Why Are Eating Disorders Competitive?

Many people are aware by now of the dangers of eating disorders, the emotional inner turmoil, the isolation, and the potentially fatal consequences. However, one of the biggest dangers that isn’t quite as discussed is the fact that eating disorders can be incredibly competitive. It sounds odd and it is quite hard to explain how an illness can be competitive, but basically if anorexia was ever personified, it would be the person who becomes dangerous when playing board games and is prone to breaking valuable ornaments in the home over an unlucky roll of the dice in a game of Monopoly.

I think most people, often and unknowingly, see other homo sapiens as threats for many different reasons in every day life. At work you may feel in competition with someone to get a promotion, in a supermarket you might choose the best looking bunch of bananas so that yours will be better than those of whatever potassium craving customer comes after you, or in a car park you might discreetly race another vehicle to get the last available space. Maybe your competitive streak involves competing with your gaming arch-nemesis to be captain of the tiddlywinks championship team, whatever it is, at some point in every day, whether we realise it or not, most of us enter into little competitions with our fellow humans and in turn those people become threats.

It is rare however, for people to compete with another person’s illness, and I have often wondered why eating disorders are so different in that respect. Possible reasons I have come up with are things like the tendency for people with eating disorders to naturally be high achieving perfectionistic people, or that eating disorders are an illness that usually involve a lot of numbers and in turn, ways the illness can be “measured”. Obviously, in reality the severity of someone’s eating disorder is impossible to measure no matter how many scales you weigh them on or how many calories you see them eat, but no matter how incorrect the idea, people who do not really understand eating disorders to be a mental illness rather than a physical one, tend to measure the severity of an eating disorder by the physical effects they can potentially lead to. If people see a thin person they will wrongly assume that person to be more “anorexic” than their equally troubled neighbour who just so happens to be a healthy weight. With other illnesses though, this ability to gauge how ill someone is just by looking at them, however inaccurate the final judgement may be, is far more difficult in comparison. For example two people can have a liver disease but when they are walking side by side in a park, you cannot guess as easily who you perceive to be the sickest unless you take a few blood tests and maybe open them up with a scalpel (which would probably lead to them asking why you were wandering around a park asking people for blood tests and performing major operations).

When an illness is seen as focused around numbers then, comparison and thus competition tends to breed. Over the past decade I have met people whose eating disorders have led them (for I highly doubt someone’s individual personality would compete about such things), to compete with regards to numbers as to how much someone weighs, what their BMI is, how many calories they consume, even obscure things like who takes the longest to eat a meal, who has been into hospital the most times or who has the lowest white blood cell count. It is a disgusting, sick and twisted side to the illness since you are basically competing to see who can kill themselves the best, but I cannot deny it happens.
For this reason I actually think the more distanced a sufferer attempting recovery is from the intense eating disorder community, the better. If you are living in the middle of nowhere with a family of healthy people, you simply have your eating disorder to wrestle with (and lord knows one is still far too many). In hospital settings like inpatient eating disorder units, therapy groups, or even social media recovery accounts online, you are surrounded with other sufferers and thus other eating disorders to battle with. Don’t get me wrong, it is lovely to have people you can relate to, but the ability to relate to other people who are unwell and spending large amounts of time with them can lead to a loss of perspective.

Gathering a group of people with eating disorders together, either physically or online, is sort of like gathering a group of wild gorillas in the middle of the rainforest (I would avoid both of these gathering activities if I were you as neither are particularly safe…if you are an avid collector or gatherer may I suggest gathering stamps or Pokemon cards instead).
There are probably a hundred reasons as to why gorillas sometimes stand on their haunches and beat their chests, but from my dedicated research and observation (I watched Tarzan), when a gorilla beats its chest in front of another gorilla, it can be interpreted as “look how big and mighty I am! Have you ever seen such a fine specimen of gorilla? Look at my hairy arms! They are fabulous! I am the best gorilla in all of the world and far superior to you! I am the best! Leave my forest or I will strike your hairy behind! Back off I say! Flee! Flee!”.
All the gorillas in the rainforest will naturally want to be best gorilla around to ensure their survival, establish their right to the most attractive mate or the biggest banana. They aren’t doing it for laughs (maybe the odd titter), but they are naturally born with that competitive instinct so that they can stay alive.
Similarly, when a group of people with eating disorders gather, their internal eating disorder gorillas perk up and start beating their chests to let everyone know that they are the best and strongest eating disorder around. Ironically though, unlike the real gorillas, the “winner” in terms of measuring who is the most physically ill from their eating disorder, the thinnest or the one who has gone the longest without eating, is the least likely to stay alive the longest.

