As I inconsiderately tell her about my Monday night steak dinner, she doesn’t judge, she doesn’t flinch – I guess she isn’t like “those other vegans”. But, perhaps, she just has an affliction for judgmental people. As she is someone I know, I can agree that this is very true of her personality. Does her veganism and her no-judgment attitude about it have anything to do with her previously having anorexia? I was interested in finding out.
Anorexia, like most mental disorders, is a sensitive issue. Yet it is very much in public discussion due to its status as being physically life-threatening, even more so than other disorders like anxiety and depression, which are usually judged to be “make-believe” just because we – in this day and age – don’t believe that the mind has a significant effect on the body.
But truly, any mental health disorder can have detrimental physical side effects. Anorexia is the manifestation of mental health disorders onto the physical being, but it is definitely not the only one that has physical consequences.
Studies have shown that anxiety, schizophrenia, and depression throughout life or as long-term illnesses, can have incredibly harmful effects, and even shorten life-span. The combination of decreased physical and social activities and overall lifestyle choices due to mental illnesses like anorexia are only some of the reasons we should consider mental disorders serious business.
Speaking to a previous anorexic, who would prefer to go by Christina, we find that the root of the problem is most likely never going to be a single thing.
Brig: How do you remember it starting? Were you aware of it, and why you were diagnosed? Did it surprise you when you were [diagnosed]?
C: For some people, it isn’t just a wish to lose weight, it could just be that they aren’t eating enough, they’re too busy, they aren’t hungry, and so on. I remember being moody, and having strange heart episodes, and that’s when I told my school nurse that I think I needed help. I didn’t think I had a problem, and I still have a hard time really accepting that I had it, because I wasn’t like most of the girls in the support groups – crying, staring at food, and not caring if they eventually died from this.
Brig: So for you, it wasn’t a wish to lose weight?
C: No. I just thought I was being healthy, but I was only eating about 1000 calories a day.
Brig: And how did you feel running on just 1000 a day? When did it make you realise you actually had a bad relationship with food?
C: I loved and still love eating, but I counted calories, so I know it was 1000. I was really moody, and I couldn’t do much physical exercise. I don’t remember how exactly I felt, but my sister said she could feel me close myself off from others, and for one, stopped singing in the bathroom like I always do.
Brig: You’re a vegan now – was that a conscious choice, and why did you choose that path? Did it have anything to do with wanting to be healthier?
C: I think a lot of people in recovery go vegan, or get into a health fad like fitness, because then nobody can tell you “you’re being unhealthy” or “you’re starving” and force us to eat food that we don’t want to eat.
Brig: So you’re kind of creating a world for yourself, where you can be safe from judgment, and also try to find the meaning of healthy? Was judgment from others a big part of your illness?
C: Kind of, yes. Judgment was not okay when I was recovering, but now I couldn’t care less, because I have healed on my own. 2012 seems like forever ago, but I remember looking at Instagram a lot, when skinny used to be “in”, like fit is now. I wanted to be healthy, and I thought skinny meant healthy. I guess it affected me more than I knew at the time. It’s strange how much others influenced my image of myself back then. People just shouldn’t be able to dictate what others do.
Brig: Completely agree! I [Nathalie] write a lot of social commentaries on precisely that topic. Do you ever feel like you would write something about your experiences with anorexia, or is this the only step you’ll want to take into that area of your past?
C: I feel comfortable doing this interview. It wasn’t a big deal to me, because I didn’t also feel that depression that most anorexics feel. I just wanted to be healthy, and it sort of went wrong. It was annoying though, having others decide what I should eat, because I was very vulnerable, as is the recovery from anything, and I wanted to heal on my own terms. I’m not ashamed, but it still sucks to be told what to eat or be labelled by people and doctors who have no respect for how personal this disorder is.
Would you look at that! Another way of labelling people: Giving them diagnoses that are impersonal. Life becomes overwhelming for everyone, and when you think you are fine – you might have depression, or if you think you have an unhealthy relationship with food, you might really have anorexia – this doesn’t mean that you have been given a new identity, it simply means that society considers you generally under this category. We are, after all, seven billion people trying to find ourselves and each other, so there cannot always be unanimous agreement on and categorisation of everything.
Multiple factors, such as genetic, environmental, and epigenetic, on top of personal experiences, access to food and amenities, and living standards influence the diagnosis. It is not a disorder that appears and is instantly identified, as the disorder sneaks up usually from a wish for weight loss, turns into a hatred of self, or lower self worth, body dysmorphia (not seeing your size or appearance true to reality), and a mix of depression and anxiety. Although, as my interviewee has enlightened me with, it can just be a response to our judgmental nature, and obsession with being healthy, and perfect.
Christina thinks that the best thing you can do if you are suffering is figure things out for yourself, and to do things on your terms. For her, the reason to stop was that it was life-threatening if she did not take a step back to look at the bigger picture and get better. Remember on this Mental Health May, and all other days, to accept yourself, and stay in tune with all the amazing potential you have, regardless of any unsolicited and unwelcome judgment, because it will be a turning point in your life. Choose your health, mental and physical, above all things.