Active Minds Blog » eating disorders awareness week Changing the conversation about mental health Wed, 25 May 2016 12:46:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Eating Disorders Awareness Week: The Connection with Trauma Wed, 24 Feb 2016 14:50:42 +0000 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.


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.”

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Eating Disorders Awareness Week: A Letter to My Best Friend’s Professor Tue, 23 Feb 2016 11:18:55 +0000 This post was originally published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper.

Dear My Best Friend’s Professor,

I wanted to start off by letting you know that I think you are amazing. I don’t know the extent of what you do here at UCLA, but I do know that in order to have reached your esteemed position at this university, you have done incredible research and have played a huge part in shaping the minds of tomorrow. For these things, I thank you.

I’m writing to you because I didn’t feel I could adequately express my concerns on the quarterly evaluation form. As you know, your student (my best friend) has been in treatment for her mental health-related difficulties. And as you are well aware, this has taken a toll on her class performance.

My best friend was diagnosed with anorexia this quarter. Her condition steadily worsened. Anorexia was killing her. She should have been hospitalized on the spot.

Through steady support and love, I pushed her to pursue an intensive partial hospitalization treatment program. I wanted to talk to you about what this looks like practically, because, as indicated by your responses to her, I am led to believe you don’t fully know what treatment for her mental illness looks like.

My best friend’s treatment is three days a week, from 8:15 in the morning to 3:15 in the afternoon, and for those seven hours she is asked to confront her greatest fears. She is asked to consume food, something her anorexia screams at her for doing. She is asked to gain back weight that her anorexia stole from her, convincing her of the lie that without the weight maybe she could someday be worthy of love. She is asked to engage fully in the program – mentally, physically and emotionally – when all she wants to do is run out the door and never look back.

When you told her to work harder, she heard you say she wasn’t good enough.

When you asked her to drop your class, she heard you say she was a failure.

When you brought in her department counselor to convince her again to drop your class, she heard you say she doesn’t deserve to be at UCLA at all.

I encourage you to consider that maybe being enrolled in your class is the only thing in her life that makes her feel normal.

Professor, you aren’t the only educator at this school that has said things like this to students struggling with mental illness. I’ve had friends that, in the midst of anxiety attacks, have been told by their professors to sit back down and finish their tests. I’ve heard professors mock mental illness, misuse the words “depressed,” “bipolar” and “psychotic,” and, without realizing it, promote stigma and isolate students with mental health difficulties.

I don’t believe any of these professors intended to hurt their students. I believe these reactions and statements speak more to the culture of stigma than they do of the professors themselves. That being said, even though these professors may not have intended harm, the reality is, they have harmed.

I challenge you and your fellow educators not to make a student’s mental health difficulties their problem, but instead to recognize that cultural stigma surrounding mental illness is our problem, and it is vital that we take steps to change this paradigm. As a professor, you are in the unique position to do this, starting with the way you treat students like my best friend.

Professor, my best friend is smart, driven and capable. Every single day she walks into the hospital, she has to put aside her anxieties and trust in the hope that this grueling treatment program will afford her some freedom from this debilitating affliction.

I urge you to consider that this is not just about her class performance, this is about her life and value as a human being. I ask that instead of pouring your energy into kicking her out of the class, pour it into supporting her in the best way you can by offering extensions to her when things get particularly hard, checking in on her feelings and just understanding that she is a human being before she is a student.

Help me celebrate her for fighting this illness. Help me celebrate her for fighting for her education despite this struggle. Help me celebrate the fact that she is still here with us.

The way you and I respond to her in this critical time affects the way she will continue to seek treatment for the rest of her life. I urge you to understand and take this responsibility seriously, because it truly is a matter of life and death for her and for so many students.


Your Student’s Best Friend

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Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Bad Body Image ≠ Eating Disorder Mon, 22 Feb 2016 13:28:12 +0000 EDAW_2016_Banner_Image

For several years now, I have helped college students plan Eating Disorders Awareness Week events. In honor of this year’s EDAW, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned.

  1. Almost every campus EDAW program is about body image.

Here’s why that sucks.

Poor body image alone doesn’t cause eating disorders. If it did, then the prevalence of eating disorders would be two or three times what it is. Now, sure, for many who struggle with anorexia and some who struggle with bulimia, body image is a part of the illness. But even then, it is rarely a cause.

