I’ve always been a believer in the saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And I feel, as a writer, this is applicable no matter what you’re writing. Not that I think I have some kind of great, magical power or huge influence as a writer, because I don’t. I do, however, write things that people read, and I feel it’s important to say something useful whenever possible. So when I was plotting my Unbreakable Love series, I decided it was a good opportunity to talk about an issue near but not particularly dear to me.
Today, June 2nd, is World Eating Disorders Action Day. In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, formerly known as EDNOS, or Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Four out of ten people have either personally experienced an eating disorder or know someone who has. If you’re reading this blog, you’re one of those four people because I’m someone who has.
Back in the nineties, there was a so-called “classic sufferer”, which consisted of middle class white females in their teens and twenties, who is not “objectively fat”. Since then, researchers have determined that eating disorders are prevalent across racial and gender boundaries. However, at the time all of this started for me, I was the “classic sufferer”. It started when I was sixteen and it stuck around in various forms until I was twenty-six.
There were only a few periods during that time that I actually “looked like” I had an eating disorder. One of those periods was when I was twenty-three. My entire life was a mess at that point—which is another blog for another day—and my sickly thin state was just the bitter icing on the utterly twisted cake. My grandmother recounted a story to me recently.
“We were at someone’s wedding,” she told me, “and you were wearing this long, strappy dress. I could see every last one of your ribs and when we got in the car I cried the whole way home.”
The wedding was that of my cousin and I remember the strappy dress. I had borrowed it from one of my friends and was so excited because I’d never been thin enough to borrow this particular friend’s clothes before.
Ironically enough, I went to the lake with that same friend a few weeks later and she pointed out that I was way too thin. We sat on the back of a boat on Lake Travis and she said, “You look sick. You need to do something.” And that was when I cried.
I’d like to say it’s also when I decided to fix the problem, but eating disorders are never that simple. I’d “fixed the problem” umpteen times at that point. The mindset of an eating disorder is very similar to an addiction, in that you become cunning and conniving in order to keep getting your “fix”. The “fix” in an eating disorder is maintaining all the behaviors you’ve developed.
Ultimately, I did fix it—which is also another blog for another day—but, just like an addict, fighting the mental battle never ends. And as with a lot of things in my life, I found catharsis in writing about it. Granted, I wrote about it several years after it was no longer an issue, but somehow the process of working through it via writing made me feel even better.
Which brings me back to the responsibility I feel as a writer to write something useful. Thousands of people have written books about eating disorders, but I wanted to write my story. And that’s what Until You is.
Yes, Until You is just another one of my sweet little romance novels, but if you read it, you’ll see my personal experience with the disease woven through the story. I recalled some of my former behavior and realized how nasty it could be and how that affected the people I loved, and I guess you could call this me trying to explain myself. There was a reason I did so many of the ugly things I did and it was because my mind didn’t belong to me. And that’s what I wanted to show in Until You. Something else takes up residence in your mind, and fortunately for me, I managed to evict it.
That said, however, not everyone is so fortunate. Eating disorders are the single most deadly mental illness and the reason is two-fold. People with eating disorders have a high risk of suicide, but in addition the chronic malnutrition they suffer extracts a physical toll on the body. The combined mental and physical assault boosts the mortality rate from death by sudden heart attack, multiple organ failure, and other deadly consequences of prolonged malnutrition. Overall people with anorexia nervosa have a six fold increase in mortality compared to the general population. Reasons for death include starvation, substance abuse, and suicide. Also notable is an increase rate of death from ‘natural’ causes, such as cancer.
The facts and figures are more than a little depressing. Fortunately, there are things we can do about it. For World Eating Disorders Action Day 2016, the following nine goals have been proposed as a global manifesto to be presented to and acted upon by policymakers and governments to take action on the growing epidemic of eating disorders across the globe.
- We call for all front line providers (including pediatricians, primary care doctors, dentists, emergency room and school health providers) to be educated in the identification, diagnosis and referral to appropriate services of eating disorders.
- We call for accessible and affordable evidence-based treatment, with early diagnosis and intervention a priority.
- We call for public education about eating disorders to be accurate, research based, readily available and geared to end stigma about eating disorders.
- We call for an end to mandatory weighing and BMI screening in schools, and development of evidence-based health programs.
- We call for increased awareness of diversity in eating disorders, as eating disorders affect a wide cross section of the world’s population, including people of all ages, sizes, weights, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, nationalities, and documentation status.
- We call for community and family eating disorders treatment support programmes to be available for all.
- We call for research-based interventions to be delivered in schools and universities on the facts about eating disorders, and how peers and staff can best support patients and families during treatment.
- We call for government agencies to include eating disorders services as part of health systems, public education campaigns, and regulatory bodies.
- We call for the World Health Assembly and the World Health Organization to formally recognize June 2 as World Eating Disorders Action Day.
In a more practical sense, if you or someone you know is or may be suffering from this mental illness, please have the courage to reach out to one of the following resources:
- Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) Tel: 630-577-1330
- National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Tel: 800-931-2237
- The Elisa Project (Texas) Tel: 866-837-1999
A list of international resources is available here.
With great power does indeed come great responsibility, and a mental illness such as this one can make a person feel utterly powerless. Despite what it feels like, you are not powerless. As someone who has lived it and made it to the other side, I can say with utmost certainty that you do have the power to make it to the other side, too. And because you have that power, you also have the responsibility. To yourself. To your family. To your future.
Take the leap.