Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Manhattan Assistant Clinical Director Temimah Zucker, LMSW discusses common myths about eating disorders and recovery. In this week’s blog post, Temimah helps us to debunk some of these misconceptions.
One of the most commonplace occurrences I experience when meeting with a client, working with a family, or even describing my line of work is that I am met with myths and misconceptions. Myths about eating disorders, about recovery, and about those who struggle. These myths impact the ability to ask for help or to be given help appropriately. One mission I’ve taken upon myself, is to debunk said myths whether it be in one-on-one interactions or to a room full of people eager to hear about eating disorders and activism.
Below are listed some of the most common myths I have heard and even thought myself before experiencing my own eating disorder and entering the field:
- An eating disorder is a choice; it is about attention or care and if the individual is willing enough, it can “just go away.” Within this myth are a number of thoughts or ideas that when believed, perpetuate the lack of adequate care and coverage needed for mental health issues. An eating disorder is not a choice; one does not wake up one day and choose to engage in behavior use. Rather it is something that develops over time and is a conglomeration of various underlying factors including events, genetics, and chemical interactions. To develop an eating disorder is not a choice but to actively move toward recovery takes thousands of difficult choices each day. And these choices are not simply about “wanting it enough.” If it were that simple then the extent of necessary care would not exist. The process of recovery absolutely includes motivation but it also includes trial and error, integration of coping skills, exploration of the purpose of the disorder and so much more. Those struggling experience pain, grief, fear, and a plethora of other emotions and just as the underlying issues are a melting pot of factors, so too is recovery.
- One can tell if someone has an eating disorder by how s/he looks. An eating disorder is a mental, behavioral, and psychiatric illness. Notice how the above words did not include the words “visible” or “seeable.” An eating disorder is not to be measured by numbers in any way; calories, weights, years, pounds – none of these factors is relevant or necessary. It is about the internal experience of the individual struggling. By relying on numbers or appearance too many individuals are overlooked and their suffering is ignored. One does not need to be underweight to struggle with Anorexia Nervosa because it is a mental illness. To assume that someone is suffering when s/he “looks it” or when it is obvious that s/he is using behaviors is to also assume that when one is not using behaviors or at a certain weight, s/he is “cured.” Instead, it is vital to remember that we provide care based on experience. And that when someone stops using behaviors this is often when recovery feels hardest because the maladaptive coping mechanism is no longer in place. This myth that an eating disorder is obvious also leads those suffering to feel invalidated if they do not “look” as others would imagine one with an eating disorder “should” look or feel as if they are “not sick enough” if others don’t “see” the disorder. To understand that a disorder is based on feelings and thoughts will allow so many individuals afraid to ask for help, or who have been rejected when asking for support to know that they too deserve care.
- One will never truly recovery; an eating disorder will remain with the individual for life. Carolyn Costin was the absolute pioneer around the reality of full recovery. At Monte Nido, we hire many staff members – including myself – who can act as recovery role models to show that full recovery is not only possible but present. Recovery is not linear and will not take place over any particular timeline. But it is always possible and this recovery does not include eating disorder thoughts or struggles. It means that food and weight/shape/size no longer interrupt the individual’s life experience. Instead, the body is appreciated and food is enjoyed rather than being used to cope. It will be a journey but not without an ending. To be recovered is not a myth or misconception; it is attainable and requires introspection, challenges, practice, and support.
There are countless myths that unfortunately interfere with the help for those who need it. Sometimes clients continue to struggle with believing that these myths are true and part of the process is to continue exploring and debunking. Sometimes supporters learn and relearn the reality of these misconceptions, which happens in our Multifamily Groups and family sessions. And more often than not we have a unique opportunity to teach individuals in society whether it be professionals, friends, and other individuals who impact or are impacted by eating disorders.
I encourage advocacy when possible but above all I encourage you, as the reader, to remember and adopt the truth behind these misconceptions. Whether you are fighting a battle, supporting a loved one, or interested in learning more remember that change starts with you, within you.