One of the side effects of parenting a child with an eating disorder was that I started seeing eating disorders everywhere. I suddenly found myself labeling all food related behavior that was odd, unusual, or different in any way as eating disorder behavior. Whether it was dinner with a friend who ordered a salad with dressing on the side or anyone in the “Organics” section at the supermarket, I found fault with it. Was I really suddenly an expert at diagnosing eating disorder behaviors or was I really angry and afraid? While I am certainly more in tune with what eating disorder behavior looks like and my radar is definitely high when it comes to anything related to eating disorders, the truth is that I was angry and afraid. I was not alone either. I heard the same kind of statements in the support groups I belonged to. I would hear people comment that cutting back on processed food or sugar was really eating disorder behavior in disguise. I would hear people criticize everything from training for a particular sport, vegetarianism, cutting back on desserts, to ordering dressing on the side and everything in between.
My common sense told me that, at least in my case, this wasn’t healthy. It didn’t feel like a healthy attitude for my son or for me. Eating disorders are very insidious and they love nothing better than to be the center of attention. I started wondering if I had really recovered as much as I thought I had. Could it be that the eating disorder still had a very strong hold on me and was still keeping food front and center in my mind at all times and in all places? Had it duped me again?
I needed to step back. Was everything that I saw really eating disorder behavior? My common sense told me that there are reasons that someone might need or want to lose weight. The person who can no longer walk up a flight of stairs without being out of breath might want to lose some weight and exercise to build their endurance. A doctor may encourage weight loss and dietary changes to address high blood pressure or diabetes. These are valid and even necessary reasons that weight loss might be encouraged. Should I now start labeling them as eating disorder behaviors because they might trigger my son should he know anyone who fits this description? Does training for a favorite sport equate to an eating disorder or purging by exercise? That would mean that most professional athletes would fall into this category, and while some certainly do, this cannot be generalized to include all or even most professional athletes. Because someone decides that they would like to cut back on processed food or cut back on their sugar intake, is it fair for me to label this as eating disorder behavior? There are many reasons why someone may feel this is a necessary dietary change and those reasons can range from health or recommendations from a doctor to personal taste or choice. The person shopping in the Organics section may desire to have fewer pesticides in their food. The reality is that there are reasons that people make the choices they do and they don’t always point to an eating disorder. The behavior that I really needed to examine was my own, not everyone else’s. What was it that was driving me to see eating disorders under every rock and in every behavior?
The Organics section of a food store would certainly attract Orthorexics. There is no doubt that the number of Orthorexics shopping in that section would be quite high as an overall percentage of that population. That is a subset of people shopping in that section though. There are many people shopping in that section of the store who do not have Orthorexia or any eating disorder and shop there for a variety of reasons. That someone with an eating disorder would be attracted to the idea of cutting out sugar or processed food is a given. The eating disorder looks for any and every excuse to restrict. This does not mean, though, that everyone making the decision to reduce processed food or sugar has an eating disorder. Among those suffering with eating disorders, a large number will order salad at a restaurant and put the dressing on the side, but this doesn’t mean that all or most people choosing salad at a restaurant are restricting. The assumption that I was making was a logical fallacy. It was arguing from the specific to the general.
In taking a good inventory, I had to be honest and admit that I can’t possibly know by reading about or casually observing the behavior of others whether or not they have an eating disorder. Reading an article on Pinterest or elsewhere about the dangers of processed foods or cutting back on sugar intake does not make me qualified to assume that the author is suffering from an eating disorder. What is really frightening me is that my son might read something like this and decide that this is a good thing for him to do. It, of course, is not a good thing for him to do because he does have an eating disorder. Nor was it fair to accuse my friend (in my thoughts) of having an eating disorder because she ordered salad at a restaurant and dared to put her dressing on the side. She was in no way malnourished and in the years that I have known her I have never observed behavior that I could say interfered with her quality of life or her health. Beyond that, it was really none of my business. What made me angry and irritable was seeing the salad and the bad memories that it triggered for me. And if I am really honest it was just plain hard to see someone who could eat that way and not carry it too far.