Plus, when we focus almost exclusively on body image, we exclude so many people who are struggling because the issue doesn’t resonate for them. They think to themselves, “that’s not why this is happening!” and they disengage.

Finally, focusing on body image minimizes the range of eating disorders that exist and their complexity. Eating disorders are not diets run amok. The are the most persistent and deadly mental illnesses. They’re about a lot more than comparing oneself against airbrushed bodies in magazines, and everyone’s experience is different. As someone who has personally struggled with anorexia in the past, I will never be able to completely understand someone else’s struggle with anorexia—let alone bulimia or binge eating disorder.

  1. Many other EDAW programs are about nutrition.

Here’s why that sucks.

The kinds of conversations we often see about nutrition during EDAW perpetuate the assumption that if a person could just learn to eat right they wouldn’t have an eating disorder. Sending that kind of message perpetuates misunderstanding, minimizes the complexity and pain of eating disorders, and serves to further alienate folks who most desperately need to find a way to connect.

Besides, people with eating disorders are often hyperaware of food intake and nutritional principles–often to a detrimental degree. So, how about we ease up on that point?

  1. Panel Discussions Are the Best

As I mentioned before, everyone’s eating disorder experience is different. A well-crafted, safe, empowering panel discussion is by far the best way to go for EDAW programming. Here are a few things to keep in mind, though.

  • Shoot for diversity: eating disorders don’t discriminate based on age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or any other factor. If you can find a diverse group of volunteers to share their stories on your panel, that’s best.
  • Prepare your panelists: it’s important to work with panelists in advance so that they feel comfortable, are reassured that they don’t need to exceed their comfort level, and that there are resources available in case they find the process triggering. You’ll also want to coach them in how not to be triggers for their audience members. When talking about eating disorders, it’s not good to share specific weights, calorie intakes, exercise details, or any other specific methods for perpetuating and hiding their disorder. You can find more information on safety in the EDAW Action Kit at
  • Support your audience: make sure you have counseling center representatives available at the event in case an audience member is triggered or is interested in seeking help as soon as possible.
  • Follow up: make sure to follow up with chapter members and panelists to ensure that their event experience was good and that they are not in need of follow-up support.
  1. Please Don’t Have a Bake Sale or Give Away Food!

Nothing makes someone with an eating disorder run away from an event faster than offering or selling food. And although I know how effective free food is in getting people to come to your event—and how effective bake sales can be for a fundraiser—I have to say: DON’T DO IT. Not for this week of events.

The people who you most want to include and inform with your event are the people who are run off by the presence of cheap, greasy pizza or cupcakes.

  1. Target Friends.

At the end of the day, the most likely audience for a well-crafted EDAW event are students who are concerned about a peer, sibling, parent, or other loved one. This group is often the most interested in what they can do to help a loved one and support them in their journey back to wellness. Keep that in mind as you develop your programming and compile questions for your panelists.

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Recovery: It Requires Tethers Fri, 12 Feb 2016 13:40:03 +0000 I623556d1e6aebbfb83925b44add83613t’s been 11 years since I walked out the doors of my eating disorders treatment program and into a windy, but mild February afternoon.

My time there had felt both quick and endless. The days were long, the nights were short, and the effects were profound.

Unlike many other people who struggle with eating disorders, I didn’t end up having to go back to inpatient treatment ever again. I don’t mean to imply the road from there has been all puppies and rainbows, but I do consider myself incredibly lucky.

Because eating disorders will stick with you.

Eating disorders are the most persistent mental health disorders you’ll find. They stick with you because they are a complex mish-mash of mental and physical disorders.

Your medical chart will invariably lead with a diagnosis of some type of anxiety disorder. Most of the time depression will be found there, too. And depending on which eating disorder is plaguing you and for how long, you might have high blood pressure, or the early signs of osteoporosis, tooth decay, heart palpitations, or (as in my case) the early stages of liver dysfunction.

I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa just before my 22nd birthday. For some this is late; for others it’s early. Eating disorders don’t discriminate based on age.

Anorexia is known in the mental health community as being the deadliest mental illness. Every aspect of your life—your brain, your body, your relationships, your soul—breaks down. But outside the community, anorexia is seen as a privileged white girl problem; a diet run amok; a problem of vanity, not of health.

Before I was diagnosed, I clung to these stereotypes, too. But by the time I walked out of those treatment center doors, those faulty beliefs were a thing of the past. Eating disorders don’t discriminate based on economics, race, ethnicity, or access to media messaging about body type.

