldn’t eat. At that point, it wasn’t a disease anymore. It was the consequences of my actions; how sick and weak I had become as a result of AN. If I wanted to live, I had to eat. So, I had to learn to cook, and ultimately work very hard to find foods that I could digest. The pain from my digestive issues and the scary consistent strain on my heart were more scary to me than whatever the voices in my head were.
If anything it was letting go of the idea that a disease controlled me. That’s what I had to do to become healthy.
7) What steps did you take to get it under control?
It wasn’t really a conscious process of getting anything under control. Instead, I focused on understanding myself. I focused on pushing the idea that a disease existed out of the picture. If I wasn’t diseased, I was willing to help myself. But if society had labeled me as having Anorexia Nervosa—and therefore—a polluted self, why bother? In this sense, I came to understand disease, not from the western medical model, but instead through Traditional Chinese Medicine. I saw the disease as more imbalances in my system, as opposed to flaws in my character. I don’t see AN as a permanent type of condition that could just haunt me anytime. That last way of defining the disease is just about a lack of self-trust; perhaps one’s been swindled by the doctors who want your money and therefore, need to make you feel dependent on them.
8) How can friends and family help someone with this disease?
I think it’s important to encourage the person to take care of his/herself, since I didn’t believe I deserved to take care of myself. It’s important to encourage the person to shift and change what’s going on in their lives; to move out of routines and explore curiosities. The person with AN needs to find something they love and can get lost in; something that means more to them than the safety and protection they find in their relationship with the disease. Something that will give them new perspectives on what it means to be alive. It’s important to know that you don’t need to give yourself away to the rest of the world, you deserve to help yourself and nourish yourself just as much as everyone else.
Encourage them to get dressed up and take care of the way they look. Go shop. Encourage them to be different and find independent passions and spend time with animals. Encourage them to question the way the disease is perceived and not settle for what society and medical people say it is. Medical people don’t know everything. Medical people might not have your answers or take you seriously. If you’re anorexic and say have painful digestion problems—it’s happened to me that doctors say “it’s all in my head” and before you knew it, I was on the floor at home, blue in the face, and my Mom was ready to call the hospital.
Strive to see the good in the other person; don’t look at them and think “EMACIATION” because they’ll feel you. People with AN are very sensitive and they need to know it’s OKAY to be sensitive. It’s good to be me.
9) What should friends and family not do to help someone with Anorexia Nervosa?
NEVER TELL SOMEONE THEY’RE A TEXTBOOK CASE.
Don’t make judgements based on stereotypes.
Don’t take away exercise all together; instead encourage gentle walking outside in a quiet place; encourage spending time in nature. If appropriate encourage bone-strengthening exercise, like resistance training, that will give the person an appetite and hopefully make them want to get strong and feed their muscles. Limit intense cardio; it can be very damaging to anxiety levels and really weaken the system. In particular, I had issues with the adrenal glands, which in the long run can be very damaging.
Don’t shove unhealthy food in their face or put pressure on them to eat a food they don’t want to eat. Ask instead, what would be a safe food to eat.
Try not to get angry or yell at them for not being able to help themselves all the time. It’s bad to get to good too soon; you need to suffer to learn to value yourself and differentiate between truth and illness. That’s my experience, anyway; or the disease (or just really being overly influenced by negative energies) will give you a wake up call if you don’t know yourself.
Don’t make jokes about weight, eating disorders, etc. Even light comments like “I’m eating too fast.” Don’t say this around someone with anorexia.
Don’t encourage a child to eat because it gives the parents pleasure. This leads to only a very temporary type of healing.
Don’t scrutinize/watch (too much) what they eat.
Don’t give food more power than the person’s already giving it. This can be tricky for some people who think it’s all about food.
Don’t bring up binge eating or the idea of binge eating. Especially, don’t make jokes about it.
Don’t pressure them to eat out.
Don’t pressure them to be more social (even without food) unless they want to be.
Don’t compare them with other anorexics or other people with other eating disorders.
Don’t talk about the obesity epidemic or the “fight” against obesity.
10) What advice can you give someone struggling with this disease?
Try to remove measurements and minimize scheduling. What things can you do that you look forward to? That’s enough.
I encourage body awareness activities, gyrotonics, pilates, yoga, and massage. Touch is excellent; learning hands on healing and the ability to read one’s own body and energies is priceless. I encourage one to understand his or her body and the way it works. This way an individual can understand how food has purpose.
I encourage sensual activities that awaken one’s sensuality and sexuality, even if the person is not interested in a sexual relationship with another person.
Strive to see the good in yourself.
11) Experts say there are some personality characteristics linked with this disease, mainly striving to be perfect and a strong likelihood to worry. Do you agree with this?
Yes, but I think experts would be better off understanding this from the point of Traditional Chinese Medicine and how emotions are linked with organs. Perfection and worry are changeable characteristics. Sure, I have a tendency to be a perfectionist in some things, but not all things. Some of these qualities are good. I hate it when people criticize themselves for being a perfectionist! Find something you love and do it; don’t torture yourself for being a perfectionist if you hate what you do. Go ahead and be an artist. Be a writer. An architect. We need more talented people out there, who are dedicated and who care; and less people who criticize themselves, because they’re different and because society has come up with so many ways to label them.
12) Do you feel the media’s focus on thinness has affected your condition? Please explain.
Not any more than it’s affected other people. Thinness is everywhere. I think the body image hypothesis is overrated, too shallow, and makes people feel ashamed and misunderstood. Anorexia is about emotions that make you more susceptible. Anorexia is about growing up on a poor diet, perhaps with parents who don’t like to cook, in a family where food is not valued, and there’s a lot of fighting. Anorexia is about expressing the parts of you that you feel you don’t have a right to express. It’s about pain being locked up inside of you, so you starve yourself because you don’t feel as if you belong. You feel betrayed by your own appetites and at the same time very alone and afraid of yourself. Skinny models set a bad example in terms of the expectations for what a desirable woman should look like. But when it comes down to anorexia, it is about feeling undesirable, and therefore wanting to emulate those women, yes. But it’s also about a lot more than that.
This society is obsessed with materialism. I don’t like that. I’m not a fan of plus size models; and I’m not a fan of thin models. Save the trees instead.
If you have any further questions please make a comment on my blog or e-mail me at Lyochelson@gmail.com