By Izzy Ryan
CN: Eating disorders, doctors;
mention of throwing up, cancer
Thinking of mental health as a black and white issue leaves those in the grey are feeling isolated and unable to reach out for help.
There is no clean slope between healthy and unhealthy that we slide down when something goes wrong. The descent to being unhealthy is a rocky one. We can scramble back up a little just to lose our footing and tumble further down. The journey is just as significant as the end point, and we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help on the way.
The problem with the grey zone in eating disorders is complicated by societal expectations for women to be body conscious. We begin to think that casual calorie counting and analysing our bodies in the mirror is natural behaviour for women. That feeling guilty after eating anything sugary is normal. This makes it more difficult to toe the lie between consciousness and obsession, guilt and self-hatred, and to notice when that line has been crossed.
For me crossing that line was a slow process that i didn’t even recognise until it was too late to fix alone. Thinking about eating healthier food became adding up calories constantly, before eating, while eating, after eating. Lying in bed adding up the numbers and feeling sick if it passed the 1200 calorie mark. Eating more when I was tired or had exercised became needing to justify eating at all. A biscuit after 6pm meant another hour of working. Knowing that sugar was bad for me became hours of guilt after eating anything vaguely unhealthy.
Because we are surrounded by discussion of body image this behaviour can be passed off as normal for too long. I hadn’t been starving myself or vomiting up meals. Nevertheless I recognised I’d strayed into a dangerous area when I dropped to being medically underweight in the Christmas holidays. I’d been losing weight consistently and unhealthily for a few months but had been too secretly pleased about it to see a doctor. When I finally did they told me they were running tests for cancer. They told me that the weight loss had been too extreme to be explained by my diet, which was still healthy. What unnerved me was how unphased I was by this, and how my focus was still on the weight loss. Even while they were running tests I was still weighing and hoping each time I would be lighter. This was when I realised that my health consciousness had become something far more sinister and uncontrolled.
“I’d been losing weight for a few months but had been too secretly pleased about it to see a doctor. When I finally did they told me they were running tests for cancer.”
Even now I didn’t feel like I had the right to label it as an eating disorder or get help for it. I kept justifying it as “just in my head”, I wasn’t seriously underweight and was still eating regularly. Particularly with eating disorders, there seems to be a need to see the physical evidence before labelling anything. The problem needs to have passed a critical visible level before it can be addressed.
Our society has a problem with categorising mental health in a healthy/unhealthy binary. Too little attention is paid to the in between state. As a result those in that position are left feeling as if they are exaggerating or inflating their situation. You should not have to look in the mirror and see your ribs poking out to recognise that there is a problem.
We need to collectively recognise that our mental health is shifting and dynamic, we don’t only exist at the extremes. If you started sneezing you would realise that a cold was coming on. So would other people, they might even point it out. We need to have a similar sensitivity to mental health and not be afraid to bring up the topic with our friends. You wouldn’t be offended if someone suggested you might have a cold and then you didn’t.
Similarly, if we think somebody is starting to show worrying thought patterns or behaviours we should have the confidence to bring it up with them without it being seen as a criticism or “deep” discussion. The stigma of mental health can mean that we are not prepared, and feel like disorders have suddenly taken hold. It’s important to know that you can and should ask for help whenever you feel like you might need it, and be open with your loved ones about how you are feeling all the time, not just when you can no longer cope alone.