I suspect that the other thing that made me angry and on edge much of the time was the fact that this is in your face all the time. Social media and the internet in general put everything right in our faces and available in an instant. When I thought about my childhood, things were very different. I grew up in the “hippie” generation and vegetarianism was becoming popular. There were some kids in the cafeteria whose parents were vegetarians and so they were also by default. I do not believe that they had eating disorders. In most cases their families abandoned the practice and I don’t recall massive weight loss or a refusal to eat sweets, fats, etc. I can’t say none of them had eating disorders because I can’t know that with certainty, but I can say that there wasn’t anything to suggest it. What I can say is that if I had an eating disorder I would have been attracted to those vegetarian kids. The difference between then and now is that I would have had to do some work to learn how they ate. It would require me to sit down with them to learn their diet and it would require that we both made the time to do it. Outside of that, I would have had to go to a library and get a book. Now, with the internet, every kind of diet is available at a keystroke. There is access in a second to anything from vegetarian diets, ketogenic diets, grain-free, low carb, no carb, and sugar free diets. Someone with an eating disorder would most certainly be attracted to those sites and can access them with ease. In fact, they can just pull up Pinterest, their newsfeed on Facebook, or just the various news outlets on a homepage and see this stuff. It is literally everywhere, but it isn’t solely related to eating disorders. When I was a child, pornography was something behind the counter at the drug store wrapped in a brown paper wrapper. If you wanted it you had to go through the embarrassment of asking the store clerk to give it to you and the brown paper wrapper not only hid the pictures, but made it obvious to everyone else what you had purchased, potentially increasing the embarrassment. In other words if you wanted the pornography, you had to work a bit for it. Now, those pictures and images are available in the privacy of your home with just a keystroke and just look at the epidemic that has exploded. I am not suggesting that eating disorders and pornography were not around when I was growing up, but I am suggesting that with the ease of access, the numbers have increased. This is, of course, one reason among many for the increase, but disturbing none the less. For anyone loving someone with an eating disorder, it is scary.
So, what was I going to do about this and what message did I want to give my son? As I alluded to earlier in this post, I felt that the eating disorder was duping me again. It was putting my focus on seeing eating disorder behavior everywhere and my focus was in some way always food related. This continued to make the eating disorder the center of attention. The behaviors described above are normal and even necessary for some and are likely eating disorder behaviors for others. That really isn’t the point. I can’t know that unless I have some intimate knowledge of the persons involved, which in almost all instances will not be the case. I don’t know the person writing the articles, shopping in the Organics section, or the reasons behind someone cutting back on sugar or processed food. The point isn’t whether or not these individuals do or do not have an eating disorder; the point is how my son reacts to this and how I react to it. What I want for my son is for him to have a strong sense of self. I want him to be able to put that oxygen mask on himself first. He needs to recognize what are triggers for him. If going to a restaurant and seeing his dinner companion or someone two tables away order a salad for an entree is a trigger, then he needs to decide if he is ready to do this yet. If shopping in the Organics section of a supermarket brings on thoughts of being over fastidious with food and restricting, he shouldn’t shop in that section. If a restaurant with nutritional information all over their menu is difficult, he needs to know not to choose that restaurant and be clear to communicate his needs to others. He needs to be clear what internet sites or TV shows are going to stimulate eating disorder thoughts or behaviors and learn that he has to steer clear of them. Most of all he needs to know and avoid those places, people, and situations that would let the eating disorder become prominent again. He must learn to communicate and honor his needs in a world where diets, perfect bodies, calorie information, and 6-pack abs will be in his face much more so than in my childhood. My wish for him is that he recognizes food as medicine right now and then eventually sees it as he did before he became sick. I want him to concentrate on his own needs rather than looking for and finding eating disorder behavior all around him. I want him to control that “eating disorder voice” rather than it control him.
For myself I want very similar things. I love the idea of activism and I certainly agree with the push for education and many of the causes that Eating Disorder Activists are fighting to change. My first activist job, though, is with my son and myself. I need to be sure that the eating disorder is not still making itself the center of attention in my mind (unless, of course, when dealing with a setback with my son) and distorting my reality. I need to make sure that the oxygen mask is on us first and then I can advocate for others. I also want to be able to see food as something that fuels our bodies; helps keep us strong and healthy, something that is fun to share with family and friends, and not as something to be feared. I don’t want to constantly see eating disorder behavior in every article, trip to a restaurant, or when shopping for groceries. I don’t want my son’s illness to have that much power over either of us and I want to recognize its very tricky, narcissistic need to be the center of our attention. Have I been duped again? I can’t speak for anyone else experiencing what I have been experiencing, but for me….I think that answer is yes, I have, but as I have said many times, I am now armed with knowledge and experience that I didn’t have before and that will make blindsiding me again very difficult!