Working in the counseling profession, I get bombarded with emails from the corporate office letting me know whenever there’s a special focus on some aspect of mental health for a day or a week. To be honest, I don’t always pay attention when these emails hit my inbox. Mostly, I just get annoyed when I have a new email in my work inbox. Today, I got an email informing me that this week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.
This one hits close to home for me. If you’ve kept up with my Life Story posts, you know that I spent the majority of my teenage years dealing with anorexia nervosa. Looking at me now, you’d never even imagine that not eating would ever have been an issue for me. But it was.
At the age of 11, when I was in the 6th grade, I weighed about 130 pounds. I’m not a medical expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m almost certain that’s a lot for a kid of that age. I mean, it’s not as if I was tall and muscular. As the fat kid in a new school, I was an easy target. So I was picked on. And I was about as good at dealing with my emotions then as I am now. So I repressed all of those hurt feelings.
During the summer before my 7th grade year, I lost 50 pounds. It was pretty drastic. Eventually, my parents became concerned enough to take me to see a doctor. They had no idea why I had lost so much weight. They knew my appetite had changed, but they needed to find a reason for that loss of appetite. The doctor I saw put me through every test for every ailment he could possibly think of. The fact that my issue was psychological never seemed to cross his mind. Eventually, that’s the conclusion that was reached. “Aaron could be anorexic.”
I remember my mother explaining to me what that meant. I think, at first, I had a hard time understanding that it was a disease that wouldn’t require medicine to help me feel better. It was something I would have to see a counselor for. It was something I would have to talk about for a long time while I tried to change my way of thinking about things. I would have try and change the way I dealt with stress and the world around me. I would have to figure out how to express some of those pesky emotions that I’d been bottling up for so long.
Over the course of several years, I saw a handful of psychologists. Looking back, I can only say I appreciated the work that one of them did. The rest of them, in my humble opinion, were quacks who had no clue what they were doing. Here’s the thing, I was not a textbook anorexic patient. Since I didn’t meet the criteria that they had in their minds for what an anorexic should look like or should be thinking or feeling, they did not know how to properly treat me or my disease.
Yes, I was anorexic, in that I had no desire (most of the time) to eat food of any kind. I had no appetite whatsoever. I vividly remember sitting down to a meal, eating two bites of one thing on my plate and claiming I was full. And it wasn’t just that I was saying I was full to get out of eating. I felt full. My brain told me that I had eaten enough. I wasn’t trying to lose any weight. I did not have a distorted body image, as they say most people with eating disorders do. When I looked in the mirror, I saw just how sick I was. I saw a kid who was little more than skin and bone. I knew that my fingernails had stopped growing. I knew that my hair was falling out. And it terrified me.
But I didn’t fit their mold. Even if you were to discount the fact that I was a boy, a rare case among anorexics, I still didn’t fall in line with their treatment plans. They were trying to treat a disease by using some kind of manual that, in their minds, should have worked. They weren’t trying to treat me, the patient, as an individual.
So that’s why I’m writing this. Even though I’ve said it all before in previous posts, I want to make it clear. Not everyone is going to deal with this disease in the same way. Just because you are able to label someone with anorexia or bulimia or binge eating, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be just like the last person you labeled as anorexic or bulimic or a binge eater. As we take time to be aware of eating disorders this week, be aware of that.