If you are reading this as a healthy minded person you are probably thinking that competing as to who can lose the most weight is ridiculous and sick, and when it comes to that judgment, you would be right.
However I think people often forget how much competition there is with regard to weight loss even in “healthy” circles. On TV shows like The Biggest Loser, people compete to see who can lose the most weight with a cash prize for the winner, and though perhaps less extreme than competing with white blood cell counts, surely this is similar? What about in local weight loss clubs when people compete with their next-door neighbour to see who can lose more weight than anyone in their area in order to be awarded with the sash declaring them “Slimmer of the Year”. When you think about it, in our society, competing around food and weight is not as alien an idea as people with eating disorders can make it seem.

There is however one reason people often suggest as the answer to the “why are eating disorders competitive” question, that I strongly disagree with, and that is the idea that people compete purely because they want to be the “thinnest” and that the competitive drive is all about vanity and outer appearance. If anything, I think the drive is the total opposite to vanity, and more to do with insecurity and low self esteem regarding the internal self.
When you live with an eating disorder you basically live with a voice in your head telling you that everything you do is wrong and no matter how hard you try to please it, it will never be satisfied or see your “efforts” as enough. No matter what you eat, your eating disorder will tell you it was too much. Even if the portion was initially decided by your eating disorder, it will tell you that you could have left a bit or maybe it will tell you that you ate it wrong; too quickly, too slowly or with the wrong sized mouthfuls. Whatever you do, the voice will tell you you are not living up to the standards you should be, you are not good enough.
My drive to lose weight is not to see a nice patch of rib cage, it is to achieve something that my eating disorder tells me is “better” than my former self. Of course there is nothing “better” that can come from starving yourself and if I were talking to any other sufferer I would tell them that the “best” they can be is the healthy version of themselves who is able to nourish their bodies and enjoy a healthy relationship with food. Yet still when it comes to me, the eating disorder somehow manages to manipulate my thoughts in that direction that I am a “better” me, less repulsive, less annoying, less deserving of a punch in the face, if I stick by my eating disorder’s rules. I am constantly held up between my past self, current self and encouraged to compete against them to reach this “superior” future me. When you add another sufferer into the mix then, it is yet another person for my eating disorder to compare me to. No longer is it telling me to lose weight or starve because I am not good enough compared to the potential me I could become if I were to behave myself, now I am also not good enough compared to the person or group of people surrounding me. I don’t follow the rules to the standards my eating disorder would like in an ideal world, and when I am around other people it tells me that I am even more inferior because they are following these stupid rules better than me. I don’t feel competitive because I am vain and want people to admire my collarbones, I feel competitive because I despise myself, because behaving well and following all my rules gives me a sense of self worth, a sense that I am doing something right, so if I am not following the rules “the best”, then I am not good enough.

So why are eating disorders competitive? Well, there are many reasons from internal anorexia gorillas to self hatred, perfectionist personality traits or the ability to compare and misunderstand the importance that physical numbers have to play in a mental illness. Obviously this competitive undercurrent is wrong, needs to be tackled and is disgustingly disordered, but we are dealing with eating “disorders” so I suppose it makes sense. What I want more people to know though, is that of all the reasons, as sick and twisted and horrible as they are, they are not reasons that derive from vanity or any sense of bodily pride compared to the person in the next bed to you. If anything it is about desperation to be good enough in the eyes of a devil that is constantly telling you you are worthless, both in yourself, and in comparison to everybody else.