On the contrary, wherever there is anxiety lurks the possibility of an eating disorder.

Wherever there is shame lurks the possibility of an eating disorder.

Wherever there is a need for control lurks the possibility of an eating disorder.

Wherever there is ambivalence about life lurks the possibility of an eating disorder.

For me, anorexia was grounded in anxiety. I was, and had always been, a perfectionist. I wanted intensely to be liked.

I wanted to be most likely to succeed.

And the obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis listed on my chart was over a decade in the making before it appeared there. Before I obsessed over calories and miles and pounds, I obsessed about getting the right answers, making the perfect throw to home plate, hitting the perfect golf shot, playing the right notes, and being exactly the kind of friend, daughter, and student I thought everyone expected me to be.

When I finally came out as gay at 21, any illusion of perfection I had tried to pull over others’ eyes seemed to be gone, and I grappled for anything else I could succeed at. I began to lose weight and hear those magic words, “You look great. Have you lost weight?”

“If you think this is good, I can do better.”

Better was smaller.

Better was tougher.

Better was less and less and less.

And more and more and more.

My OCD was abetted by major depression, which helped me hide the anorexia. Depression made me withdraw from things that made me happy—friendships, events, music. In that space, numbness grew. A deep ambivalence about what I was doing to my body and its effects. An ability to turn off all my emotions and just be a robot slave to the eating disorder voice in my head telling me what to eat and how to shed more pounds.

I couldn’t feel the pleasures of eating.

I couldn’t feel the pain of overexercising.

I could only feel shame.

“You deserve to be punished.”

And then my body started to break down, too.

My period stopped pretty early on, and over the months that followed my hair started to thin. My skin lost any kind of lustre, and I was cold all the time. I also started to get dizzy when I got up to do things—like help a student with a question while I was student teaching.

This led to some pretty stupid and untruthful explanations for why I fell down, or had to clutch the wall, or had to leave the room to my supervising teacher in the middle of a class.

When I was confronted by my psychiatrist, therapist, and parents about my physical condition (the last of several interventions by friends, family, faculty, etc.), I was already in pre-hepatic dysfunction. My liver endzymes were off the charts, which put me at greater risk for a heart attack. A heart attack from which they wouldn’t be able to revive me if it occurred.

I was hospitalized. At first for 72 hours locally, and then, after much debate and tears, to a live-in treatment facility a couple of hours away.

Treatment saved my life. Without it I wouldn’t be here writing this.

And I wouldn’t be here without my parents.

And I wouldn’t be here without my best friends.

And I wouldn’t be here without this persistent determination to change people’s minds about the nature of these pernicious diseases.

So, if you hang out with people peddling that b.s. about how someone’s eating disorder is just a cry for attention or an overinflated sense of vanity, set them straight. It’s time we recognized that eating disorders are serious illnesses. It’s time we recognized that they are treatable if people can access help and get it in time. It’s time we become a little bit more “there” for each other.

I’ve been in and out of therapy over the last 11 years. I have been on and off and on medications. I’ve taken up meditation. My positive coping mechanisms have evolved and changed. I’ve had the opportunity to help people through my work.

But the anxiety stays with me. The depression descends and lifts with time. The eating disorder voice only whispers now, but it still sneaks up on me just when I’ve forgotten about it and when I am most vulnerable.

That’s why I still need help from my family and friends. I need the tethers they offer to keep from drifting again.

That’s why I still need regular visits to my doctor and transparency about my medical history and current health habits.

I need my life lines. Someone out there needs you to be one, too.

I might have walked out of those treatment center doors alone 11 years ago, but I was going home to family and friends who have been with me every step of the way. And for the first time in a long time, I could see and feel the world around me.

If you’re wondering how to help a friend who is struggling, check out our Be A Friend resources.

If you or a friend need immediate help to find assistance for an eating disorder, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Information and Referral Hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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#EDAW: Supporting Someone with an Eating Disorder? Here’s What You Need to Hear Thu, 26 Feb 2015 08:35:33 +0000 National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is February 22-28. All week long, we’re bringing you blog posts specifically on eating disorder awareness and recovery.

All across the country this imagesweek, people are raising awareness for eating disorders: a group of mental illnesses that kills more people each year than any other.

