Eating Disorders Awareness Week: The Connection with Trauma

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Trigger warning: This post discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance, please visit Crisis Text Line, the National Eating Disorder Association or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

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What does trauma have to do with an eating disorder?

This is the question I asked myself over and over again, but it’s a question we don’t seem to talk about.

What did my sexual assault have to do with my eating disorder? I struggled to put the pieces together. I poured over scholarly literature, using my school’s online library to find any research I could that examined the connection between rape and eating disorders.

But the literature was scarce, and even more scarce was the information online that examined the intersection between trauma and eating disorders. The discussions about these issues existed in separate spheres. Sexual assault advocacy seemed to center around helping survivors report the assault, seeking some sort of justice for the atrocity we’ve experienced.

But, to me, the onus is still on the survivor to report–and the shame I felt, the powerlessness, was exacerbated by the feeling that I was supposed to be fighting a battle against my assailant–not a war against myself.

Eating disorder recovery seemed to be in a different realm as well. When I entered into treatment again in the summer of 2015, it was so hard for people to understand why I was holding onto the eating disorder. I didn’t want to be sick, I knew what it was like and I knew what I was losing–my desire to be an advocate, my voice and my life.

My eating disorder wasn’t about fitting into a thin “ideal,” it wasn’t about looking “pretty” or being accepted. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite–I wanted to disappear, to feel safe and to shrink my body so that no man could possibly find me attractive–so that, I thought, I couldn’t get hurt again. This was hard for people to understand because it doesn’t fit within the stereotypes we associate with eating disorders, and it didn’t seem to fit with any of the common factors that can contribute to eating disorders.

The shame and subsequent isolation I felt drove me to search for a sense of community–to search tirelessly for anyone who had a similar experience, who could relate and understand the connection between my assault and eating disorder.

In December of 2015, I began reading Controlled, a book by Neesha Arter, an inspiring woman who has come to be one of my closest friends. I couldn’t put the book down. I kept highlighting passages, writing sentences down in my journal, thinking the whole time, “Oh my God, she gets it.”

Neesha recounts her experience with sexual assault, and her subsequent battle with anorexia. There are so many passages in this book I could present here that describe what I felt and I find so much of myself in her writing. But this particular quote I will share and it is very important to me.

“My body felt divided and broken from my mind, like a shattered piece of glass on the floor. Those two boys had damaged it beyond repair. It had no beauty left in it, and I didn’t my respect anymore. The memory of their hands on my body and inside of me took away any ownership I had for myself.” (p. 54.)

I found my story reflected in Neesha’s. Finally, someone had put into words what I had felt and someone spoke up about the intersection of trauma and eating disorders, putting together the pieces that I had struggled to connect.

In Neesha, I found the “other me,” someone who shared my story and my truth.

So often we hear, “You’re not alone.” It’s a true and very valid statement, but it wasn’t until I was able to really connect with another person, to talk with her and to share our stories, that I truly felt I wasn’t alone.  

I realize that this piece may not be as uplifting as many eating disorder posts are. I haven’t include some kind of “happy ending” or wrapped the post up with some larger realization I’ve discovered through this process. That’s not what this post is about.

My hope is that we can start a dialogue about the ways sexual assault and eating disorders intersect, that we speak up and break the shame, and potentially find your “other me.”