Eating disorders: the truth behind a common illness

Mental health affects students and parents

Natalie Knapp, Social Media Manager, News Editor, Photographer

In 2017, after a summer of intense six hour workouts and severe food restriction, a girl was admitted to the hospital. She had a heart rate of 37 beats per minute and was severely underweight and dehydrated. Her family and friends were shocked to hear the diagnosis as Anorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder in which the person affected starves themselves to be skinnier. This was the story of senior Carly Wright*.

“I was diagnosed anorexic the summer before my sophomore year,” Carly Wright* said. “I was very underweight and had to spend a week in the hospital. I remember my family and friends coming to visit and just feeling totally helpless.”

For any family the diagnosis of an eating disorder can be hard, confusing and devastating. It was no different for Kapaun Mt Carmel parent Rachel Wright*. 

“There’s a really ugly side of people with eating disorders, especially anorexia,” Rachel Wright* said. “That anorexia voice takes over and that person is not their normal person. As a parent you want to see your child back, you want to see your child come back to you and be your daughter or your son but you’re seeing this other side that’s not normal because this eating disorder takes over their brain and is trying to make them think that their eating disorder is the most important thing.”

Anorexia is one of the three most common eating disorders; anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, or BED.

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, or NEDA, a person who suffers from anorexia severely restricts their food intake, over exercises and often suffers body dysmorphia, where they do not see themselves as they actually are. A person suffering from bulimia goes through phases of binging and purging; they eat a lot and intentionally vomit it up later. One who has BED has the opposite problem in which they cannot get themselves to stop eating. 

In all eating disorders the person who suffers is affected in many different ways. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological tool that shows the five basic levels of human needs: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self actualization. It is impossible to move up the pyramid if one of the base needs is not met. 

“If you’re not hitting the bottom of the pyramid of those physical needs then nothing else matters,” said psychology teacher Brian Meade. “You’re not going to be able to focus on school, relationships, family, all that stuff.”

For students, this means performance changes in school, sports and other activities. 

“Without proper nutrition our brains do not function at their full capacity so it impairs your ability to learn in that way,”said  school nurse Kelley Davied. “And also you’re probably not as awake or alert if you’re not properly nourished.”

To an unsuspecting outsider, these symptoms can look like stress or worry over unknown struggles in life. 

“My child was very quiet and withdrawn and I honestly thought that at the beginning it was because my child was worried about other things, it didn’t even dawn on me that it was an eating disorder at first,” Rachel Wright* said. “I thought that my child was worried about other things that were going on in her life and I thought that she was just stressing out, but looking back I’ve realized that she was really struggling.”

According to NEDA, regardless of how it looks, many affected do not want to seek help because they don’t think anything is wrong and there is an uncomfortable stigma surrounding mental illnesses, which stem from a misunderstanding of them. 

“[The most misunderstood aspect of an eating disorder is] that the student or person can control them,” Davied said. “I think it’s a little harder to control than people think. They say ‘why don’t you eat something?’ but I think that’s the biggest misunderstanding. People think it’s a choice when it’s really more of a mental illness.”

Carly Wright* agreed. 

“No one really understands eating disorders,” Carly Wright* said. “I don’t even understand it fully. I know it’s part genetic and there was a trigger of some sort, but I don’t know what it was or why it happened. But I know no sane person would choose that path.”

The Eating Recovery Center says that several different things could be triggers for different people, however a common factor in many cases is social media. 

“I would scroll through my Instagram explore page and just see all these girls with perfect, size zero bodies,” Carly Wright* said. “I had wanted to lose weight since sixth grade but that summer it just overwhelmed me. I think I saw more ads and more posts of girls with better bodies than me and I knew they were likely photoshopped, but it didn’t sink in. I thought I had to look like that to be happy or to have friends. Social media wasn’t necessarily the cause, but it definitely didn’t help.”

Social media, particularly Instagram, is a place for many people to try and show themselves in the best light. People strive for more likes and more attention, thus creating a competitive mindset between them and their peers. 

“Everyone wants to look perfect or what their idea of perfect is and I think it just puts a lot of pressure on young women,” Davied said. 

According to NEDA, many eating disorders go undiagnosed, resulting in the death of the sufferer, but those who do get help have a significantly higher rate of recovery. However, help is crucial. 

“Always talk to someone if you’re concerned,” Davied said. “Someone that you trust, whether it’s a teacher or school nurses or parent or coach. Get help.”

Even though help is critical, it’s often hard to get a person with an eating disorder to be open to counseling and nutrition. 

“I didn’t willingly accept the help at first,” Carly Wright* said. “I pushed back. I was extremely rude to my therapist and my nutritionist and my parents, especially around meal time. Honestly there are stories my parents tell me of me just being horrible that I don’t even remember because my brain blocked it out because it was so traumatic for me. But eventually, because of their patience and persistence, I got better.”

Recovery is not easy, but it is possible. 

“You have to get help somehow,” Meade said. “You have to get help. It’s the hardest part. It’s also the bravest part.”

Rachel Wright* saw recovery as a true battle for survival in her child’s life, and said it is visibly difficult for the sufferer to accept help.

“Going through recovery is hard on [people suffering eating disorders] because they are battling this voice in their head, this eating disorder side, but yet on the other hand they love their family and they love their friends and they want to be normal again,” Rachel Wright* said. “So I see that person is really struggling with trying to be the way they were as a normal person but not good enough unless they continue to starve themselves and lose weight.”

In regarding recovery, Carly Wright* said it was the best thing she could have chosen for herself.

“Recovery is not easy,” Carly Wright* said. “It is not fun. I didn’t want it for the first six months or so. But I chose it anyway and am more grateful every day for it. I have everything ahead of me now, whereas before the future was uncertain. I have grown so much as a person, too. Everything about recovery ended up benefiting me which is funny because when you’re in that sick state of mind you think all anyone wants to do is hurt you. But no. It ended well.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder hotline at 1 800 931 2237.

*names changed to protect identity