We are breaking down the stigmas of eating disorders and advocating for those who struggle. While much attention will be brought to the people who suffer with or have recovered from eating disorders this week, there is one group who mostly likely won’t be recognized: support people.

When I struggled with anorexia I felt alone, but with the support of the my friends and family, I was able to see that was far from the truth. So support people, this one is for you. Here are the top five things you need to hear that no one is telling you.

1. It’s not easy. For people suffering from an eating disorder, it can be an emotional roller coaster. But it’s important to remember that support people are riding that roller coaster too. In fact it’s kind of like they are in the very back of the roller coaster, frantically looking and reaching toward the front trying to keep their loved one from falling off.

When you are busy worrying about your loved one, it can be easy to put your own emotions aside, but you can’t. It’s OK to be upset. It’s OK to feel scared. You shouldn’t feel ashamed by that. Never apologize for how you feel — ever! But use those emotions as fuel to help you gain the strength to keep going, because with your help your loved one can get through.

2. It’s not your fault. Stop blaming yourself. Seriously stop. It. Is. Not. Your. Fault. It’s nobody’s fault. We can’t waste time playing the blame game; instead we have to look forward. It’s important to accept the fact that your loved one is dealing with this illness and commit to doing whatever it takes to help them through.

3. We hear you. I know that sometimes it may feel like you’re talking to a brick wall, but I promise we hear you. Keep giving your love. Keep encouraging us (even if we tell you not to). We might not want to hear it, but we need to hear it. Your love matters.

4. Be patient. I know how hard it is to feel like you’re talking to a brick wall. You feel like what you’re saying is so simple. You just wish your loved one would look in the mirror and see what you see. But here’s the thing, eating disorders aren’t a choice, they are a mental illness. What seems clear to you is distorted to us.

Over time the steam will clear from the mirror and we will start to see more clearly, but you have to be patient as we get there.

5. Thank you. It’s something that you probably don’t hear enough, and it’s something that can be hard for someone battling an eating disorder to say. But it needs to be said, so I’ll say it now. Thank you. You are the lifeline that keeps your loved one going. It’s not always easy, and we know that — even if we don’t say it enough.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder and you’re in need of professional help, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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#EDAW: 7 Facts About Eating Disorders Tue, 24 Feb 2015 08:51:14 +0000 National Eating Disorder Awareness Week is February 22-28. All week long, we’re bringing you blog posts specifically on eating disorder awareness and recovery.

10957867_10152558910217676_294281118006125873_nEating disorders are severe mental illnesses which have been portrayed inaccurately for decades. Although public awareness of the reality of eating disorders is improving, harmful stereotypes are still distressingly common. Eating disorders are not a matter of vanity or a “phase.” They are serious illnesses with life-and-death outcomes.

Here are a few facts to help get you educated this Eating Disorder Awareness Week:

1. 10-15% of individuals with anorexia or bulimia are male. Binge eating disorder is thought to affect males and females nearly equally.

2. Weight is not an accurate indicator of illness severity. Most individuals with bulimia nervosa are normal in weight and some are overweight. Even someone with anorexia nervosa can be overweight. Weight is not an accurate indicator of illness severity.

3. 50-80% of the causes of eating disorders are genetic. These are biologically-based illnesses, not a choice.

4. Anorexia nervosa is the most lethal psychiatric illness. We don’t even know the true mortality rate of eating disorders because many deaths are recorded as heart failure, suicide, etc. when an eating disorder is the underlying cause.

5. Only 10% of people with eating disorders ever seek treatment. Of those, only 35% are treated in a facility which specializes in eating disorders.

6. Eating disorder treatment at the residential level (24 hour program) can cost more than $1,000 per day. With most residential treatment programs lasting 45 days or more.

7. Eating disorder research is severely underfunded compared to other mental health disorders. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has allocated only $1.20 in research funding per affected eating disorder patient compared to $159 in funding per affected individual with schizophrenia.

8. As you can see, we can’t determine who has an eating disorder just by looking at them. Eating disorders do not discriminate by age, race, socioeconomic status, sex, or gender. Likewise, treatment is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and we can’t expect to develop best treatment practices without sufficient funding.

It’s time to put money toward eating disorders research. It’s time to find out what works and for whom. It’s time to invest in finding the keys to eating disorder recovery.

Eating disorders are serious illnesses. It’s time to take them seriously.

Want to learn more about eating disorders, recent advocacy efforts in the field, or find a treatment provider? Check out our friends at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

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