Eating disorders: hungering for help
Three grapes were all Esther Lovesee had eaten that day, on a day she had given herself an allotted calorie intake of zero. So she ran four miles, crying the entire time.
“That’s completely irrational, but at the time it felt very real,” said Lovesee, a sophomore studying social work who is recovering from anorexia and bulimia. “It was definitely the lowest point where I just completely broke down and I was just crazy. I felt crazy.”
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, INC.’s (ANAD) website, 24 million people in the U.S., both men and women, suffer from eating disorders.
“An eating disorder is an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating,” according to the ANAD.
Anorexia is a disease associated with the act of starving oneself with restrictive behaviors, while bulimia is associated with the act of binging (eating large amounts of food) and purging (vomiting or using laxatives or diuretics).
Lovesee said her battle with anorexia and bulimia started with a poor body image around the age of 14 or 15. She started to diet, which eventually turned into an obsession that controlled her thoughts.
“I didn’t really realize that I was having any issues; I thought what I was doing was normal,” Lovesee said.
Lovesee had a “safe list” and an “unsafe list” of foods she could and couldn’t eat.
Her safe list included healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, while her unsafe list included milk and foods high in carbohydrates.
“I had a set calorie limit as well. I couldn’t go above it … On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I would set it at like, 400, and then Tuesday I wouldn’t eat. And then Thursday it was like 200 or 250,” Lovesee said.
She said her safe list tricked her into thinking that she was just eating healthy.
“[An eating disorder] typically starts out around dieting,” said Dr. Randy K. Hardman, a counselor specializing in eating disorders at the BYU-Idaho Student Counseling Center. “At some point for some people it becomes an obsession. It’s all they start to think about. It crosses that line and they think … the only way to be acceptable or to be OK is to be thin.”
And for some, the obsession can become deadly. According to the ANAD, eating disorders claim the lives of more victims than any other mental illness.
“Eating disorders … can be associated with serious medical complications,” according to the 2011 Academy of Eating Disorders Medical Risk Management handbook. “Eating disorders can be associated with significant compromise in every organ system of the body, including the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine, dermatological, hematological, skeletal, and central nervous system.”
As a result of Lovesee’s eating habits, her hair began to fall out, her nails got weak, her skin changed to a yellow-gray color and she developed a heart arrhythmia.
According to the American Heart Association, a heart arrhythmia happens when there are any changes in the normal electrical impulses sequence, causing the heart to not beat and pump blood properly, potentially causing damage to other vital organs.
Hardman said that along with heart arrhythmias, anorexia can cause low blood pressure and brittle bones, while bulimia has the potential to tear the esophagus and cause an electrolyte imbalance, which can become extremely dangerous.
Lovesee once fainted while driving down a residential road and hit a tree because she hadn’t eaten in three days.
“What if I had been on the highway?” Lovesee said.
Along with physical damage, eating disorders can also cause severe mental and social damage.
Lovesee preferred staying home and doing nothing over going out with friends for fear of the possibility of food being involved. She also eventually struggled with other physically damaging acts such as drug abuse and self-harm.
Her eating disorder literally became her obsession, and she couldn’t remember what it was like to be normal.
“There wasn’t a moment in the day where I didn’t think about it, where I didn’t think about how much I exercised, how much I ate, and how much I need to lose weight,” Lovesee said.
Hardman said an eating disorder is an emotional conflict and coping strategy. Being able to recognize and accept that is the first step to recovery. And in order to recover, one has to be willing to receive help.
“Part of what helps … people in recovery is to deal directly with the pain that they’re in or the emotions that they’re having and learn how to work through those things rather than to escape them through the eating disorder,” Hardman said.
After being confronted by a close friend and researching eating disorders, Lovesee realized she was causing more harm than good.
She found strength through a counselor, who helped her realize how and why her eating disorder developed, even though accepting the fact that it was a problem was difficult for her.
“People that struggle with eating disorders are tender, good-hearted people, but they’ve come to almost despise themselves over the development course of the eating disorder,” Hardman said. “So you have to help them be kinder and more accepting of themselves.”
Hardman suggested that those who wish to better understand eating disorders should think of it as an inside issue, rather than an outside issue related to appearance.
“I think sometimes there’s so much emphasis on [appearance] that somebody might think that’s what it’s about,” Hardman said. “But it’s not about the body or thinness or weight, its really about not being at peace with themselves, not feeling acceptable inside, so they’re looking for a way to become more acceptable and they’re trying to do it from the outside in.”
Even though Lovesee is still working toward fully recovering from her eating disorder, she finds hope and meaning in helping others.
She is working toward becoming a therapist to help young people struggling with eating disorders and self-harm.
“It’s because I understand it so much I feel like I could really help people,” Lovesee said. “I just want other people to not feel how I felt. So if I could stop that, I want to.”