How does it feel to have an eating disorder?

“Why can’t you just eat more food?” 

It’s a question I have been asked more times than I can keep count. 

A reasonable one, yes, but in my scrambled anorexic brain, the answer to this question brings about a myriad of emotions. 

After years of trying to reach a logical conclusion to this, the answer is always “I don’t know.”

The ironic thing is that before I got sick, I used to ask the same thing.

 I would see celebrities and models in magazines with headlines labelling these women as ‘skeletal’ and ‘deathly thin’ and I would think to myself ‘why wouldn’t they just eat some food and they would be ok?’ 

I could never quite comprehend why anyone would be afraid of food or starve themselves of something that normally brings great pleasure. 

I couldn’t understand why people would look in the mirror and be blinded to the bony presence they would see before them. 

But sometimes we have to learn the hard way and endure something for ourselves to completely understand things. 

Just like Albert Einstein famously said ‘The only source of knowledge is experience.’ 

In regards to health conditions, I believe that the only way to understand the complexities of it is to go through it for yourself. 

So when I ask myself how it feels to have an eating disorder, it’s very hard to answer. 

As it has become my way of life, I find myself asking the question, how does it feel not to have an eating disorder?

Just like it is hard for people who don’t have an eating disorder to understand what it feels like to have one, I too find it hard to understand how to not have one.

My sense of normal is thinking about food all day long, scheduling every action I make around food and exercise, stressing about future events involving food, agonising over nutrition values of food, thinking about calories, fantasizing about foods I would love to eat but don’t allow myself to. 

This is only scratching the surface of the complex thoughts and feelings that I experience daily. 

The list is almost endless. 

Food plays such an important role in everyday life. 

From its necessity for survival to its use in social gatherings and celebrations, it is something that should elicit emotions of enjoyment and pleasure, as it has since the beginning of time. 

But for the thousands of people in New Zealand who experience an eating disorder, food becomes both your best friend and your biggest enemy. 

An oxymoron of sorts, that makes little sense logically. 

It becomes your best friend as you fantasize about it for the majority of your day and get vast pleasure from the amounts you allow yourself to eat. 

But it quickly becomes your biggest enemy when the feelings of guilt, regret and shame override all pleasurable emotions upon consumption. 

When I try to explain life with an eating disorder in the most simplistic way possible to others, I usually find it hard to articulate the complexities of my thoughts, feelings and actions. 

Eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa are not just a matter of wanting to lose weight, wanting to alter your body to look a certain way and having high amounts of negativity about your body image. 

Of course, these factors may play a role in the onset of the disorder, but it is widely misunderstood how multifaceted this illness is and how it creeps into every aspect of your life. 

Eating disorders go well beyond the initial symptoms of restricting food intake, engaging in excessive exercise and wanting to suppress your natural body weight to an unhealthy level. 

As the illness progresses into a longer-term condition, it brings along its friends: anxiety, depression and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It’s almost like a package deal. 

A huge part of my eating disorder is the constant need to be exercising or moving in some way. Sitting down, relaxing and doing sedentary activities, causes enormous amounts of anxiety. 

This puts a limit on the things I can do on a daily basis. 

Going for a car trip for more than twenty minutes, going on a plane, having a desk job, sitting in a meeting, going to uni lectures, going out for a coffee, watching a movie…. All are things I cannot do. 

Part of my brain knows this is highly irrational and that of course, I can do these things, but when the eating disorder voice in my head takes charge, these things are impossible. 

It is frustrating, to say the least. 

I know exactly what I have to do to make a full recovery. It’s really not that hard- just eat some more food.

If only it were that easy. 

It’s like seeing the finish line at the top of a mountain, but every time you try to reach that summit, an avalanche of snow keeps pushing you down. The end goal seems so easy, yet it takes a great amount of strength to reach it.

But I know that so many others have reached that summit. 

So many others have dug themselves out of a hole with sheer determination and persistence even when they feel they are 10 feet under. There is no reason why I can’t either.

I long for the day when I can do something as simple as sit down and eat a chocolate bar without my whole world falling apart. 

Something so simple seems an impossible dream. 

Yet I’m the only one stopping myself from doing so. 

If you, a friend or family member is showing signs of an eating disorder, or you are concerned about the way you or someone else is eating, it is important to seek help straight away with a medical professional or your GP. You can call the Eating Disorder Association of NZ on 0800 2 EDANZ.

Author Emma Young is a Melbourne based writer, currently studying a Masters of Teaching. Emma enjoys writing about current affairs, environmental issues and mental health.

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