What is Anorexia Nervosa?
Anorexia Nervosa is an eating disorder often diagnosed based on low body weight caused by the severe restriction of food. Some may lose weight by severely restricting their calorie intake dangerously below the recommended intake for an adult. Others may overexercise and some may take part in purging behaviors (i.e self-induced vomiting or laxative misuse). It’s not uncommon to see all three of these methods, and more, used by one person.
When suffering from anorexia nervosa you’re stuck in a loop where the disorder is very much control, despite many feeling the opposite. Although you may feel that you’re in control of what you eat and what you weigh, it’s never the case. Anorexia Nervosa is always the one maintaining control and until it’s challenged, it will always have that control.
With Anorexia Nervosa comes a deep fear of gaining weight. It can be so intrusive and obsessive that the individual strives to continue to lose weight despite it’s life-threatening impacts.
*Anorexia Nervosa is not to be mistaken for anorexia. While anorexia Nervosa is a mental illness, anorexia usually isn’t. The latter is caused when an individual is medically underweight but has not deliberately caused it. For example, someone with cancer may be underweight because they’re unable to eat enough to sustain themselves.
Anorexia Nervosa and the Impact on mental, Physical and Emotional Health.
I was approximately fourteen when Anorexia Nervosa came into my life. And that’s sadly where it would stay at varying levels until the present day. Officially I’ve been diagnosed for over fourteen years, unofficially it’s closer to sixteen. I still don’t know where it began or in what order. Much like the chicken and the egg, it’s anyone guess what came first; anxiety, depression or the eating disorder?
That’s the thing about eating disorders. They’re vast, confusing and never exist alone. Depression and anxiety will usually co-exist due to the imbalance of hormones, depletion of nutritional needs and the impacts of malnutrition. Or, much like me, you may be stuck confused as to if they were there in the first place.
For a long time I’ve been unable to separate myself and the Anorexia Nervosa. It is mine, it is a ‘she’ and together we were perfectly happy. I was in **quasi-recovery for over four years before deciding to call her up in late 2018. I called because I needed to feel something, anything, other than fear, crippling self-hate and failure. At the time I was working in a high pressure environment that, in hindsight, wasn’t the right fit. I was pushing myself beyond my own limitations and still falling short of the mark.
But I knew anorexia, I’d danced with that devil before and I was damned good at it! Before I knew it I was out buying a scale and determined to succeed. I’d be the thinnest I’d ever been or I’d die trying.
** Quasi-recovery refers to a stage of partial recovery wherein you may be weight restored but mentally you continue to indulge eating disorder behaviors at least 50% of the time. I.e you continue to choose low calorie foods, skip meals, over exercise, participate in weighing in order to control your weight etc. This is a stage in recovery where most sufferers can remain for many years or even the rest of their lives. There may be periods of relapse within quasi-recovery.
The list of things Anorexia Nervosa has taken from me not only as an adult, but also as a child, seems endless. I’ve lost my teenage years, relationships, missed out on social events, lost confidence and most importantly, I’ve lost myself. Even now, at 27, I have no clear idea of who I am without this disorder. Just when I think I’m coming out the other side, it pulls me back in with tenfold the force of before. Anorexia and the impacts of such can become so complex that it can be difficult for non-sufferers to understand.
The list of things Anorexia Nervosa has taken from me not only as an adult, but also as a child, seems endless.
My memory has been severely impacted.
Although I was completely unable to focus and retain basic information while actively starving myself, I’ve found little improvement during recovery. When I was working I could barely remember driving there. Now I find myself relying on one-too-many alarms just to remind me to eat or take medication.
My short term memory is by far the worst, and it never ceases to amaze people just how quickly I can forget something.
The depression and anxiety can be crippling.
I’ve suffered from low moods and anxiety for years now, possibly before the eating disorder. But the depression and anxiety that co-exist with Anorexia Nervosa leave you in a horrible, horrible place. The anxiety keeps me up at night, while the depression begs me to sleep. I’m exhausted all the time because my body isn’t getting a peaceful sleep and the anorexic routine keeps me fixated on a waking time between five and six in the morning.
Then there are the dark, dark moods that I can find myself in. Sometimes there’s a tell-tale build-up to these bleak periods and other times it just hits me like a train. I’ve found myself completely floored by depression, making it difficult for me to find the motivation to even get out of bed, never mind feed myself.
Finally, there are the physical impacts, of which there are many.
The impacts of Anorexia Nervosa can vary from person to person, and symptoms change daily. Some days are fine, while others can be unbearable.
I suffer frequently from heart palpitations due to low potassium and an irregular heartbeat caused by many years of self-induced vomiting and starvation. These come and go and can often be coupled with anxiety.
After a long period on my feet, or even just after a simple, routine walk, I suffer from severe muscle cramps and joint pain. In recent weeks I took a trip with my friend to Ikea and was kept awake all night by cramps traveling from the soles of my feet right up to my upper thighs. I put it down to the increased level of activity which I’m both not used to and not particularly allowed to do according to my treatment plan.
Truthfully unless you’ve suffered from an eating disorder, it’s hard to understand it. Quite often people see food as being the main issue when in fact there is deep, underlying trauma that needs fully hashed out and treated in order to reach a place of recovery. I personally attend treatment one to two times a week on varying days. This can change depending on my level of commitment and what I’m able to handle as therapy can be grueling. Even after nine months of treatment, I am still nowhere near ‘recovered’ and in fact, it may take many years to reach a place of normality.
The sad fact is that the majority of those with Anorexia Nervosa never recover, and more people die from eating disorders every year than any other mental illness. Yet the public understanding is that anorexia recovery is simply a case of re-feeding and then you’ll be cured. I’ve heard the words ‘just eat something’ uttered to me on one too many occasions and it’s simply infuriating.
More From The Author
You can find out more about the varying impacts of Anorexia Nervosa over on my blog. I discuss various topics, eating disorders being one of the main ones, and have previously discussed quite a bit about my personal experience.