Anorexia, recovery, and privilege

Anorexia is a rich, white, teen girl disease.

Or so I thought. And a lot of people still think.

It’s just not true.

I have come to know that eating disorders do not discriminate.

  1. First of all, I’m white but I’m definitely not rich and DEFINITELY not a teen (I was the oldest by more than a decade when I started residential treatment)
  2. Second, there was more diversity among the 16 revolving door patients at res than I have ever experienced in another group of the same size. There were men, women, trans, homosexual, Christian, atheist, parents, married, divorced, smokers and non, drug addicts, sexually traumatized, and so many more identities that converged where we all had one thing in common – an eating disorder

But something I keep coming back to is the idea of privilege with anorexia.

I lived in West Africa for two years after college. I saw poverty at a very deep, heartbreaking level: children begging for food all day everyday, parents who had no money to feed their families, people who trekked miles for clean water.

And here I am, “choosing” to not eat.

How can I not eat, when food is readily available and so many around the world do not have it? People are dying of starvation, and it’s NOT A CHOICE. How shallow, my need to be thin because my culture says that’s what is beautiful.

I know I have privilege. I know I am part of the dominant identity in most given situations, other than gender. I believe there is a lot I’m not even aware of that I experience because of my privilege, and that very much includes being a white, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, married with child person in America.

But, it sure didn’t feel like a choice. In the heart of my struggle last year, there were no options. I could not (not would not) eat most foods. I cried as I watched others eat. I ran miles after I did allow myself more than I thought I should. Looking back, I feel like I literally had lost my mind and was someone else.

And my need wasn’t shallow. Yes, I wanted to be thin…but WHY? Because I felt that was the only way I could be loved or accepted. On one phone call with JJ from residential, I begged him to not leave me because they were making me gain weight. Since my father died in 2008, I have struggled consistently to believe that my life is worth anything to anyone. That belief became a stronghold last year as I believed if I was thin, then I would be someone that mattered to anyone else.

Like so many things, people want a simple answer. I like simple answers. I covet the black & white of certainty. When things are gray, I start to panic.

But anorexia and privilege…it’s just gray…

For now, I believe I have privilege. I believe that my privilege has afforded me to be able to get treatment and progress in my recovery, where some others can not. I also believe that my anorexia was not a choice I made out of American vanity.

I believe I inherited a set of factors (including genetics and environment, namely from my mother and her side of the family) that made me highly susceptible to an eating disorder. I believe I have been through circumstances, being an only child whose parents both died young, to increase the probability of depression and an eating disorder. I believe that the framework in which I have come to experience the world led me a mental illness that changed my brain physiologically, leading me to have far less control over my perceptions versus reality.

Last year at this time, I sat in therapy for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and literally believed my 22 month old daughter would be better off without me. I thought my husband would be happier if he didn’t have to deal with his crazy wife. I wished for an accident to happen because I knew that I couldn’t commit suicide because I couldn’t have my daughter live the rest of her life thinking she wasn’t worth her mother deciding to live.

Thanks to my privilege:

  • I was able to seek treatment
  • I had insurance cover 10 weeks of intensive treatment, and over a year and counting of outpatient
  • I had a job where my supervisor encouraged me to do what I needed to get better, and colleagues who gladly picked up my workload while I was gone
  • I had a mother in law who was happy to provide extra help with childcare
  • I had benefits that allowed for extra childcare
  • I had a job where I somehow had earned enough leave to be fully paid the entire time I was out on leave
  • I had a husband who rearranged his whole life: changing his work schedule, being a single parent, visiting in the evenings after a long day at work, and ultimately, moving across the country, all for his wife who needed to get her life back
  • And above all, certainly unearned – I believe that my faith in Jesus was healed by hitting rock bottom and finding no other way out. It’s not tangible, but the emptiness I felt since abandoning my faith in 2008, is restored with peace that I believe comes from knowing that God, in HIS goodness and grace, loves me and that the sacrifice of Jesus is not something to discard, but to rejoice in and pursue life because HE is worthy

The privilege of recovery…not everyone has it. What’s on my mind is how do I impact moving the needle so that people who need help can have it?

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