Take care everyone x

HairiestGorilla

My New Diagnosis

For well over a decade, and since my very first therapy session many moons ago, (aka JUST after the dinosaurs died out and at the time when there were Tyrannosaurus Rex bones still lying about EVERYWHERE after that rather inconvenient meteor), therapists and psychologists across the country have always said that there is “something” wrong with me. Obviously they have always known about my OCD, Eating Disorder and Depression, yet still many have insisted that there is “something else” lurking within me and playing general havoc with my brain.

I have always found this “something wrong” that nobody can put their finger on, (or any body part for that matter), to be rather confusing.
When I was 15 the it was banded about that this “thing” might be bipolar disorder, but after trial and error with a few medications, that suggestion was tidied away as well as all the others and I have tried my best to forget about it. I was doing pretty well with this forgetting thing in my opinion (I had placed the “there is something wrong with you that we do not understand” memory alongside Pythagorus’ theorem in the box of “things I no longer need to know after the age of 16”), but then my forgetting box was rudely ripped open again very recently.
If you have been following this blog for a while you may remember that I had an assessment with a new OCD service in October of last year, a three hour interrogation examining all of my mental health problems and experiences of the world throughout my life. I mentioned nothing of any extra “bonus” diagnosis that nobody was sure of, so for this reason I was surprised when the psychologist I was speaking to randomly asked if I had any other diagnoses, as yet again I was showing signs of this “something else”, that something possibly being a “personality disorder”. I didn’t mention this when I had the assessment all those months ago because I imagined it would go away like all those other conversations of mysterious mental health problems in the past.
When I was told that the OCD service may not be able to facilitate my care if I had a personality disorder and I may need to see another service first however, I was unable to forget it again and became increasingly frustrated. Here I was potentially having issues with receiving treatment because of a mysterious something that I wasn’t even diagnosed with, and it was at that point that I knew I needed answers.

Like I said in my “why I like being diagnosed with mental health problems” blog post a few weeks ago, I like having the labels and diagnoses of my conditions in black and white because it helps me to deal with them and means I know what enemy I should be fighting. If you want a full understanding of why I like being diagnosed with (NOT HAVING) mental health problems, then I fully recommend checking that post out before this one (Why I Like Being Diagnosed With Mental Health Problems – it really is a great read. Trust me it involves a picture of a monkey banging a gong and singing Bohemian Rhapsody), but as a brief summary for all those with an aversion to classic song performing primates, my argument was that I like being diagnosed with mental health problems because it is only when you name a problem and pin it down that you can figure out how to overcome it. It is useless for a person working in a garage to simply say “there is something wrong with your car” because then they can’t fix it. They need to specifically identify the issue that there is a gaping hole in the front tyre, as only when they know that, do they know where they start tinkering and what equipment they will need.

Consequently, after my OCD assessment, I went to each of the three therapists I see in turn and asked them to tell me if there was something wrong and if so, what the hell it was. I can’t remember who first brought it up, but rather quickly a condition (we will call it Penguin condition for the time being), was suggested as the answer to all the questions I have had over the years. From that suggestion I had many appointments discussing the condition and as instructed, I researched it, learnt about it, and I watched a DVD given to me by a therapist, of various people being interviewed about their experience of Penguin condition.

Of course I didn’t relate to every single person on the DVD nor did I agree with some of the explanations of Penguin condition online, but on the whole, when learning about it, something clicked. As I heard people talking about what it was like I was astonished to hear them basically describing things I do/have experienced in life, and although scared and not eager to add a new diagnosis to my list, I was at least a little relieved. Finally I wasn’t just “weird”, I had Penguin condition and maybe if I started dealing with it, things would improve across the board. Perhaps the underlying issue of Penguin condition was the reason for the OCD and eating disorder, perhaps none of the treatment has cured me yet because we were actually treating the wrong parts first, like trying to eat the chunks of brownie at the bottom of a sundae glass before you have tackled the ice cream piled on top of it (ALWAYS SAVE THE BROWNIE BITS FOR LAST. ALWAYS. THAT IS THE RULE. ICE CREAM FIRST, BROWNIES LATER).

