The blog Between Living and Existing wrote about a new eating disorders awareness PSA campaign across Canada. The Looking Glass Foundation, a non-profit organization seeking to develop Canada’s first residential center for the treatment of adolescents with eating disorders, is the sponsor of the campaign. Their PSAs sound very hard-hitting — images shown include girls compulsively weighing and measuring themselves and a bulimic using a broken toothbrush — and seek to expose the realities of eating disorders.
I applaud any effort to raise awareness of and education about eating disorders. I especially applaud the organization for not being afraid to show the often harsh and definitively unglamorous side to an eating disorder. I further applaud the organization for seeking to establish a residential treatment facility, and for its summer camp and scholarship programs. We need more organizations like The Looking Glass Foundation.
My only issue with the campaign, and it’s a minor quibble, is its theme: “Not every suicide note looks like a suicide note.”
It’s a common stereotype that people with an eating disorder are subconsciously or even consciously trying to kill themselves. And I can see where many might get this idea. After all, eating disorders erode not only the mind, but also the physical self. Many sufferers, like me, are left with lasting physical reminders of our eating disorders years after we have reached a stable point in our recovery — that is, if one succeeds in recovery. For all too many, recovery is the carrot forever dangling out of reach. And don’t doubt it: Eating disorders are as real and deadly as cancer. There is no cure. The final symptom is suicide.
I’m sure there are people with a death wish who hope an eating disorder will help them achieve this goal, but for me and most people with eating disorders I know and have talked to, eating disorders aren’t a way to die. They’re a way to live. There is a reason why people who promote anorexia as a lifestyle choice say that a dead anorexic is a failed anorexic. For many, an eating disorder is a way to cope with larger emotional issues in their life. We are unable to comprehend and manage the real issues in a healthy and constructive way, and so we fall back on our bodies, allowing its behaviors and compulsions and urges to say what we really feel and need. In flesh, we describe a pain we can not communicate in words. For me, my eating disorder came at a unique crossroads in my life, a time when I felt deeply depressed, confused and unsure of myself and also a time of great upheaval in my family, personal and professional life. Starving gave me a goal, a way to stand out and exert control.
Many eating disorders naysayers like to bandy about the statistic that only some two hundred people die each year from anorexia, but the truth is, we have no way to realistically estimate just how many people die each year from an eating disorder. One would be hard-pressed to find anorexia or bulimia cited as the cause of death on any death certificate, just as obesity itself is never listed as a cause of death. Most often, it is the complications that arise from an eating disorder — heart irregularities, malnutrition, kidney failure, electrolyte imbalances, depression and suicide, etc… — that cause the death of a person with an eating disorder. And since we don’t even have a reliable estimate of the numbers of people with an eating disorder — many cases go unreported for fear of shame or due to a lack of resources — we will never be able to pinpoint a reliable estimate of just how many lives are taken each year by eating disorders.
It is true that an eating disorder is often a silent cry for help. It is also true that starvation and chemical imbalances brought on by an eating disorder often cause such great depression in sufferers that many feel suicide is the only way out of their pain. It is also true that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. In fact, the annual death rate associated with anorexia alone is more than 12 times higher than that of all other causes combined for females between 15 and 24 years of age. But most people with an eating disorder do not want to die and their disorders are not a suicide note in the making. Most people with an eating disorder want to live – and an eating disorder allows them the only way forward they know how to take in order to keep living.
Eating disorders carry with them great ironies: Most develop as a form of control, but soon begin to control us; the object of our obsession does not bring us happiness, but rather more sorrow and pain; and no matter how much weight we lose, it’s never thin enough. But perhaps greatest irony of all is that that which allows us to live has also the power to kill us.
What about you? Would you say your eating disorder represented a form of suicide or is it instead a way to cope with life?