Today is the sixth day of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (NEDA Week) 2013. The Theme for this year is “Everybody Knows Somebody”. Eating disorders are widespread illnesses and can affect anyone regardless of age, race or gender. This week I am going to focus my blog on eating disorder awareness, what it is like to have an eating disorder and share some bits of my own journey. To learn more about eating disorder please visit the NEDA’s website.
Today is not only day six of NEDA week but it is also designated as Self-Injury Awareness Day. The majority of people with eating disorders suffer from some type of co-morbid illness. Co-morbid illnesses mean a secondary diagnoses such as post-traumatic-stress disorder, anxiety, depression or some other mental illness. Often, eating disorder patients will also exhibit other negative coping skills and one of these is self-harm also known as self-injury.
Self-injury is exactly what it sounds like. It is deliberately injuring yourself. This can be completely separate from suicide and when talking about self-injury it is assumed that it is. The reason a person chooses to injury themselves vary. It can be a distraction, a way to express pain, a way to suppress other emotional pain, a way to numb out, a way to become un-numb, it can be a punishment, an act of self-hatred or for many other reasons. Many girls I met during my time in treatment also had a history of self-injury, myself included. This is a part of my past that is difficult to talk about. It’s shameful to me and I think to many others. While eating disorders are becoming less stigmatized, self-injury is not. It is not understood and is still associated with “crazy people”.
In treatment as the refeeding process begins many girls find it hard to cope with emotions as their previous coping skills (behaviors around food) are taken away and turn to self-injury to compensate. This is the first time I self-harmed. I no longer felt the numbness of starvation or the pain of hunger and I felt a need to punish myself and get that feeling of nothingness back so I attempted to self-harm. This was a mistake that would open the door to self-injury for me and one that I have since struggled to close.
I’m not alone in finding it hard to stop self-harming. The second treatment center I went to treated self-harm as the most dangerous of all behaviors and the consequences were drastic. I spent many weeks dealing with my own actions and urges in the most secure and safest level of treatment (which was also the hardest and most isolating) as did many of the girls I have come to love. Outside of treatment I continued to struggle and was hospitalized many times my first year home.
Eating disorders can become a type of self-injurious behavior. I know I have used my eating disorder for the sole purpose of harming myself. I chose my eating disorder as a form of slow suicide. Today, I do not separate my eating disorder behaviors from my self-injury behaviors. They stem from the same desires inside of me. The desire to punish myself or to find an ‘easy’ escape from life. My eating disorder is not about my appearance but instead about what damage can I inflict on my body. Yes, I get hung up on whether I’m fat or not but my most severe use of symtoms is always used as a way to self-injure or self-harm. I am thankful that my second treatment center recognized this and treated my eating disorder as such.
I can say today that I struggle most with this aspect of my recovery. Keeping myself safe from myself. It’s hard when your worst enemy is your own mind. But this is exactly what eating disorders and the behaviors of self-injury are. Your enemy is your own thoughts and feelings and the only way to fight is to learn how to address and deal with those urges. It’s a terrifying process and one that can’t be hurried or rushed. This is why the process of recovery is not done overnight or even done in a year or two years. It can take years or even a lifetime. But it is a process and like all processes you move forward and there is a goal in sight. And that goal is to be recovered. I know I’ll get there. I’ve seen other people get there and I will join them someday – eating disorder and self-harm free.