‘Yes he seems to drink a lot, but he’s always smiling and happy so he can’t be an alcohol’. ‘Yes she seems really thin, but she always eats when I see her, so she can’t have an eating disorder’. ‘Sure, she gets upset from time to time, but so does everyone and she has a laugh with us, so she can’t be depressed’.
Do any of these statements seem familiar? Claiming someone ‘can’t’ be ill or have a mental health condition, as when they’re with you they ‘seem fine’ and don’t show those ‘signs’ of having a mental health problem?
As those who have read my blog may know, I used to struggle with eating and exercising, and spent years over exercising and under eating in a bid to lose weight. This became an illness, and took over my life. Yet when people think of eating disorders they often think solely of it being a body image thing, or the need to look thin, or even as a control issue. They think of someone never eating, of only wearing big baggy clothes, and of hiding away. Yes, all those things can be true, but you can also find people who ‘seem’ to be happy, who eat in front of others, and act as they normally would. These people may not show the ‘classic signs’ of a mental health problem, but this doesn’t make them any less ill, or mean their internal struggle is any less significant.
I began to develop unhealthy relationships with food and exercise whilst at school. I played a lot of sports, and swam competitively for a number of years. I began to start running and found my stamina levels meant I could run pretty far, and so soon got addicted to this; running for longer and longer, and getting a thrill at going farther than I had before. As anyone who has experienced a ‘runners high’ will know, it’s an amazing feeling, and finishing a long run leaves you pretty dam happy. This was coupled with swim training every day, and I very quickly became addicted to exercise; training for hours on end, every single day.
This was tied in to me starting to see a drop in my weight, and loving the sense of accomplishment this would bring. I was doing well at school, and would come top in my classes, yet this became expected of me. There was a pressure in this, but I wouldn’t say this bothered me; it was more the sense that I no longer was achieving anything, and for a competitive person this can be frustrating. And so the scales became my new testing ground. As the number on the scales would drop, I would feel like I had achieved something and so I ate less and less in a bid to see that number go down. Yes, I didn’t like my body and had body dysmorphic, but it wasn’t just a bid to be skinny, but instead about seeing that number drop, and challenging myself to go for as long as possible without eating.
Alongside the food and exercise came another aspect which would cause my adrenaline to spike; in doing so much and eating so little I had to find new ways to hide this from the people around me, and soon began lying to just about everyone. Soon I became entrapped in a web of lies, and enjoyed the fact I felt I was ‘getting away with it’.
Eating disorders are not simply about body image, or a wish to be skinny. There is so much more to it than just that. This is what makes them so dangerous; exercise and losing weight can become so addictive and the feeling of accomplishment can become so enthralling that without even realising it people can get trapped into an unhealthy cycle, purely from a starting point of wanting to get fit or ‘tone up’. I believe this is also true of all mental health conditions; don’t fall into the trap of labelling something too easily, or thinking just because someone eats in front of you, that they are well. You have no idea what is going on in that individuals head, and how their mental state may be. Remember that for a lot of people, ‘putting on a brave face’ is part of their daily routine, so where you may see a smiling happy person, there is actually a seriously depressed person, wishing someone would just ask if they are ok.