For this reason I became eager for the diagnosis to be put in place so that I could finally know where I stood. As well as answering my need for answers I also wanted it made official so that future therapists or medical professionals would know the full story if ever reading my notes, without me having to always add into new introductions the explanatory “I know you have read my notes but just so you know Penguin disorder is also on there but it is not written down”. I wanted it in black and white to be neat, to be clear, and partly because when things are in black and white, they look a little more like a penguin without the beak.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had a session with my psychiatrist and it was decided that we would make it official and the diagnosis would go on my records. At first I was relieved, but then he started to warn me about the consequences of it being made official. Suddenly I wanted to forget all about it and fall back into blissful ignorance again.
Apparently this condition is one with a lot of stigma to it, stigma that can lead to some therapists refusing to see you if you have the diagnosis. This wasn’t really a problem for me. If a therapist isn’t going to see me because I have a certain mental health problem then clearly they aren’t a good therapist or a person that I want to associate with anyway, but the constant reinforcement of judgement that could potentially befall me freaked me out a bit. I am not ashamed of having mental health problems, I talk about them openly on the internet for this reason and to hopefully help others be less ashamed about their disorders, yet with Penguin condition I really was rather scared and embarressed. My psychiatrist said he could treat me for the condition and just not put it on my notes if I would prefer, yet as easy as that would be, I still felt uncomfortable. Yes I wouldn’t have the “shame” of being diagnosed with a condition that faces a lot of stigma, but on some level I would also be admitting that there was shame in the condition and that I should keep it on the down low which is not how I feel about any other mental health problem I have. I am a firm believer that if you have a problem, keeping it on the down low is only going to make it worse and will not raise any of the positive awareness that could potentially be spread with honesty. Nevertheless I am a little afraid, and so for now it is on my notes as “under revision” incase I change my mind by the next appointment and want it removed (apparently without the under revision bit this is something that once on your records, will not come off no matter how much scrubbing or Cilit Bang you apply. Bang and the dirt is gone? Yeah, but the disorder will still be there!).

I have a few days until my next appointment now, and by that next session I have to decide whether or not I want to specify that mysterious something wrong or just sweep it under the carpet again. As well as debating whether to let it on my medical notes I have been debating whether or not to bring it up or “come out” with it in my blog. Again, my initial reaction was no. Even my mum agreed that it might not be the best idea. If you google the condition or do any surface level research on it, people with this disorder are painted as crazed monsters who are unbearable to be around. Reading the articles even I admit that I started to think that I would never want anything to do with someone suffering from the condition, and that was when I made my decision to get over my fear, come clean and talk about it on my blog like I talk about everything else, regardless of whether anyone else is interested. If everyone thinks people with Penguin condition are dangerously insane, then I want to talk about it and I want to raise awareness of the fact that that is not the case and what the people with it are really like. As you can see I am still scared of saying it on here (hence the code name Penguin condition), as I do fear the judgement, but they say feel the fear and do it anyway, so here it goes.

My most recent mental heath update then? After all that waffle what has happened? Well dear friend, I have been diagnosed with Borderline Personality disorder. I am still exactly the same blogger you have been following for however long you have been, with exactly the same issues. It’s just that one of the hidden ones now has a name (sort of like when some women on TV seem to name one of their boobs…it is something that has always been there only now it can be addressed formally in a letter or serious conversation). As you can see this post is long enough as it is so I won’t go into what that means and what myths need debunking here, but for now I feel like telling you is a big enough step. (That said I know many people do not know what this disorder is or have many misconceptions so, before I can provide an explanation of my personal experience I have linked a PDF below from the charity “Mind” which I feel is the best and least stigmatised description around, so if you want to learn more, dear god please go there rather than to a general google search).
Maybe I will delete this post before I upload it but I hope I don’t, and if you are reading it then I guess I have been brave. Nobody should be ashamed of their mental health problems, and I for one am going to live by that, even if doing so is something that scares me right now.

Take care everyone x

diagnosispicture

 

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/borderline-personality-disorder-bpd/#.WLRDi7GcbVo